Sportsmanship, MMA, and Sacrificing Victory

In his weekly blog, Jack Bowen of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics discusses a recent MMA incident.  Mike Pantangco submitted to Jeremy Rasner in an amateur bout. (Watch it here) The remarkable thing is that Pantangco was beating Rasner rather soundly. In Pantangco’s word’s:

“I just feel that there’s no point fighting him because he didn’t train against me and I didn’t train for him and I just feel like we’re amateur fighters…We don’t get money, we don’t get paid, and I know that the only thing I’m going to finish the fight is him to go in the hospital or get hurt. I just feel terrible so I’m just going to give him the win.” (Source)

In his blog, Bowen praised Pantangco’s action as exceptionally good sportsmanship and a gesture of compassion. Other bloggers and writers similarly praised Pantangco.

While I acknowledge his submission was an act of kindness, I do not agree that this was an act of good sportsmanship. Or, rather, I don’t think that claim is as obvious or as clear as my fellow sports ethicist seem to think.

I do not think Pantangco’s decision to submit was wrong or disrespectful. But I also don’t think it was necessary. Given the circumstances around the fight (Bowen explains), Pantangco and Rasner probably shouldn’t have been competing against each other in the first place. Once the fight is under way, Pantangco and Rasner, as a matter of good sportsmanship, ought to fight to win within the rules, norms, and expectations of their sport. Pantangco saw that Rasner was defeated and further blows would likely inflict unnecessary harm. His decision was to tap out and give the victory to Rasner. But as those more familiar with the sport than Bowen or I have suggested, there were non-sacrificial and non-(serious)-harm inflicting ways for Pantangco to bring the fight to a swift end. A friend of mine who was an MMA fighter and trainer said, “He could have taken his opponent down and ended the fight with a gentle submission”. Now, I am not sure how gentle a ‘gentle submission’ is in the context of MMA but I think it makes it clear that Pantangco’s choice wasn’t between tapping out or inflicting unnecessary and serious harm to Rasner. He had non-sacrificial options that were more in line with the norms and goals of his sport.

This discussion all hinges on a key question. What is sportsmanship? As in so many cases, a common concept we use frequently is hard to pin down. Since at least James Keating 1964 article, “Sportsmanship as a Moral Category,” philosophers of sport have been debating the question.

Without stepping too much into that tempest, I claim that sportsmanship is the embodiment of the kinds of virtues and moral dispositions that are proper for those participating in athletics and sports. I don’t think this is too controversial a claim; that is, until we start to unpack just what the claim really means (a huge project beyond the scope of a blog post).

But one important implication of this claim (one that follows from the nature of virtue) is that sportsmanship ought not to be reserved for exceptional or extraordinary actions. Sportsmanship is the manner of acting to which _all_ the participants should be held. It shouldn’t be analogous to sainthood.

Pantangco’s action of tapping out might be an exceptional act of kindness, but it is not the manner in which we ought to expect or demand MMA fighters to fight. Such dispositions would undermine the sport. The goal in combat sports, as I understand it, is to win the match by inflicting damage on your opponent through the use of a set of fighting skills (the specific kind of combat sport proscribes what is in and out of this set). A principle of tapping out when your opponent is losing or essentially defeated subverts this goal and the very idea of the sport.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that we should have a low moral standard for MMA fighters, that morality doesn’t apply, or that kindness or compassion should play no role in combat sports. I am saying the standard ought to be appropriate to human beings and to the ends of the sport.

Consider the following analogy. A man might jump in front of speeding car to save a child’s life. This is an exceptional act. One we are likely to praise. But such an action tells us nothing about how to act and live in the world. In a sense, it really has nothing to do with ethics. Ethics is about the goals and principles that guide one’s action and choices. It is about how we ought to approach each day and how to determine what actions we take in life.

Similar with Pantangco. The circumstances of the fight are (as far as I can tell) unique and his action is not generalizable to other fights. His action doesn’t tell us how MMA fighters ought to fight with dignity, honor, and virtue. In other words, it cannot serve as an exemplar of sportsmanship.

A possible objection to what I am arguing here is that while the normal circumstances of life (or a fight) don’t require jumping in front of cars or sacrificially tapping out, there are circumstances which might arise where such actions might be appropriate or called for. True enough. My point is that thinking about these as guides for how to live our lives is at best not useful (since the conditions in these situations are exceptional) and at worst it can undermine what it actually takes to live our lives or play our games well.



Filed under MMA, sportsmanship, violence, virtue

3 responses to “Sportsmanship, MMA, and Sacrificing Victory

  1. I very much enjoyed reading Professor Klein’s response to my article, mostly due to the fact that it allows us to push deeper into the issue and, more importantly, discover some subtle nuances within the bigger picture of sport ethics. And it actually seems that there’s a lot we agree on—Pantangco’s act exemplified kindness; he could have found other, more favorable means by which to enact the same result (which, in my article, I forgive him for as he’s not sitting in the comfort of my armchair while making the decision); and his decision was not necessary.
    It’s here where we diverge, and Klein does so in a way that, I believe, will help to fine-tune just what we want from sportsmanship in the process.
    I can agree that an MMA fighter in this particular situation is not morally required to tap out. So, in that sense, we alleviate the moral issue of saying Pantangco—and all those in similar situations—ought to tap out. This incident provides a good example of an action that is morally praiseworthy yet not morally required. Similar to Klein’s analogy of a man jumping in front of a car to save a child: praiseworthy but not required.
    Here again, Klein diverges a bit from me. He claims that the man who jumps in front of a car, like Pantangco’s action, “has nothing to do with ethics.” Yet this seems like a clear-cut ethical situation: people’s interests are at stake with clashing values at play. What does one value more: His life or the life of a child? A victory or the health of a fighter who shouldn’t have been there in the first place?
    Klein does force us to examine just what we want from the concept of sportsmanship. In doing so, he argues that Pantangco’s tap-out subverts the goal of combat sports. This point is worth deeper consideration. If I have correctly argued that Pantangco’s action was morally praiseworthy (and, as Klein comments, “was an act of kindness”) then it seems to contradict the statement that he also acted in an unsportsmanlike manner: an action that is kind and morally praiseworthy seems to me can’t also be unsportsmanlike.
    Lastly (and this may be a bigger topic for another time) I’m very interested to hear more about Klein’s concluding paragraph. One of the real virtues of a discussion such as this is that it often allows us to come away with a broader view of ethics in our daily lives. I actually do think that examining unique or extreme cases can help inform the ethics of our daily lives: i.e. that it does not “undermine” what it takes to live our lives well nor lack use in that arena. It is for this reason as well as the fact that this discussion helped to evaluate this particular case, that I enjoyed Klein’s piece so much.

    • Thank you, Professor Bowen, for your thorough and engaging response. It allows me a chance to clarify a few points that were obviously vague or potentially misleading in my initial post.

      An act of kindness is not necessarily morally praiseworthy. All other things being equal, it is. But one can be kind and yet fail to act in a morally praiseworthy way: (1) the kind act might be gratuitous. (2) it might result in some undue harm to the recipient or a third party (3) it might not be deserved and so it might violate principles of justice.

      So what about Pantangco’s act of kindness? Frankly, I am not sure, but I lean towards accepting the claim that it is praiseworthy. It might be gratuitous in the sense that he had other reasonable and feasible options available to him that fit better with the norms of his sport. But, I am not entirely convinced that drops it from being praiseworthy. As I said in the original post, I don’t think Pantangco’s tap out was disrespectful or wrong. By extension, I don’t think it was unsportsmanlike either. What I am arguing against is holding it up as an example of exceptionally good sportsmanship or as an exemplar of good sportsmanship.

      There are two, related, issues that separate Bowen and I and need elaboration: The ‘ethical situation’ issue and the ‘what can we learn from extremes” issues.

      “Ethical Situation”
      In my initial post, I said, about an act in exceptional circumstances: “In a sense, it really has nothing to do with ethics.” The qualification of “in a sense” is important. Obviously, these situations are relevant for ethics and ethicists. So what does my, admittedly vague, qualification mean?
      I operate from a broadly Aristotelian tradition in ethics. Ethics is about eudaimonia: about individual flourishing/well-being. The principles and virtues we use to guide our actions are one’s that are evaluated by their contribution to, participation in, or constituting of such a life. The foundations here are much broader than just particular situations where values or interested might conflict. Indeed, such a view of ethics requires that most of life is not such that values and interests are in conflict. If these conflicts were regular or normal or common, the eudaimonic approach to life would not be possible. (I present these claims here without argument. I refer readers to the works of Philippa Foot, Doug Rasmussen, Doug Den Uyl, Ayn Rand, and other neo-Aristotelian ethicists)

      It is in this sense that my qualification of ‘in a sense” should be taken. Ethics is primarily and foremost about how to get better at making the choices one faces in the minutes and seconds of everyday life. It is these choices and actions that add up to, or better, constitute one’s life. It is these contexts and situations for which the principles and virtues are needed most.

      The exceptional moment in an extreme or emergency situation is outside of this context. No doubt one’s principles and virtues are relevant for these kinds of situations and ought to help guide one’s actions here, but given the exceptional nature of these I don’t think we learn much about the principles or virtues. (This is not dissimilar to the adage that hard cases make bad law). These cases are interesting and make for fun cases to discuss in the classroom. But I don’t think they get at the heart of ethics.

      I acknowledge this is contrast to much of contemporary modern ethics which focuses more on these hard cases. I want to buck against this trend and try to pull us towards a different approach. One, I think my approach is the correct theoretical approach to take. But, two, I think the hard or extreme case approach does damage to ethics.

      “what can we learn from extremes”
      This takes me to the second issue. Bowen writes above: “I actually do think that examining unique or extreme cases can help inform the ethics of our daily lives: i.e. that it does not “undermine” what it takes to live our lives well nor lack use in that arena.”

      I expressed (but didn’t develop) the opposite claim: that focusing on these cases undermines what it takes to live well. Let me try to explain why.
      Since they are exceptional, there circumstances and outcomes don’t generalize to other non-exceptional cases. An illustration: it might be acceptable for Valjean to steal a loaf of bread when he is in such a state of destitution and privation that he will die otherwise. This doesn’t generalize to justify theft or violation of property rights. Similarly, I don’t see what we learn about MMA fighting or sportsmanship in general from Pantangco’s tap out.
      By focusing on the exceptional cases, we end up ignoring or relegating the everyday cases. We (philosopher and ‘normal people) don’t (or at least do so insufficiently) study these or discuss how the principles ought to work in the common cases.

      This undermines our ability to live well because the implicit message to our students (and to society in general) is that in highlighting only (primarily) the exceptional kinds of cases is that ethics and virtues are really only for those kinds of cases and not the everyday. (So be kind to your opponent when he is out-matched and overwhelmed: but what about the rest of time? Pantangco’s case doesn’t get at that.)

      It would be too cynical to say that this focus on hard cases licenses people to act poorly in daily life, but nevertheless, we all see otherwise good people who know better making poor ethical decisions in daily life: being rude to a cashier, cutting someone off in traffic, letting subtle bias affect one’s grading or evaluation. One might say some of this is just etiquette and not ethics. But insofar as being polite, courteous, or fair affects how one one’s life and other’s lives go, it is relevant to ethics. The effect on the cashier of rude customers makes his life worse. By excluding this from ethics (either explicitly by demarcating it as etiquette or implicitly by not bringing it in for ethical inquiry), people don’t consider how these everyday interactions affect themselves and others. And yet, these interactions are what make up life. It is not the moment of finally earning your doctorate that makes your life go well or not. It is the ins and outs of every day moments that will allow you to experience your life as going well or not.

      It is not the jumping in front of the car to save the child’s life that makes one a good person (even if we would praise such action). It is how one lives her life on the day to day and how such choices and actions constitute a flourishing life or not that matters. But in focusing on the former kinds of cases, we leave little for the latter cases which seem to matter more for living and acting well. If you don’t have a thick, robust lawn, you get weeds. If we apply this to ethical inquiry, when we don’t develop or consider the everyday cases and principles, we leave that ripe for abuse and neglect. To continue this metaphor, if we only focus on the tree in the middle of the lawn, we neglect the rest. We might get a nice tree but we’ll have weeds everywhere else.
      Similarly with sportsmanship, the exceptional case like Pantangco’s, might be cases that are wonderful and compassionate. But they don’t tell us how to act well in sport on a regular basis. It doesn’t tell the participants how to engage in their sport with dignity and virtue in each match and play. And if sports ethics focuses primarily on such cases and not on the inquiry on how to act well in the sport on a regular basis, it leaves that terrain open. The affect is to leave these everyday sorts of questions to mere convention (and abuse and neglect).

      My students-athlete generally approach how to behave in their sports based on how their peers behave. They tend to accept, without question or analysis, the way it has been done. They don’t question (until my class) whether the way it has been done is the way it ought to be done. They might have strong views, even developed ones, on the wrongness of doping; but little thought on the ethical issues raised by going high and inside on a batter. Although doping is not uncommon and not an exceptional kind of case, it is not as regular or common as pitching inside (or analogous actions). And yet, so much of the literature focuses on doping and significantly less on the latter kinds of situations. (That said, it’s one of the more refreshing things about sports ethics: the focus is more on regular/normal cases than in other normative or applied ethical fields). My point being that by focusing on the hard/extreme/unique/exceptional kids of cases, we undermine through neglect and misdirection the real substance of ethics: the everyday, common kinds of cases that fill our lives.

  2. Simon Johnson

    Thank you, Professor Klein, for a fresh take on this incident. And thank you, Professor Bowen, for an equally thought-provoking reply. I don’t want to shift the conversation too far from where it has progressed but I would like to suggest an even harsher criticism of Pantangco’s tap – that it actually was wrong and disrespectful, contrary to the suggestions proposed so far.

    To be clear, I do not think Pantangco meant his actions to be disrespectful in any way. But unfortunately many of our actions have unintended consequences. I do not think there is any reason to doubt that Pantangco tapped out of genuine concern for the health and livelihood of Rasner. He showed respect before the fight by meeting Rasner in the middle, touching gloves, and patting him on the back. He showed respect for Rasner during the fight by touching gloves after connecting with some devastating strikes. Finally, he tried to show respect for Rasner by ending the bout instead of continuing his onslaught.

    The primary reason I think this move was ultimately disrespectful to Rasner is that his record will now always have an asterisk over it – that shameful blight that no athlete every wants to have associated with himself or his accomplishments. He has a win on his record that he did not earn legitimately. Unlike other athletes who must deal with this mark of shame, Rasner had nothing to do with the decisions that led to that asterisk. Pantangco made that decision for him. Whether Rasner’s record will literally have an asterisk next to it (which it almost certainly will not), the point remains that he and everyone involved in his career and his life will know that his record is not entirely legitimate.

    Legitimacy is clearly being used loosely here. It is not intended to reflect strict adherence to the rules of the sport. Rasner’s win is certainly legitimate in the sense that he broke no rules. However, I think there is a genuine sense in which the legitimacy of victory extends beyond the letter of the law. Many athletes see their work as a meritocratic endeavor and so a sense of earning or desert of victory is incredibly important. It doesn’t just matter that I won. It matters how I won. Many athletes would rather lose legitimately than win illegitimately. I think Rasner is one of these kinds of athletes. When Pantangco tapped Rasner appeared not only confused, but frustrated. What I see when I look at Rasner’s body language after the fight isn’t the behavior of someone confused or thankful for an unexpected gift of grace, but of someone disappointed and frustrated because something was taken from them. That something was Rasner’s right to earn his victories legitimately.

    So what should have Pantangco done? Clearly his heart was in the right place. To prioritize an opponent’s health over one’s own win/loss record, especially in an amateur fight, seems to be a commendable concern. However, it is simply a false-dichotomy to think that his options were either send Rasner to the hospital or tap out. As an MMA fan myself, I agree with Professor Klein’s friend who suggested the alternative of Pantangco simply going for a submission. He exhibited superior grappling earlier in the round when he easily reversed Rasner’s full mount so it seems like he wouldn’t have had too much trouble trying to sink in a rear-naked choke or some other submission that almost wouldn’t injure Rasner at all. Pantangco also displayed faster and more accurate strikes and footwork, indicating that he could have simply employed a “point-fighting” style for the remainder of the bout in which he would simply connect a few light, quick strikes per round and avoid taking any damage himself. He could land enough strikes to clearly be the winner while not throwing with a quantity or force sufficient to inflict any real damage. If Pantangco had the presence of mind (and goodness of heart) to tap out, I don’t see any reason to think that he couldn’t have restrained his attack in line with any of these suggestions. In any of these scenarios the win and loss would be legitimately accepted by both fighters and fans and no one would be left seriously physically injured. Everyone (even the loser) wins.

    A further consideration is that there was less than twenty seconds left in the first round when Pantangco tapped. He should have at least let the round finish so Rasner could talk with his corner, giving them the chance of making the decision whether Rasner would continue to fight or throw in the towel. (I believe it is the case that Rasner’s corner, having a special kind of relationship and responsibility to Rasner, has the right to throw in the towel (and probably should have) on Rasner’s behalf. But this is maybe another argument that needs to be developed on its own.)

    I do think ultimately we should honor Pantangco’s good intentions. He displayed class and kindness in his concern for Rasner’s wellbeing. However, his actions left Rasner with little honor of his own. Not only was he denied the fulfillment of his will to physically overpower Pantangco (by Pantangco’s superior fighting skills), he was denied the fulfillment of his will to legitimately earn his victories (by Pantangco’s well-intentioned yet ultimately disrespectful act of tapping). Injury to one’s body is not the only kind of injury we should consider when evaluating these kinds of scenarios. There are several possible scenarios we could imagine in which Rasner suffered no further injury to his body, and no further injury to his pride.

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