Category Archives: athletes

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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