Category Archives: athletes

Review: Sporting Gender

One of the most contentious issues in sport is that of transgender and intersex athletes. It is an extraordinarily complex and fraught mix that often seems like it pits two important values against each other: opportunity and fairness. Sport should be open to all those who wish to complete and to compete at the highest levels they can. Sport, at its best, also seeks to create fair and meaningful competitions. So, on one hand, sport should be open to all athletes able to complete: it would be wrong to limit the opportunities of transgender and intersex athletes. But, on the other hand, there is a concern that if those opportunities aren’t limited in some way, specifically that if trans and intersex women compete without limitations against cisgender women, it could undermine the fairness of such competitions.

I don’t think there is a straightforward or obvious answer on these issues: and there are good, reasonable arguments (and many bad arguments too) for many different positions on all the various aspects of these issues. That said, my default position is towards the liberty of athletes to compete in the sport of their choice. [My interview with Tracey Holmes on these issues] I don’t mean to say that is the answer: but only that it is my starting point. It is the presumptive position that I think any argument to limit this liberty and opportunity needs to overcome.

Joanna Harper’s Sporting Gender is a good starting point for looking at many of the issues and arguments that might defeat or sustain this presumption. Harper’s book, as the subtitle indicates, takes you through the history, science, and stories of transgender and intersex athletes.

Starting in the early part of the twentieth century, she presents many stories of the individual trans and intersex women and their struggles to compete in sport. Many of these stories are tragic; too often rooted in ignorance and prejudice. For those that think these issues start and end with Castor Semenya, this history is essential.

Harper also discusses the science of sex and its impact on exercise and athletics. She details the many different ways that one might not fit neatly into either of the more familiar categories of male and female. Biological sex is nowhere near as simple as one might assume. (Not to even get into issues of gender.) There is some technical stuff to wade through, but the general gist should be digestible by those without much science background. This is summary, though; there are better places to look for more detailed discussions of the science (much of which can be found in the book’s endnotes).

Another important element of the book is Harper’s discussion of some of the legal cases that punctuate the history of trans and intersex athletes. The details and decisions of these cases are historically important and they had direct influence on the current regulations and guidelines of the major sport organizations like the IOC and IAAF.

Much of the latter half of the book focuses on two recent important Court of Arbitration cases involving intersex athletes (Chand and Semenya). Harper was involved in both cases as an expert witness. While I appreciated the inside look into these cases, this is where the book was at its weakest. I wasn’t all that interested in Harper’s evaluation of the various lawyers involved and whether their closing remarks were powerful or not. There was a lot of that sort of thing in these sections and that took away from the more important issue of rehearsing the arguments presented.

Harper is a trans woman and a runner, and she uses her own experiences to help frame parts of the book. This is both a blessing and a curse. It helps to contextualize and humanize much of the more abstract history and science. But it also means that the book is part memoir and so there are various tangents about her own life that were not part of my reasons for reading this book.

Harper’s ultimately position is that elite competitive sports needs to find the right balance of rules and methods to maximize “the possibility that all women can enjoy equitable and meaningful sport” (247). Furthermore, that there are good reasons to keep separating athletes in to male and female divisions and that the use of testosterone levels is the best current method to make this distinction (247). Though she does provide reasons for why this is her position, the book is not really set up to be a clear and cogent argument to support these claims. Its focus is more on presenting the history (both personal and legal) and the science. And on that front, I’d recommend it for those interested in this issue.

I don’t think the book deals enough with the philosophical and ethical aspects of trans and intersex athletes. What makes for fair and meaningful competition? Why are male/female divisions important? If there is a performance advantages by being trans or intersex, why should that matter and how is it different from other kinds of (non-doping) performance advantages? Harper broaches these questions to a degree, but she is not a philosopher and so the discussion is, in my view, too superficial and limited. There is also almost no engagement with the sport philosophy literature that discusses these issues. I still would recommend the book for the history and science angle, but it is not going to answer the meatier questions of philosophy or ethics.

1 Comment

Filed under athletes, Books, law, Reviews, Women's Sports

NCAA looking at rule-changes for player compensation

This is huge. We will see where it ends up, but just the fact the NCAA says it is willing to even discuss changing their rules to allow for athletics to benefit from their name, image, and likeness is a titanic shift.

First, that it comes this quickly after California’s passage of the Fair to Play Act (FPA) is surprising. I would have thought the NCAA would drag its feet for as long as they could.

Second, this is a big move away from the rhetoric before and after the passage of FPA. The FPA was presented by the NCAA as fatal to a level playing fields and the “amateur” model of college sports. NCAA president Mike Emmert said of the law: “This is just a new form of professionalism and a different way of converting students into employees. (They may be) paid in a fashion different than a paycheck, but that doesn’t make them not paid.”

But now the NCAA Board of Governors votes unanimously: “to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

This sounds a lot like the NCAA acquiescing to the spirit, at least, of California’s FPA (and similar state bills around the country).

Of course, there is a lot of wiggle room in the NCAA’s announcement. The details and specifics of the rules have yet to be determined and spelled out. How will they define ‘benefit’? What will it mean to be ‘consistent with the collegiate model’? Will the rules become just another byzantine structure for schools and athletes to navigate?

Nevertheless, I think this is a move in the right direction. It could, for example, lead to athletes staying in college longer rather than jumping ship to get paid. This can lead to more athletes taking advantage of the education opportunity afforded to them by their athletic ability. And it could serve to help athletes better develop their athletic skills prior to going pro—giving them greater opportunity to succeed at the next level. And it could mean better college sports with the better athletes staying longer at that level. Just as importantly, it could provide essential opportunities for all the athletes not playing men’s football or men’s basketball (which is most athletes).

I don’t see many downsides either (without, that is, knowing the details). Emmert has voiced concern that this moves towards professionalization and turning athletes into employees. Some might see that as feature, not a bug. But even if such an outcome is undesirable, it doesn’t seem likely. First, making athletes employees opens up huge, unwieldy cans of worms. From issues raised by labor and health and safety laws to impacts from Title IX, schools paying athletes directly is far too complicated. Second, it’s not clear how this will work in so far as most college sports (read: anything but men’s football and basketball) are not revenue generating sports and really can’t pay their athletes. And even for the revenue generating sports, most of these programs (as they are currently structured) are likely not sustainable in a pay for play model. As much money as the top-tier college sports generate, that gets spread far and wide. A million dollars is a lot of money unless you have to split it among million people.

Another concern raised by Emmert and others is that this will lead to unfair competition. Just in virtue of being in Los Angeles, UCLA will have many more promotional opportunities for its athletes than Nebraska. Won’t UCLA then be able to bring in better recruits? Probably. But is that unfair? Maybe, but fairness is too squishy of word to be helpful here. The heart of the concern is that some programs will have advantages in recruiting over other programs. But for this to be unfair assumes that all programs should be able to recruit on equal terms (as opposed to equal rules). But that’s false. It is descriptive false: that is, it is just not true that programs today recruit on equal terms.  UCLA already has a lot of built-in advantages (depending on one’s preferences) over Nebraska: nicer weather, easier travel, broader regional opportunities. It’s not clear that allowing athletes to get compensated for their name and likeness is going to shift this in dramatic ways. (If it does shift things, it is more likely to shift in ways to that might give schools in less desirable locales the ability to attract athletes they couldn’t otherwise attract.)

It is also normatively false: that is, it is not the case that programs should recruit on equal terms. There are many different athletes, with different purposes, needs, and goals. There are many different schools, with different missions and different programs. Recruitment is in large part a sorting mechanism for fitting the athlete and the school. We need these natural differences and inequalities in order for there to be a sorting, for athletes to find the programs that fit them, and for the schools to find the athletes that fit their program.

I’m usually quite critical of the NCAA, but here it is important to praise them for at least gesturing in the right direction. Hopefully, they can follow up with a set of rule changes that are effective, transparent, and equitable. We shall see.

Leave a comment

Filed under athletes, College, NCAA

Publication: “An Argument against Athletes as Political Role Models”

I’m excited to announce the publication of my article, “An Argument against Athletes as Political Role Models” in the latest issue of FairPlay, Journal of Philosophy, Ethics and Sports Law. 

Article abstract:

A common refrain in and outside academia is that prominent sports figures ought to engage more in the public discourse about political issues. This idea parallels the idea that athletes ought to be role models in general. This paper first examines and critiques the “athlete as role model” argument and then applies this critique to the “athlete as political activist” argument. Appealing to the empirical political psychological literature, the paper sketches an argument that athlete activism might actually do more harm than good.

This was part of a special issue on Colin Kaepernick. My article doesn’t really focus on Kaepernick that much–he’s more of a jumping off point for the argument I want to focus on. The other articles in the issue look much more closely on the case of Kaepernick. It’s fair to say, my take is not the consensus view.

You can download and read the article (PDF): An Argument against Athletes as Political Role Models

Full Citation: Shawn E. Klein (2017): An Argument against Athletes as Political Role Models, Fair Play. Revista de Filosofía, Ética y Derecho del Deporte, vol. 10.

An earlier version of this paper was originally presented at Penn State’s Center for the Study of Sports in Society’s Sports Ethics Conference.

5 Comments

Filed under athletes, publications, role models

Injuries, Future Selves, and the Difficulty of Goodness

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”.

Leave a comment

Filed under athletes, coaching, Sports Ethics, virtue

Eye-opener at University of Missouri

A lot has been written already and a lot more will be written about what the University of Missouri football team did. For those who have been doing campus visits to Hogwarts this weekend and missed this story, the football team at the University of Missouri threatened not to play if the president of the university didn’t step down. The president resigned on Monday. This was part of a campus protest regarding racism and other issues on campus.

This story has a lot of twists and turns. It is not simply—in some ways it is barely about—the football team. It’s about race, racism, campus politics, free speech, ‘safe zones’, and institutional control and leadership—among other things. Most of this doesn’t have to do with sport, so I’m not going to comment on it here.

The interesting sports angle to this story is the football team and the immense power they demonstrated. In just about two days, the football team pushed the president of a large state university out the door. Wow. Whatever one might think about the complicated underlying issues that gave rise to this protest, this is huge. It is a potential game-changer.

College athletes, well, the elite division 1 football and basketball players, are waking up to the potential power they have. As many commentators and columnists have noted, including Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel on the Dan Patrick Show, the whole NCAA system rests on the players always playing. If they refuse to stop playing, the whole system grinds to a halt. That’s quite a sword to dangle over Mark Emmert’s head.

I doubt, though, we will see athletes walk out this weekend or in the near future in order to get paid, to get better health insurance, or something similar. The Missouri situation is not so much a blueprint as it is an eye-opener. It was a special circumstance we are not likely to see in the unionization of the college-athletes. The Missouri team was linked with other campus groups and importantly had the backing of the coach. This was, at least in part, about race and so had a unifying effect of bringing the campus, the public, and the media together. But, being about race, it had a silencing effect as well: criticism of the football players for engaging in this protest would almost certainly be framed as being racist and so there was very little criticism. That will not be the case when the issue is more about the pecuniary interests of the players. There will be many vocal critics and the coaches likely will not give their support either. At Missouri, the team was apparently standing with and joining with the campus; the focus was on the university and racism. There was a clear and straight-forward demand that could be met or not: the university president resigning. In walk-outs related to pay-for-play, the players will largely stand alone and the athletes will be the focal point. The demand for pay, share of revenue, unionization, etc., is something that will require months of negotiations and the rewriting of countless rules. It’s a lot more complicated of a goal, one that is harder to know if it has been attained. It will require athletes holding out for a lot longer than two days with many losing scholarships and positions. All of this, along with the huge logistical difficulty of organizing players at different campuses, suggest we are not going to see a college-athlete strike anytime soon.

That said, the players see that they have this power. It will be tested again. How and when they wield it, and what it accomplishes, will be intriguing.

5 Comments

Filed under athletes, Football

Sports Ethics Show: Athletes as Role Models

In this episode of The Sports Ethics Show, Mike Perry and Shawn Klein discuss the old debate about athletes as role models. Do athletes have special responsibilities and obligations? Should they craft themselves into good role models or is that just something extra? The conversation ranges into celebrity in general, the real effect athletes have on children, and the compartmentalization of fandom and admiration.

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: iTunes Subscribe

Subscribe_on_iTunes_Badge_US-UK_110x40_0824

Leave a comment

Filed under athletes, Fandom, podcast