Player vs Theory

One of the more common experiences of teaching sports ethics is the eye-rolling response of students. The theoretical account of some issue (e.g. intentional fouls or the proper ends of sports) is met with a cynical glare or what I call the “yeah, but…” response. As in: “Yeah, sounds good in theory, Prof, but that’s not the way it really works.”

For example, Robert Simon defines sport as “the mutual quest for excellence.” On this view, athletes and participates are guided, constrained, and motivated by this cooperative quest for achievement and excellence at the skills and practices of the sport. Overly aggressive play or cheating undermine this quest and so are prohibited. Players play hard in order to achieve their own excellences but also to provide the challenge to their opponents so that they might be pushed to achieve their excellences. There is a lot appealing about Simon’s account. I particularly like the emphasis on the fundamental cooperative nature of athletic competition. But a common student response is “Yeah, that sounds all nice and such, but I play to win. Excellences, challenges, whatever: I want to win.”

Or, in the discussion of intentional fouls, we discuss the range of principles that theorists like Simon and Fraleigh argue ought to constrain a player’s actions in regard to intentional fouls. While Fraleigh is far more restrictive than Simon and others, most share the view that there is something wrong when a player strategically uses explicitly prohibited actions to gain an advantage or negate an opponent’s advantage. The typical student-athlete response is again “Yeah, that sounds all nice and such, but I am going to do what it takes to win the game.”

This might just be that the typical student is unwilling to move from or challenge their pre-reflective beliefs, that they are too cynical or too uncritical to consider accounts that defy the standard narrative. There is a lot of truth to that (a lot!). But at the same time, I think there is something more going on here that needs attention.

While I see this phenomenon in most of the philosophy classes I teach, it is more acute in Sports Ethics. Most of the students are or have been serious athletes. Unlike say in business ethics or biomedical ethics where the students have little or no direct experience with the issues being discussed, the students in sports ethics have a lot of practice in the field under examination. This gives the students a perspective that is typically not there in with students in other classes. (For example, I see something similar when I teach business ethics in my school’s degree completion program where I have students who are already in the business world.)

When the disconnect between students and theory occurs here, it suggests to me something more than mere student stubbornness. These students are practitioners. They may not have given the issue a lot of deep thought, but it is not something new to them. They have views on the issue at hand that have developed from experience, not just the floating uncritical acceptance of a social norm (like minimum wage laws help the poor or everyone ought to vote). Dismissing the rejection of the theoretical-norm as mere cynicism or lack of reflection potentially misses something important.

This is not to argue that we merely ought to accept the player-norms. That would be to shift philosophy to something just descriptive. But I think philosophers and theoreticians ought to pay attention when practitioners in the fields they are analyzing reject the theories. This could point to errors in the theory or a misunderstanding of the practice by the philosophers. It might very well just be student cynicism or lack of criticalness but we don’t really know that unless we look more at the rejection by the players.

Practitioners, too, should pay attention to the theory and not just assume that because they play sports they know what the best account is. Where the theory conflicts with their own practice, it might point to ways in which one is mistaken about their own norms. At the very least, it provides an opportunity for the player to consider in new light what is that he or she is doing.



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