On Thursday morning (April 28), I took part of a discussion of sports and domestic violence on Minnesota Public Radio. MPR archived the show as a podcast, available here: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/04/28/sports-ethics
Monthly Archives: April 2016
I had an interesting conversation with a student today. She runs tracks but had been injured for a good chunk of the semester. I asked her how her foot was doing and she said it was okay now although it still hurt. Moreover, she thought there might be some more serious damage to the bone. After she went into some detail as to why, she said she would see someone after the season. When I asked why not now, she said she can walk and run without too much pain at the moment, so she’ll compete and wait to get things looked at later. Even though she knew she was risking further and possibly permanent damage, she had made the decision–with the apparent sign-off her training staff–to compete in the last two track meets.
What struck me as interesting here, from a sports ethics perspective, is the difficult balancing of interests in cases like this. The trainers and coaches have an interest in her competing now. They also have an interest in protecting her for future meets in seasons to come. And, of course, they have an interest (obligation?) in protecting her in the here and now from doing this further damage.
She has these same interests and obligations to herself. She has an interest in competing now and in the future. She ought to be taking care of herself in the here and now as well.
I don’t have any deep insight into what (if any) of these interests ought to be decisive. Inclined towards a kind of Aristotelian virtue ethics of some sort, I veer towards individual phronesis (practical wisdom) to weigh these different interests and obligations ought for the individual in her circumstances given her goals in life. That said, an 18 or 19 year old is still developing phronesis and needs the help of those more experienced and more wise than she from whom she can learn. And as members of an academic institution, her coaches and trainers have an obligation to help her develop this phronesis (that is, in theory,part of their central purpose at the institution).
Although the question of what she really ought to do is an important one, I am not going to explore it here. There are two more comments that I want to make.
First: One of the tensions is the interests of the person today: she wants to compete now; and the interests of the person down the road: when she is 30, 40 years old, how will this decision affect her. This kind of issue comes up all the time. Most people, in my experience, tend to think that the future person has a kind of trump. That is, let’s say she does some permanent damage to her foot that makes it more likely that she have early arthritic pain in her foot. Not so much that she is incapacitated, but enough that it is a regular feature of her experience. Most people seem to want to say that she was wrong or foolish to take this risk because of this future damage. Similar cases abound from issues like concussions and other injuries in sport. Since the future person is going to experience pain and some level of damage in the future, the present person ought not to engage in that behavior. “You’ll regret it later” we say.
I am skeptical that this is universally true. That is, I am not convinced there is a good argument for why we ought always to privilege the interests and concerns of our future selves. Certainly in many cases we should—that’s a big part of learning how to be a rational adult. But always? That I am not so sure about. Is it true that an athlete engaging in risky sporting activities today at the expensive of his or her future self is always in the wrong? If it is not, then this seems to cast doubt on many of the arguments against dangerous and risky sport.
Second: This case, and ones like it, highlight just how complicated things in ethics (and life) really are. This is not some acquiescence to what Ayn Rand called the cult of moral grayness. It is to point out that even in a single case where everyone, let’s presume, is trying to do what is best and right, it is not easy or obvious to know what to do; let alone actually follow through and do it. As Aristotle said: “it is no easy task to be good”.
From time to time I invite colleagues to write a guest post for The Sports Ethicist. In this post, I asked my ASU colleauge, Brian Goegan, to write about a model he uses for teaching “Economics of Sports”. Brian is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the
Department of Economics here at ASU and uses this fantasy-like game to teach the his students about the economics of sports. If you are an ASU student and interested in sports, you should look into taking this course (as well as my Sports Ethics course).
The Big Leagues
Sports provide an endless number of great examples that can be used in the economics classroom, and countless teachers have drawn on them for a wide range of courses and topics. But for a class on the Economics of Sports, I thought I’d try making the example the lesson. In fact, I have built a syllabus which revolves almost entirely around an elaborate simulation of the sporting world which I call The Big Leagues.
In my section of 68 students, we have organized into 30 teams, each owned by a group of two of three students. In their groups, students must manage their franchise, making decisions about where to locate, how big and how nice their stadium should to be, what strategy to take to win games, what prices to set, and what coach to hire. As a league, students must also grapple with a Players Association and vote on the rules which will govern their league. All the while, they need to manage their books, and make sure they end the game with enough profit to buy their grade for this portion of the class.
By acting as the owners, students end up experiencing the lessons they’d learn from a Sports Economics class first hand. Leagues collude to keep player salaries down, and are combated by the players’ union that threatens to strike. When the league is dominated by one or two teams, and matches are no longer competitive, fan interest (and TV revenue) declines. My game also allows owners to dope their players in secret, boosting their performance at the risk of being found out, and each semester I get to see an institution deal with the fan and media wrath after a huge swath of players get caught, voting to impose fines and punishments on each other. They also have to work through complicated formulas and gut instinct to figure out what the profit maximizing prices for their tickets and luxury boxes are, the bread and butter of any good economics class.
The list of complexities goes on and on. Stadiums degrade, players develop across seasons, owners choose actions which influence both of those things, players have ‘suits’ which have combination effects when put on a team with other players, teams can field substitute players, different general managers and different coaches enhance different strategies both for profits and for wins, and contracts with players can include different clauses that give the teams different options down the road. The rulebook for The Big Leagues is 21 pages long, but as one of my students put it recently, “the more you play the smaller the game gets.” In other words, it is a lot easier to understand that it sounds. To make sure they get all the lessons the game has to teach, I devote about 50% of my class time to it. The other 50% is devoted to linking up their choices and outcomes in the game to the real world.
Given its complexity and startup costs, I wouldn’t expect a lot of instructors to adopt the game. And that isn’t even mentioning all of the spreadsheet maintenance and troubleshooting needed to keep the game running from season to season. What I can report though is its effectiveness. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, little economic lessons are incrementally imparted with every decision the students make in the game, and they barely realize how much they’ve learned until I point it out to them. And given my discipline’s disinterest in finding alternatives to the lecture-based format, they also find it to be a refreshing change of pace.
If you would like to learn more about The Big Leagues, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.