Category Archives: Boston

Don’t Apologize for being a Patriots Fan

I was recently interviewed for The Outline by Ann-Derrick Gaillot about the morality of watching the Super Bowl. The article focused on four ethicists and their responses to three questions:

  • Ethically speaking, which team should people root for in the Super Bowl?
  • Is it ethical to watch the Super Bowl at all?
  • Is it ethical to watch Super Bowl commercials?

You can head over to The Outline to read all of our responses.

In this post, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the first question. Here was some of my response that they published:

(Full disclosure: I grew up in New England and root for the Patriots) In general, there isn’t a “should” here. Morality, for the most part, is just not the place to look for a rooting reason. We root for teams that we have a connection to — through family, regional connections, style of play. Those are all good reasons to root for one team over another. Assuming one is a neutral, flipping a coin is just as moral as choosing the Eagles because you like the color green.

There are, though, two other direction one could to take this question.

One might be the claim that one should root against the Patriots because of the scandals around so-called Deflate-gate and Spy-gate. But that seems based on some inaccurate beliefs about these scandals. Science has largely exonerated Brady and the Patriots of any wrongdoing regarding football deflation, and Spy-gate is also widely misunderstood. It was a violation of a policy regarding where a team is allowed to tape the activity of a game. In other words, the problem was where in the stadium the videographer stood — not that he was taping. It was a violation of a policy and the Patriots were wrong to do it (and they were harshly punished). But that seems a thin reed on which to rest one’s moral disapprobation.

A second is that if one admires and respects excellence, then they have a good reason to root for the Patriots. For nearly two decades, the Patriots have excelled in a way no other NFL franchise has or arguably ever will again. Tom Brady is getting ready to start his 8th Super Bowl. Since an NFL season is 16 games, Brady in essence will have played half a season of Super Bowls. The work, effort, and discipline that goes in to that level of sustained excellence is worth admiring and rooting for. Along similar lines, one might value the tenacity and perseverance of a team playing at a high level after losing their star quarterback and so choose to root for the Eagles.

Almost all of the ethicists, myself included, in the piece said something along the lines that whom you root for isn’t really a focus of ethical analysis. Notice, though, I couched my response in terms of “in general” and “for the most part.” This was not an academic’s attempt to weasel out of saying something definitive.

The standard case of fandom is not one where one choice is morally better than another, but that doesn’t mean that rooting for a team with a history of abuse or wrongdoing is beyond the scope of ethics. Unfortunately, because of subpar media reporting and general ignorance many think this applies to the Patriots. That is why I thought it necessary to explain why the two major Patriots scandals are based on misinformation. Deflate-gate was a joke and Spy-gate was overblown. All the other “questionable” deeds often attributed to the Patriots are either blatant and exposed lies (e.g. the illicit taping of other teams practices) or rumors without evidence.

If it were true that the Patriots were a corrupt and cheating organization, it would be wrong to root for them. But it is not true, so that cannot be a reason to root against them. And Patriots don’t need to apologize for being Pats fans (not that many of us actually feel the need to).newenglandvseveryone



I also thought it important to discuss another way in which ethics might guide one’s fandom. Ethics is too often treated as all about wrongdoing. The focus is exclusively on people behaving badly and why that is bad. Without denying the importance of such inquiry, it is also just as, if not more important to focus on value. Ethics should also be about understanding value creation, what it means to be good (beyond just not being bad), and how to live well.

pat-patriot-helmet-evolution
In this light, ethics can guide one to root for a team based on the values it represents or exemplifies. As I said in the interview, it can lead you to root for the Patriots because of the unparalleled, historic excellence and achievement of the nearly twenty-year period of the Kraft-Belichick-Brady era. It can also lead you to admire the perseverance and tenacity of the Eagles this year.

Lastly, there is something disturbing about rooting against the Patriots because they have been so great. I am not talking about Buffalo fans or Pittsburgh fans who are surely rooting against the Patriots this Sunday. I get that. I’d root against their teams in reverse situation. That’s just sport rivalry and its part of what makes being a fan fun. I’m talking about the ugly envy that targets the Patriots just because they are so good; just because they achieve at the highest level. Resentment and spite is not psychologically or morally healthy. Let go of the hate!

I’m sure there are many reasons for non-Pats fans to root against the Patriots: ignorance or envy shouldn’t be one of them.

Go Pats!

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New Olympic Event: Host Dodging

It was announced last Monday that the USOC will not be continuing with the Boston 2024 Olympic bid. I think this a good thing, a very good thing.

First, though, I want to put all my cards on the table. I love the Olympics. There is almost no greater moment in our public lives for witnessing and celebrating excellence and achievement on such a grand and universal scale. I love all the pageantry, the exposure to athletes from all over the globe, and the excitement of discovering new sports I’d never heard of before. I even love Bob Costas’s cheesy human interest stories.

I also love Boston. Readers of the blog know that I am a fan of all things Boston sports. (Indeed, I am fan of most things from Boston: e.g. Cheers, Steven Wright, Boston (band), and Spenser.)

So one might think I’d be excited to see the Olympics in Boston. In the abstract, I would be. Boston is a great city and one worthy of hosting the games. But, as the clichéd saying goes, the devil is in the details.

As a member of the Boston Diaspora, I was not personally all that worried about the traffic problems that this event would have caused. This is much more about (1) the bid process and (2) the financing.

The IOC bid process is well-known for its corruption; maybe not quite at FIFA and Seth Blatter levels, but corrupt nonetheless. There is a long train of accusations from bribes to kickbacks. Boston is not exactly known for its transparent government (it’s not Chicago, but not from a lack of trying). Mix these two together and you have a recipe for a disastrous scandal.

The bigger concern, though, is the manner in which the games are financed. The public financing and taxpayer guarantees for cost overruns make the Olympics a loser for cities. Economists have shown for decades that public financing of stadiums and Olympic facilitates almost always lose money. Moreover, there is no greater economic gain for the city/region as whole that offsets these loses. There is little evidence that these public investments provide net increases in tourism, jobs, or business revenue in general. (Many sources: but here is a good review of the literature: “Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Subsidies for Sports Franchises, Stadiums, and Mega-Events?”  )

This should make intuitive sense. If the Olympics were such a great way of building the local/regional economy, why not propose Detroit? Instead, what we see is that cities are starting to wise up and pull their bids. What are left are mostly autocratic regimes (Russia, China, Qatar) that are more than glad to overpay for the moral sanction offered by the Olympics (and the World Cup). That is, by being chosen to the host the Olympics or World Cup these regimes can pass themselves off as civilized and worthy members of the world community. Boycotts won’t change this. But the dwindling market for acceptable host cities might.

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Marathon Monday

Every Patriots’ Day, I get nostalgic for Boston. I miss Boston all the time, but so much more on Marathon Monday. I grew up along the route. We used to go down to rt 135, hand out orange slices to the runners, and hang out while listening to bands play on top of the old Long Cadillac building. I used to work near the route and we’d take off in the morning to go and watch in Natick Center. I’ve watching along the route and at the finish line. I even worked on a website project at my old job for the centennial marathon. Like most of my friends, I grew wanting to run the marathon at some point (torn cartilage from playing football put an end to that).

Part of what makes the day so special is that it isn’t just about a world-class marathon. The race is a focal point, but the day means so much more. It is routed in the American Revolution (Patriots’ Day commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord). It is the start of the spring with the Sox playing their annual matinee game. Most people have off from work or school. It’s a celebration of the city and the region.

Last year didn’t change this. It’s added a somberness and solemnity to be sure, but the core is the same. It remains a celebration but now includes an celebration of the strength and resolve of all the people of this region. With nearly a million spectators and 38000 runners (9000 more than last year), Boston proves that we won’t let anyone change what Marathon Monday and Patriots’ Day means to us.

Boston Strong!

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Boston Breakdown with Joe

A new episode of The Sports Ethicist Show is available!

 Joe Danker and Shawn Klein discuss things Boston sports in this episode of The Sports Ethicist. What defines a successful season? How important is it for the Bruins to get to and win the Stanley Cup this year? Are the Red Sox in a grace period after winning the World Series? Is it wrong for the Celtics to be tanking their season?

Related Links:

You can download the podcast here:
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/the-sports-ethicist-boston-breakdown-with-joe/

You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes.

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Not Crazy about March Madness

March Madness is upon us. NCAA basketball is taking over the national sporting world (in the U.S.) for the next few weeks. Tune into ESPN or sports radio and all you’ll likely hear is hoops. Even the U.S. President fills out a bracket on national television.

I have a confession to make. I just don’t care. Basketball doesn’t hold my interest anymore. I don’t fill out any brackets. I don’t watch the games. I consciously avoid ESPN during the tourney.

So what? There are so many different kinds of sport, one can hardly be a fan of all them. One has to pick and choose how to spend their fandom-focus.

Nevertheless, this puzzles me. I used to be a basketball fan. What happened?

Growing up, basketball was one of my top sports to watch. One of my more memorable birthdays was a Celtics’ game at the old Bahston Gahden. In college, a group of us went to Vegas for Spring Break primarily to watch the NCAA Tourney. But ever since, my interest has waned.

One explanation is for this decline is that the Celtics just haven’t really been worth watching since the 80s. When I was a kid, the Celtics were the dominant Boston team. This was the era of Larry Bird. The Sox were hardly ever competitive and the Patriots were the “Patsies”: barely on the sport radar. The Bruins were competitive with Bourque and Neely, but in the era before HD TV, hockey just wasn’t as big.

But after the Legend retired, the Celtics descended into a period of heart break and tragedy off the court and irrelevancy on the court. The notable exception was 2008-10 when the Celtics briefly returned to relevance in the NBA.

So, one explanation is that without the Celtics being competitive, my interest in the NBA evaporated. And that is partly true. In the Celtics’ Finals runs in 2008 and 2010, I was watching games with interest. But even then, it was just about the Celtics. I couldn’t get into the other playoff series. And now with the Celtics back to being gawd-awful, I am out again.

And this partly explains apathy towards March Madness. I don’t have team for which I root or to which I have any connection. College sports in Boston are eclipsed by the professional teams, so I didn’t grow up a fan of any particular schools. Tufts had a good team, but that’s Division III. ASU was a good option, but graduate school absorb most of my focus and I never got into them (I am sure the fact that they weren’t very good during that period didn’t help).

Even so, I used to get more into the tourney, make out brackets, etc. So this lack of partisan connection doesn’t fully explain my recent apathy. And to my surprise, I realized I am not alone. When sharing my apathy towards basketball, others acknowledged similar feelings. This suggests to me that this is something more than just my own deal with basketball.

A common refrain I hear often as an explanation is that “the game has changed.” I am not entirely sure what this means and I suspect it is a kind of catch all. The game in terms of its rules has not substantial changed. So maybe it is more a style of play thing. This is philosophically interesting to me as a kind of aesthetic response to sport. Pinning this down is hard, however, but there does seem to be something there.

Another way to take “the game has changed” is that the stars are different today. That is, instead of Magic and Bird, we have James and Durant. James and Durant are fantastic basketball players, as were Magic and Bird. But James and Durant, at least to me, are far less appealing as ‘stars’. James, in particularly, is too manufactured and insincere seeming for my liking. There is a lack of authentic personality to connect to (either as someone to root for or to root against). And in college basketball, it is hard to connect to any team through the stars, since so many of them are ‘one and done’ and off to the NBA.

One last reason I suspect, at least for me, is that my interest and appetite in other sports has grown and just left basketball behind. Sports such as hockey and soccer seem to have more tension, more team play, and more strategic scheming. The first 40 or so minutes of a basketball game are far too often meaningless preamble to the last 8 minutes. You can’t lose a game in the first quarter (and yet you can lose early in soccer, hockey, and football). And if the game is close, the last minute or so becomes a diminished game of intentional fouls and free throws. There is of course strategy and designed plays in basketball, but they seem to play a less important role to just the sheer athleticism of the best players. This is not a bad thing in itself, but it makes it more a performance than a contest.

So to sum up the reasons for my basketball apathy:
1. My personal lack of partisan fandom.
2. The style/aesthetics of basketball have changed and become, for some, less appealing.
3. The big stars are not as interesting or authentic as they used to be.
4. The game is more performance than a strategic, team contest.

I’d love to hear from others who have lost interest in basketball—particularly if they have other reasons. Please share in the comments.

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Hockey Fights and Violent Retaliation

The talk about fighting in hockey has heated up in the media. Even ESPN, which normally gives the silent treatment to hockey, has covered the issue a little. I’ve written on this blog about my views regarding possible ethical justifications for fighting in hockey. But with some recent events, I wanted to revisit this issue by discussing Nick Dixon’s paper on violent retaliation in sport.

One of the main justifications offered by proponents of the status quo is that fighting is necessary in the NHL because it allows the players to police the sport through retaliation for egregious play by opponents. For example, in a December 7th match between the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bruins player Shawn Thornton attacked Penguins player Brooks Orpik. In this particularly brutal fight, Thornton knocked Orpik to the ground and continued to punch him. Orpik was taken off the ice in a stretcher and Thornton was ejected. He was subsequently suspended for 15 games. Though almost everyone agrees that Thornton went too far and should be suspended, many (especially my fellow Bruins fans) think the suspension was too hefty. Thornton, goes the argument on sports radio and local papers, was only protecting his teammates. The proximal cause seems to have been that Brad Marchand was kneed in the head while lying on the ice by Pittsburgh’s James Neal. Earlier in the game, Bruins Loui Eriksson left the game with a concussion after a hard hit by Orpik. The entire game to the Thornton-Orpik fight was chippy and in some ways getting out of control. Defenders of fighting in hockey claim that Thornton’s actions, though in the extreme, are part of the game and actually reduce overall violence in the game. The claim seems to be twofold. First, Thornton is justified (to a degree) in fighting Orpik here as a form of retaliation for the hits on Eriksson and Marchand. Second, allowing this kind of retaliation (within reason) reduces violence in the game by deterring illegal or cheap shots.

Though sympathetic to these claims, I don’t think they actually bear out. This is in large part due to Dixon’s argument in “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport.”

Dixon starts out by distinguishing violence from aggressiveness or assertiveness. Violence involves “the intention to injure” (1). Aggressiveness, assertiveness, or hard physical play are different; these are part of how one achieves the goals of the game. The physical injury or harm to the opponent, though it might be a foreseeable consequence, is not the intent nor is it necessary for the achievement of the goals.

There are a lot of ways violence shows up in sport. Dixon leaves the violence of boxing, mma, and similar sports where the violence is (or seems to be) explicitly part of the rules of the game for a different discussion. In this paper, his concern is only with sports where violence is officially prohibited, but it is tacitly accepted in some cases of retaliation. His two prime examples are bean balls in baseball and fights in ice hockey.

To make his case, Dixon provides an outline of what would qualify as a justified retaliation. Then he applies this to the cases of baseball and hockey to see if they fit this theory. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t think they do.

Justified Violent Retaliation

The first condition for me to be justified in a violent retaliation is that a person has to act wrongly against me. This requires that the person be a responsible agent (that is, the person’s action is one for which the person can reasonable be held responsible) and that the action is one that is worthy of condemnation or sanction. It would be wrong to retaliate against a person’s striking you if, because of a neurological disorder, she has no control over her limbs. It would also be wrong to retaliate violently against a new competing coffee shop operating legally and morally near your own shop that draws away your customer base.

The second condition for justified violent retaliation is that there has to be an expectation of imminent death or harm from the attacker. In cases where the criminal justice system can be engaged to prevent, stop, and/or punish the wrongdoing, one would be wrong to retaliate. Dixon uses the example of rape. Certainly one is justified in using violence to prevent or stop a rape from occurring. But one is not justified in hunting down the rapist and killing him after any imminent threat is removed.

Although the first condition can often be met in a sporting context (Neal’s intentional knee to Marchand’s head fits the bill), the second condition, according to Dixon, is almost never met. The league has an analogue to the criminal justice system and that is the proper avenue for punishment of wrong doing: “The whole point of having referees, leagues, and disciplinary committees is to permit a dispassionate and fair assessment of what penalties are appropriate for wrongdoing on the playing field.” (3).

Surprisingly, this argument comes up in discussions of hockey fights, even in the Thornton case. Thornton supporters argue that in part he was justified in going after Orpik because the officials on the ice were not doing their job. The problem here is that Thornton is not in a position during the game to judge this adequately. He clearly took umbrage with Orpik’s hit on Eriksson though almost everyone agrees that hit was clean. The officials may (and by my lights often do) fail at their job of policing wrongdoing. But it is hard to know in the heat of a contest if this is in fact the case and what the appropriate response is. This is why it is best to leave it to a process that can objectively weigh the evidence. (But I will return to this point below.)

Retaliation as Deterrent

So if retaliation is not justified as retribution, maybe it is justified on the grounds that it will deter future acts of violence. Dixon argues that this fails on the grounds of lacking objectivity as well. First, just as in retribution, the officials are better positioned to determine objectively if there was a wrongdoing and how to penalize it to reduce future occurrences. Second, violent retaliation against the wrong doers by the league or athletic organization is not justified. The league will punish them with fines, suspensions, or bans. Dixon argues that this is analogous to the punishment of rapist, we take away the convicted rapist’s liberty, but don’t condone violent assaults by the victim (or the victim’s champion) or the state.

I think Dixon is on the right track here, however, I am not entirely convinced. My tentativeness here rests on two claims. First, the effectiveness of deterrence is something that is controversial. It is not clear that punishments of any kind are effective deterrents. While incentives matter, people have to expect that they will get caught, be found responsible, and be suitably punished. Potential wrongdoers might have very good reasons (and bad ones too) not to expect this conjunction to play out and so deterrence would be ineffective. So, it might be more effective for the end of deterrence that players fight (or have the threat of fighting) since they might have more reasonable expectations of getting punished by opposing players than the league. Then again, it might not work like this. We’d have to compare ice hockey with and without toleration of fighting to see which has less overall violence. Luckily, there are ice hockey leagues that are not tolerant of fighting: Olympic, NCAA,  and European hockey are much less tolerant of fighting. And the comparisons seem to point much more in the direction of not tolerating fighting as more effective in reducing overall violence while maintaining high-quality hockey.

Second, I am not convinced that the officials are always in the best position to know about a wrongdoing and how to punish it. In the case of the Thornton fight, I think they are. But there are lots of other inappropriate actions in a game, or over the course of a season or career, that the league office or referees are going to miss. For example, cheap shots that are on the borderline of legal and go uncalled or other chippy play that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a major penalty or league punishment. These go, by definition, unpunished (or under-punished). Proponents of hockey fight argue that only player policing can deter these. Using something similar to Dixon’s rape analogy, domestic violence is a hard problem in our society. Police cannot be in everyone’s home to prevent it. It is notoriously difficult to prosecute. Restraining orders and the like are by most accounts ineffective. Increasing criminal penalties for abusers who don’t think, with good reason, that they will ever get caught or prosecuted isn’t going to deter future abuse. The danger in any one instance might not be severe enough to allow for the justifiability of violent retribution as Dixon has defined it. In such cases, it might be that some measure of vigilantism is justified. If this is appropriately analogous to the cheap shots that go unnoticed and unpunished through a game, season, or career, then maybe some measure of athletic vigilantism would be justified to deter such activity.

Dixon also addresses the objection to his account that institutions might consistently fail to punish wrongdoers appropriately and so vigilantism could be justified in those cases. He argues that much like with the criminal justice system, one ought to operate within the system to reform the system or replace the officials. In the worst cases, civil disobedience or emigration might be the appropriate response. (And I would add that violent revolution against a regime might be justified in the very worst cases). Returning to athletic organizations, if the league was consistently failing to do its job, either players ought to work to reform the organization or they should leave it. Moreover, one would have to establish, borrowing from Jefferson and Locke, a long train of abuse, for such a concern to even kick in. But this is not what is usually the case in any given hockey fight (or bean ball in baseball). Players are usually responding to a particular perceived failure of a game official, not an established pattern of official abdication of punishment.  

Team Unity

The last substantial part of Dixon’s paper treats the argument that violent retaliation in sport helps to promote team unity and other values in the sport. In the Thornton case, I have heard some defend his actions on the basis of his sticking up for Marchand and Eriksson thereby building team unity. Moreover, we have seen examples were a team comes together after a fight. Some mark the A-Rod/Varitek fight in 2004 as a turning point in the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry that provided the Red Sox with a unity and attitude that helped them defeat the Yankees in the ALCS.

Dixon rejects this argument whole-heartedly. The mere fact of building team unity is not sufficient for justification. It begs the question of the justification of the act itself. Team unity is a worthy goal. But the means to the goal have to be justified on their own terms, not merely that they can be a part of achieving a worthy goal. Dixon suggests the counter example of a batter hitting the catcher in the leg with his bat as retaliation (7). This would seem to serve the same end that a bean ball does, but is not regarded as acceptable. Nor would any retaliation that takes place out of the bounds of the game be justified, even though such an attack might also serve all the same ends. These actions lack their own justification (or stronger: are unjustified), so the fact that they serve a worthy goal doesn’t do the work of justification.

Dixon closes with an admonishment not to treat the sporting world as an exceptional place where morality is suspended. We ought, he argues, to expect athletes to behave with the same moral character and according to the same moral principles that one would outside of the sporting sphere. “To expect the best of athletes, instead of immunizing them from moral criticism, is actually the highest form of respect” (9).

I think Dixon’s arguments in this article are sufficient to show that actions like Thornton’s (and Neal’s) are not justifiable. Fighting might erupt at times in hockey from aggressive and assertive play. And, as I argue elsewhere, that doesn’t seem problematic. But where the fighting is treated as retaliation for actions by the opponents, it is not justified.

Dixon, Nicholas, “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 37:1, 1-10, (2010).

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Filed under Boston, Hockey, Officiating, Reviews, violence

The Sports Ethicist Show: Boston Sports

The Sports Ethicist Show airs tonight at 6 pm (Central) on Rockford College Radio.

In town for a Cubs game, Joe Danker joins Shawn E. Klein in the studio to discuss things Boston Sports. Focusing mostly on the Red Sox and their remarkable turnaround from last year, they also hit on the Patriots and make some World Series predictions.

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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