Monthly Archives: March 2013

Not how it should be: Heat, Lebron James, and bad sportsmanship

The Miami Heat lost to the Chicago Bulls in a hard fought game with lots of hard fouls. This loss brought an end to the Heats amazing win streak. (As a sports fan, the streak was exciting and I sort of wanted it to continue, but as a Celtics fan, I am glad to see the Heat finally lose.)

Immediately after the game, the Heat headed straight to the locker rooms without shaking ends or interacting with the Bulls players. This prompted the following exchange between the announcers:

Mike Breen: Didn’t have the normal post-game hand shake and hugs. The Heat went right back to the locker room, not interested at all. And you love that.

Jeff Van Gundy: That is how it should be. Teams should compete so hard against each other that at the end of the night, it shouldn’t be warm and friendly. There’s nothing wrong with this; it wasn’t bad sportsmanship by the Heat.

Mike Breen: Absolutely not. But it goes against what we normally see night in and night out.

No, that is not how it should be. Yes, that is bad sportsmanship. Teams should compete hard, play as hard and as tough as they can. But the very essence of good sportsmanship is that when the game is over, you step outside that frame of mind. You acknowledge the victor. You walk away with dignity and grace (not pout and make a beeline for the locker room). Especially after a game like this. A historic streak was on the line and it was lost in a tough, emotional battle. Both sides played well down to the wire. This is precisely when good sportsmanship is needed most: to temper your disappointment and emotions so that you show the appropriate respect to your opponent. The Bulls deserve the respect that would be shown by a simple handshake.

Now, in some pro sports the post-game handshake is not customary; in baseball for example, it is rare to see the teams shake hands at the end of a game. So there is nothing disrespectful there about not shaking hands. But it is, as the announcers acknowledge, the normal thing in basketball, so by not doing it, the Heat are showing disrespect, or at best their lack of being able to lose gracefully. Both, though, are precisely what is meant by bad sportsmanship.

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Podcast: Episode One: What is Sport (The Sports Ethicist Show)

The podcast for Episode One: What is Sport? is available for download:

http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/the-sports-ethicist-ep-1/

In this episode, Professors Shawn Klein and Mike Perry try to answer the question of what sport is. Everyone agrees that football and baseball are sports, but what about figure skating, cheerleading, competitive eating, or the WWE? How essential is competition or physical abilities to our understanding of sports? Is it even important to know what the definition of sport is? Klein and Perry also discuss the difference between play, games, and sport.

Original Air Date on Rockford College Radio: March 25, 2013.

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The Sports Ethicist Show Episode One: What is Sport?

Air Date: March 25, 2013, 6-7pm (Central)

In this episode, Professors Shawn Klein and Mike Perry try to answer the question of what sport is. Everyone agrees that football and baseball are sports, but what about figure skating, cheerleading, competitive eating, or the WWE? How essential is competition or physical abilities to our understanding of sports? Is it even important to know what the definition of sport is? Klein and Perry also discuss the difference between play, games, and sport.

Listen on Rockford College Radio:
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

Will also be available after the airing as a podcast at:
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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Sports Ethicist takes to the airwaves

Sports Ethicist ShowI am very excited to announce that The Sports Ethicist is starting a radio show/podcast.

The Sports Ethicist Show will air on Rockford College Radio each Monday at 6 pm (Central).

The first episode will air March 25 at 6 pm (Central) and features my colleague English Professor Michael Perry as we tackle the issue of “What is Sport?”

If you have questions or issues you would like The Sports Ethicist to answer or discuss on the air, send them to me:

*I may read your email/tweet/facebook message on air, so if you don’t want me to say your name, please let me know in your message.

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Quick Thought: Exploitation and Tailoring in Sport and Art

Chapter Six of Heather Reid’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport (Elements of Philosophy)is a good analysis of the similarities and differences between sport and art, as well as other ways that these areas relate. One similarity between sport and art that Reid focuses on is how both sport and art seem to be open to corruption by pursuits (usually commercial) that are external to the given internal ends. She writes:

What threatens aesthetic values is not so much the use of sport or art of external ends but rather its exploitation: the selling out of a practice’s internal values in order to pursue external ends (76).

Reid rightly doesn’t go so far as to say that the pursuit of external ends is always or necessarily corrupting of the values of sport or art. And in so far as it goes, I agree that the problem (of corruption) is often one of the sacrificing the internal values for external ones. But Reid continues:

It is one thing to be paid or patronized as an actor, musician, or artist and another thing to tailor one’s art specifically to the market’s or patron’s interests (76).

She continues by drawing an analogy between the above contrast and the contrast of a boxer receiving a monetary prize for winning and the boxer who takes a dive for gambling. The analogy is that the artist paid for his art and the boxer paid for his competing is unproblematic. It requires no sacrifice of the internal values of the art or sport; moreover, the external value is provided because of the achievement of internal values and therefore can be seen as reinforcing the internal values rather than undermining them.

The analogy, though, breaks down between the artist who tailors her art to the market and the boxer taking a dive. Certainly, I agree that the boxer taking a dive is undermining, even destroying, his sport. Fixing a match or contest might be one of the worst violations of sport there is since it utterly negates the very essence of sport: the competition. But I see no such problem in tailoring one’s art to the interest or need of the market or patron. If one adds the qualification that one is engaging in art contrary to one’s aesthetic goals or principles, then I could see how the analogy would hold up. But in the general case, the tailoring of one’s art is not an exploitation or corruption. The great Renaissance artists all worked for patrons and presumably worked to satisfy the interests and concerns of their patrons. An artist attuned to and accounting for the market for his or her work seems prudent and wise, not corrupt.

Partly, this seems to rest on a false dichotomy: Reid is lumping together problematic exploitation and the tailoring of activity for external ends and treating them as one thing in opposition to the proper relationship to the internal ends. But these are different categories that have different effects on the internal values. In the former, the internal values are more likely to be undermined or destroyed. In the latter, the internal ends are more likely to be reinforced (or unaffected) because it is the successful internal activity that is the focus.

This plays out in analogous way with the athlete. The boxer who throws his fight is exploiting his sport, undermining it. But how might an athlete tailor his play to the market? He might engage in certain kinds of activity within the sport because he knows it will delight the fans or the managers, coaches, or owners. For example, the touchdown dance when one scores is, in its best light, an embellishment for the delight of the fans.

I agree, then, with Reid that there is an important moral difference between use and exploitation in sport and art, but I disagree with where she is apparently drawing the line.

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Reflections on the Case of Oscar Pistorius

Update September 12, 2014: Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide. This is a lesser offense than premeditated murder, but it still carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison (but as little no jail time). Pistorius has not been sentenced yet.

As has been widely reported, Oscar Pistorius is accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in his home on February 14. Currently, he is out on bail awaiting trial. He asserts his innocence, claiming that it was tragic case of mistaking her for a home intruder. (The Guardian’s dedicated page for news regarding the case)

Pistorius’ fame reached a pinnacle during the 2012 London Olympics when he became the first Paralympic running in the Olympic Games. Like many Olympic athletes, Pistorius’ path to the Olympics was a challenging road filled with multiple obstacles. Unlike most Olympians, however, Pistorius faced legal challenges and public opinion battles regarding his right to compete as a double amputee against able-bodied athletes. This made Pistorius a story of inspiration, hope, perseverance, and justice. (My earlier blog on Oscar Pistorius) He inspired disabled and able-bodied athletes and spectators across the globe. This admiration and respect was concretized by Grenada’s Kirana James exchanging his bib numbers with Pistorius after the 400-meter semifinal. He seemed to be the most popular South African athlete, period.

Then came the news of the murder: a young woman dead at the hands of a national hero. Images, ideals, and idols shattered. Hope and goodwill turned to anger and outrage.

So what does this have to do with Sports Ethics or Philosophy of Sport? As tragic as it is, it doesn’t raise any special or novel issues for sport as such. Nevertheless, this case has led me to think about an issue that does somewhat relate to Sports Ethics. For several years, I have used Pistorius’ push to race in the Olympics as a part of my Sports Ethic course. We spend several classes examining the questions that arise in his case: issues of disabled athletes generally; should disabled athletes compete against able-bodied athletes; does running on the blades as Pistorius does, count as running; etc. It also connects nicely with the class’s discussion of doping and PEDs. Should arguments against PEDs apply to the technical aids used by a disabled athlete to compete? The case of Oscar Pistorius frames the whole discussion of these questions. I am hardly alone in this. Much of the literature that focuses on these questions is framed by Pistorius’ case.

After processing the shock of the news of Pistorius’ arrest and his girlfriend’s murder, I started to wonder: should I (or any teachers) continue to use Pistorius as the main case-study for my classes?

I am reluctant to do so. Historically, Pistorius racing at the Olympics is still an important and inspirational event. All the ethical and philosophical questions that it brings forward remain worthy of inquiry. But I am not comfortable using a murderer (assuming he is guilty) as the case to bring these issues up for discussion. Moreover, I am not sure my view would change if he is ultimately acquitted. Why?

  1. Part of what makes Pistorius’ case so powerful is Pistorius himself. We feel sympathy for him because he is a normal-seeming guy who just wants to compete. His story pulls at our sense of fairness: it is easy for us to imagine being him and in his situation. But if he is found guilty of murder, this doesn’t work anymore. Maybe this just requires a re-framing of the narrative, but it is hard to imagine that one can frame the story in a way that wouldn’t downplay the murder and do further injustice to the memory of Steenkamp.
  2. A practical concern is that trying to use Pistorius as a central figure here creates a huge distraction. Students will want to focus on the murder, not the issues.
  3. Even if he is acquitted, he is no longer the sympathetic figure he was. The practical concern would remain because students would likely be more familiar with him as someone charged with and associated with a murder. Moreover, even if acquitted of a murder charge, he still seems, based on released evidence and testimony, morally culpable for her death (more on this in the appendix below).

I do not expect nor demand that the figures discussed in class be moral saints or ideals. That is unrealistic, unnecessary, and contrary to the goals of education. However, Pistorius’ case raises a special problem because so much of the narrative of the disabled athlete triumphing in the quest of fairness is celebratory.

Innocent or guilty, I do not think Pistorius should be ignored in sports history. He was the first to do something significant in sport. He has helped and inspired countless athletes and others to overcome their own obstacles. (In this way, his situation is similar to another fallen sport hero: Lance Armstrong.) But now this narrative includes murder, and that forever changes it.

Whether I continue to use Pistorius or not in my class (I have not decided yet), he can no longer be an inspiration or story of hope and triumph. The loss of an inspirational figure to talk about in Sports Ethics does not even rise to the level of a tiny, micro-tragedy. A woman is dead. Her family and loved ones have suffered an incalculable loss. Obviously, that is rightfully where most of our focus and concern should be.

Appendix: What I think about the case itself
I admit I find Pistorius’ account, as reported, of Steenkamp’s killing unconvincing and even if true not exculpatory. On the other hand, the bail hearing revealed what looks like police negligence and incompetence in handling the investigation. Such mishandling might lead to, and if extensive demand, an acquittal. Nevertheless, it looks to me like he is still morally on the hook for her death.

This is what has been reported as Pistorius’ account: that he thought there was an intruder locked in the bathroom, and given both the crime rate in South Africa and past threats against Pistorius, he feared enough for his safety to fire his weapon four times through the closed door. (Graphic representation of Pistorius’ testimony).

The use of deadly force is justifiable in self-defense, but not without conditions. What these conditions would be and how they are justified is a complicated matter of social and legal philosophy. For that reason, I’ll assert, without argument, what I take to be at least two essential conditions for the justified use of force (deadly or not). (These are likely not equivalent to the South African legal requirements for the use of deadly force)

  1. There is the use of or imminent threat of use of force against one’s person or property (and by extension persons who in some way one is responsible for: children, loved ones).
  2. There are no reasonable or effective alternatives to defend one’s person or property (and extensions).

I think he fails to meet these conditions. Counterfactual, if he was right that the person in the bathroom was an intruder and not his girlfriend, this intruder would be initiating force against Pistorius by trespassing. This trespass, then, might meet the first condition. However, before using force, one has a responsibility to confirm (or try to confirm) one’s suspicion (at least as much as one can in a given set of circumstances). Nothing in Pistorius’ account so far suggests that he attempted to confirm that the person in the bathroom was indeed an intruder or a threat.

But even if he meets the first condition; he fails utterly on the second. At least based on the testimony so far reported, there seems to have been several alternatives Pistorius could have used to protect himself and his property instead of force. He could have removed himself from the perceived immediate danger from the intruder behind the door, called security and/or the police, and waited with his weapon in case the supposed intruder came out of the bathroom. Shooting blindly through a closed door hardly seems like the only (or more strongly, even a) reasonable and effective option for self-defense in this case.

This doesn’t establish that Pistorius is guilty of murdering Steenkamp. There are many legal hurdles and standards that need to be met to establish that. Moreover, I suppose evidence could come out that would show Pistorius was facing at least a perceived imminent threat with no reasonable or effective alternatives. Still, nothing like that seems forthcoming at this point even from Pistorius himself. My point is, guilty of premeditated murder or not, Pistorius is morally culpable for Steenkamp’s death.

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