I had the great pleasure of joining Mike Tully on his podcast: The Tully Show. We had a wide-ranging conversation about sports ethics and the ethics of sports fandom. Check it out:
I had the great pleasure of joining Mike Tully on his podcast: The Tully Show. We had a wide-ranging conversation about sports ethics and the ethics of sports fandom. Check it out:
Filed under Fandom, podcast, Sports Ethics
The IAPS meeting at the Pacific APA will focus on Ethics for Sports Fans. The Pacific APA is being held remotely, April 5-10, 2021. To attend the session, you will have to register for the APA.
April 6, 3-5 PDT
Chair: Shawn E. Klein (Arizona State University)
“A Fair Shake for the Fair-Weather Fan”
You can register for the APA: https://www.apaonline.org/event/2021pacific
Filed under APA, Conferences, Fandom, IAPS
One of the first signals that COVID-19 was going to be different was when the NBA decided to suspend its season. Soon all the major sports in the US followed suit. Two months later and while there are many reports and speculations about when and how (and if) to restart, none of the major US team sport leagues are starting up yet. NWSL looks to be the first team sport back, scheduled to come back in late June with a tournament.
Putting aside any of the questions about the justifications for the initial, and the continued, suspensions of play, it is clear that the leagues want to come back and fans want them back.
The desire for sports to return highlights the importance and value of sport for spectators. This pandemic induced absence points us towards why we look at sport so differently.
Sport provides an escape form the mundane, from the grind of our daily lives. This is true, of course, but I also think it is the least important aspect of why we watch sport. Many recreational and leisure activities and interests provide an escape. People can lose themselves in their music or books. They can escape into a world created for their pleasure and streamed to their home 24/7. Sport is one avenue of escape, a great one, but one among many. If it were just a matter of escapism, the TV ratings for the replays of classic games would be a lot better. Everyone knows how The Sopranos ends, but people still rewatch it again and again. If sport were just another form of recreational escape, we would rewatch the 2004 World Series in the same way. Some do, but most sports fans don’t. And it is not merely that we know the Red Sox won.
The Value of Spectating
Part of it is that we know the Red Sox won. Knowing the outcome takes away a lot of the drama and excitement. But knowing how a great TV show or movie ends also removes a lot of the suspense, and yet we enjoy getting caught up in the story all over again. There are, of course, many sports fans who enjoy re-watching games for similar sorts of reasons. But it is very different experience.
Notice, also, that even when we don’t know (or remember) the outcome, there is something missing from watching a recorded sporting event. Tape-delays and game replays feel different from a live match. (Think of the complaints about tape-delays during the Olympics.)
Sport unfolds before us: all its drama, narrative, glory, disappointment, arises spontaneously out of the actions of the participants. It is happening now; before our very eyes. Even thousands of miles away, we feel a part of the unfolding action. We are a part of it by witnessing it.
Personally, even a delay of a few minutes disrupts the experience. There is a part of me that knows that the goal has been scored (or it has not) even as I watch the play that leads to that goal develop. The magic has already happened; I know it even if I don’t know what happened yet. This is even more acute in person—and part of why we still go to games—and why we will go back in droves when we are able to.
To be a spectator of sport is not mere vicariousness. It is not analogous to watching a movie or TV show, or a live concert or theatre production. I watched the finale of The Clone Wars (fantastic, btw) the day it dropped on Disney+. But this was just because I was so excited to see how it ended—had I waited a week it wouldn’t have changed my experience at all. This is not at all like the reason I get up early on Saturday mornings to watch Liverpool. Even just watching the replay (ignorant of the winner) a few hours later is different and not as satisfying. To miss the live game when it airs is to miss something that one cannot recreate later.
No doubt, we can experience dramatic, exciting action in many forms: but these are scripted or planned. Sport is not aesthetics or artistic performance (though it shares aspects of these). An improv routine that fails to be funny or witty is a failure. A match that is building towards some dramatic comeback that does not materialize is not a failure of the match. It is a disappointment to the team, and its fans, that was not able to complete the comeback, and it’s a relief to the winning side and its fans. Sport can disappoint its fans in way other performances cannot. That disappointment is, in fact, a necessary part of sport. A musician that repeatedly fails to perform to expectations will soon have no more gigs and no more fans. In sports, we call that the New York Jets and they have no shortage of fans.
Consider as well the difference between watching a game and watching a sports movie—even a well-done sports movie. Sports have ridiculous moments that could never fly in a movie. No writer would ever write the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI comeback against the Falcons: no one would find it believable.
The thing I want to emphasize here is the ‘liveness’ of sport; its in-the-moment spontaneity. This is something almost totally unique to sport. It is this liveness, this being a part of it through witnessing it, that is so much a part of the value of watching sport. I don’t know what sport will ultimately look like when it returns in full—but whatever shape it takes, the unmatched thrill of live sport will return and I will relish it.
Filed under Fandom
I am organizing the IAPS meeting at the Pacific APA and I am looking for participants to present or comment.
I like to have a theme. I already have a paper on “fair weather” fandom, so other sports fandom papers/ideas would be great. But other topics are also welcome.
Where: San Francisco, CA
When: April 8–11, 2020
What I need for the proposal:
Just interested in being a commentator? Send: Name, affiliation, CV
Send to: sklein _at_ asu.edu
Deadline for proposal: Friday October 11, 2019
If you are interested, please let me know ASAP. It’s quick turn around, the deadline for submitting the group request for the program snuck up on me and I need to get the APA the information by Monday October 14.
Filed under APA, CFP, Conferences, Fandom
Concussions. CTE. How can a moral person watch (NFL) football?
There is no simple or singular answer. But there are a number of considerations that people ought to weigh to start getting at an answer. This is a first pass at these considerations, but there are at least four: empirical questions, athlete autonomy, mitigation/education, and fan responsibility.
The main empirical question is what is the causal relationship between concussions (and sub-concussive hits) and CTE (and other long-term brain injuries and conditions).
We know there is a significant risk of concussions in football. We know that there is some relationship between concussions and long-term brain injuries like CTE. But we are still learning about the nature and extent of this relationship. There is a lot that remains unknown.
As stated in the 2017 Concussion in Sport Group Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport:
The literature on neurobehavioral sequelae and long-term consequences of exposure to recurrent head trauma is inconsistent. Clinicians need to be mindful of the potential for long-term problems such as cognitive impairment, depression, etc in the management of all athletes. However, there is much more to learn about the potential cause-and-effect relationships of repetitive head-impact exposure and concussions. The potential for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) must be a consideration, as this condition appears to represent a distinct tauopathy with an unknown incidence in athletic populations. A cause-and-effect relationship has not yet been demonstrated between CTE and SRCs or exposure to contact sports. As such, the notion that repeated concussion or subconcussive impacts cause CTE remains unknown. (McCrory P, et al. Br J Sports Med 2017;51:838–847)
How these questions get answered are essential for drawing conclusions about the danger and risk of football. And we don’t have answers yet. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be cautious and work to reduce concussions in sport. Of course we should (and the above consensus report has extensive recommendations on this front). We know there is danger here—we just don’t how much, how far-reaching it is, or what the extent of the risk is.
The ethics of watching (or playing for that matter) football is not merely an empirical question. Football might be quite dangerous and risky, but that in it of itself is an insufficient warrant to prevent the activity. We still need to weigh the value of individual autonomy and liberty for choice in the projects of one’s life. For most, the presumption is that autonomous choice cannot be interfered with except where it causes harm to others. Several hundred years of political philosophy has tried to clarify every aspect of this: What counts as autonomous choice? What counts as interference? What counts as harm? Can we draw a line between harm to others and harm to self?
Leaving aside those important thorny issues, if we assume the playing of football is sufficiently autonomous then it is hard to see what objection there would be for those wishing to watch it. If it fails to be sufficiently autonomous, then that should give us strong reasons to stop watching (or playing).
The autonomy question is one of the reasons that the concern about concussion and CTE is different from the long-term debilitating injuries to knees, backs, shoulders, and so on that ex-football players suffer with. One might have to use a wheelchair to get around because his knees are so shot, but he still have his mind. He can still make choices and plan his life. But this might not be true for one suffering from CTE or other serious long-term brain injuries. So if there is a strong link between concussion and CTE or other brain-debilitating conditions, then this raises the question of just how autonomous football actual is.
Another question that fans should ask themselves is: are the leagues, players, and other stakeholders working towards dealing with, controlling, preventing, and/or treating concussions? If they are not, that might give a fan a good reason to withdraw support for the sport by no longer watching.
Does one’s watching of football causally contribute to concussion/CTE? What responsibility does the fan have?
Let’s say we are reasonably confident that there is high risk of long-term brain damage to those playing football. Let’s further say that this is still compatible with athlete autonomy. A fan might still be concerned that his or her watching is contributing in some way to the damage being done to the player (even if, ex hypothesis, it is autonomously chosen).
This raises complex philosophic questions about collective and aggregated responsibility that can’t be addressed here. Nevertheless, it is obviously true that without fans there is no professional sport. But one’s individual contribution to the practice is beyond minuscule. It is the proverbial drop in the ocean. So if one’s minuscule contribution hardly marks a causally difference one way or the other, then it is reasonable to ask whether withdrawing one’s fan support has any meaningful effect. If it doesn’t, then it seems unreasonable to say that, other things being equal, one has an obligation to stop watching.
How do weigh and balance all this? That’s something worth thinking more about, but I do think that to get to the conclusion that it is wrong to watch football, you have to have good reason to think that at least one or two of the following (if not all) are true:
While there is much room for rational disagreement and the need for continual reassessment of these issues, I am not yet prepared to assent to any of these claims.
Filed under concussion, Fandom, Football
I was emailing with a friend today and the subject of why Americans like baseball came up. He was not born in the States and doesn’t quite get baseball. That conversation gave me the opportunity to put into words some ideas of why I love baseball. And now that’s given me a topic for a blog post.
I think most like baseball (along with many of our other preferences: other sports, music, tv, etc.) for nostalgic reasons. Many grow up playing the game, watching it, or going to the ball park with their parents or friends. One’s current spectatorship is tied into those memories and brings us back to that state of mind. It becomes a connection to one’s history and place. Quoting —(you have to by law, I think, quote Field of Dreams when you write about baseball)— the Terence Mann character in Field of Dreams:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.
Though I don’t think the quote is precisely right, there is a lot of truth in it. Every time I emerge from a tunnel in a ball park, I am taken back to those first few times I passed from the dark of the tunnel under Fenway Park into the bright sunshine and pleasant cacophony of the crowd. I get a rush each and every time and feel like I am 10 years old again.
Moreover, being a Red Sox fan keeps me tied to my home state. It’s been roughly two decades since I lived in Boston, soon I will have lived more outside of Massachusetts than in it. But donning my Red Sox hat makes me feel a little like I can hop on the T to Quincy Market for some Pizzeria Regina any time I want.
I also like baseball for some other, more intellectual reasons.
One of the things I love most about baseball is the battle between pitcher and batter. This is the point of tension that the whole game turns on. What is the pitcher going to do? What kind of pitch will he throw? What about the runner on first? How will the batter respond? Will he let it go for a ball? Foul it off? Put it in to play?
Each pitch is its own game in a way and the strategy of what to pitch/how to hit changes depending on the number of outs, strikes, balls, men on base, etc. With each passing moment as the pitcher looks into the batter’s box the tension builds. The pitch is thrown and you wait on the batter’s swing–what’s going to happen? Will it be strike? A foul? A hit? A HR? Swing! And then the release of tension as this moment of the duel resolves itself but it immediately starts to build again for the next pitch. This rise and release of tension is, for me, the basic piece of enjoyment of watching the game. (This is one reason I am completely against a pitch clock.)
Another element of baseball I love is that it is a kind of a fractal. Stay with me here… You have the pitcher-batter tension point but that takes place within a whole at bat which is part of an inning, which is in a game, which is in a series. Each level has a similar repeating pattern: three strikes, three outs, nine innings, a best of three series. It’s not really a fractal but it is a kind of complex spontaneous order arising out of a set of simple rules, repeating each pitch, each at bat, each inning, each game, and each series. And yet despite repeating this pattern, each at bat, inning, etc., is unique and its own thing. There is something beautiful and satisfying in experiencing the infinite variety that arises while being constrained by a set of simple rules.
There are many other reasons to enjoy baseball: the excitement of a HR; the beauty of a double play; the amazing skill of chasing down a fly ball in the outfield. And if you are at a live game, forget about it! The beauty of the ballpark is worth the ticket in itself. But one shouldn’t feel that they have to like baseball. It’s one particular form of beauty and enjoyment among the endless assortment of human activities and endeavors worth admiring and enjoying. Whether it is baseball or something else, the important thing is to revel in what you love.
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
The author of this guest post is Chad Carlson. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Hope College (MI). He has published numerous articles on the philosophy and history of sport.
In a recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, I argued that Fantasy Football is a parasitic game. In other words, it is a game that derives its existence and value from the actual sport of American football (not to be confused with what the rest of the world calls football). Fantasy Football, therefore, is a second order game. Its unique and unprecedented popularity has in many ways paralleled that of actual football. In fact, without actual football, the fantasy counterpart would fail to exist.
Despite its genetic determination from actual football, Fantasy Football also shares some characteristics with other games. Like “cybersport,” Fantasy Football is governed in cyberspace. However, in “cybersport,” the “athlete” has complete agency over the movements and operations of the game whereas in Fantasy Football, the owner does not.
Like simple sport spectatorship, Fantasy Football shares in that a lot of the fun and enjoyment of the game comes from actually watching the NFL games play out and cheering one way or another. However, whereas Fantasy Football owners have the ability to set their lineups and activate or deactivate their players, fans watching actual football games have no real (legal) ability to manipulate the events on the field to encourage their team to win—outside of cheering really loudly!
Fantasy Football may be most like card games such as poker. In these games, the player (owner) has some agency to make the most of his/her hand (team). However the difference here is in the time at which the player has agency. In poker, the player is dealt a hand theoretically at random. The player has no control over the cards dealt. From there, the card shark is able to make the most of his/her hand. Fantasy Football is the opposite. The owner has the ability to set his/her lineup by inserting, benching, trading, waiving, and picking up players who are in the best position to obtain fantasy points in each week’s games. Yet that’s where the owner’s agency ends. Once the games begin, the owner is at the mercy of “the Fantasy Gods.”
I stand by all of these metaphysical arguments. For as popular as Fantasy Football has become (it has become exceedingly difficult to delineate between the NFL and Fantasy Football—just watch the ticker below an NFL broadcast), it is still a second order game whose value owes its entire existence to actual football. It is no coincidence, then, that Fantasy Football’s popularity has risen alongside the unprecedented increases in popularity of the NFL.
As such, I argued that we should be wary of Fantasy Football’s value. As a second order game it naturally has a second-class status; and as a parasitic game, it has warped our understanding of football.
I argued that although Fantasy Football has played a large role in the continually growing interest in NFL football, the way in which Fantasy Football has promoted this growing interest might not be healthy. Fantasy Football promotes only certain aspects of football—the accrual of individualized statistics by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers—to the neglect of other important roles and aspects of the game. Further, the goals of Fantasy Football pervert our viewership of NFL games. Watching NFL games to follow my fantasy team has rid me of any purist viewership of football, and it has turned me into a disloyal and contextual partisan. I cheer not for teams, but for the individual players I drafted from a variety of NFL teams to compose my fantasy roster. Further, I cheer for particular events to occur within NFL games that create situations in which my players can accrue statistics and therefore obtain fantasy points. Thus, I might cheer for a particular team to be stopped for little to no gain on first and second downs in the red zone so that the quarterback might target my tight end or wide receiver in the end zone on third down. Or I might cheer when my running back breaks tackles for a big gain but then find disgust when the exact same team has another long gain the next play if it is a result of a carry by another of that team’s running backs. This type of spectatorship can easily create unhealthy attitudes towards football as an individual rather than team sport. And this attitude goes against the maxims of every football coach in the country who preaches that the strength of football is in the team.
I have been reminded of all of this most recently throughout the first two weeks of the Fantasy Football, er, NFL, season. I am watching the games very closely and I remember which teams win, but my mood changes based not on which teams win but based on whether my fantasy players have done well or not. As such, I am reminded of how Fantasy Football has the ability to alter how we watch and understand the NFL.
However, I have also been reminded of how Fantasy Football can be a very fun and playful way of coming to understand and enjoy professional football. This August, my family decided to start a Fantasy Football league. Most of our league’s members were new to Fantasy Football, and a few in-laws were relatively new American football.
After explanations from us “experts” about such elementary fantasy issues as why one should not draft a team defense in the first round and what a “flex” position entails, and after the resulting snickers from the foreign in-laws about the term “tight end,” we held a draft and are well on our way to conducting a successful Fantasy Football league.
I have been amazed at how well some of the non-football fans in our league have come to understand the pigskin game just by reading and listening to expert advice on Fantasy Football. Media analysis of Fantasy Football has become so complex and detailed that it is difficult to argue that interest in Fantasy ownership necessarily encourages fantasy owners to neglect certain crucial aspects of actual football in attempts to win Fantasy Football games. Much of the production of the playmakers that top the Fantasy Football stat charts comes from healthy and serviceable offensive lines, advantageous defensive matchups, and the wily game plans of offensive coordinators. Understanding these complexities requires more than just a surface-level knowledge of football.
Fantasy Football has also become a way for my family to bond. While we’ve never failed to find activities around which we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, we can now add Fantasy Football to our list. The last few Sundays have been filled with “trash-texting” and needling emails, and I am reminded of how much fun Fantasy Football can be for a family that has great interest in competitive sports but no real long-standing connections to any particular NFL team.
Therefore, I feel the need to temper my thoughts on Fantasy Football’s lack of value. Kept in context, the game can serve as a fun diversion—among many others in this world.
But Fantasy Football is healthiest when kept in metaphysical context. As I write this, I sit at 0-2. My first round loss was to my brother. While he convinced us that he didn’t put much time or effort into his team, I at least took solace in the fact that he knows football and Fantasy Football relatively well. However, my Week 2 loss to my, gulp, mom, has me reaching deep into the ontological stronghold of my memory to keep focus on the fact that Fantasy Football is a game involving a great deal of luck just like poker. My mom is a great athlete, but she doesn’t know football (in fact, she didn’t know what the “Bye” column next to her roster of players meant until after Week 1). This led me to believe that my matchup with her would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.
In actual sports, each player’s agency is far greater. When I’m losing a sporting contest I can try harder or play smarter and often have my efforts rewarded on the scoreboard. If I found myself running neck and neck in a footrace with my mother I could, theoretically, try harder and end up winning as a result.
Fantasy Football is different. It is not a sport. More effort, better skill, or a deeper knowledge of the game will not necessarily result in a better performance. While I see that from one perspective as I lose to my mom, I see it from another angle regarding my dad. Dad came to our draft with a 3” three-ring binder full of draft analysis, printed tips, and notes to himself that he referenced while using all of the 90 seconds allotted to him for each pick he made. He spends a great deal of time studying expert analysis, offering trade options, and hovering over the waiver wires. And as the only former football player in our league, he has the highest expectations for the season.
But as of Monday night, he also sits at 0-2 in our league. The former quarterback (Dad) and the philosopher (that’s, um, me) have nothing to show for their relevant areas of expertise. And this reminds me that Fantasy Football is not an actual sport. It is a game that requires more luck than skill. So my response to the “trash-texts” I’ve received from my mom since my loss to her is: “You’re not better than me. The Fantasy Football gods simply found more favor with you than me.”
Does my loss make me a lesser athlete? Of course not! But does my response to the loss make me a bad sport? Well…
In the wake of the devastating shellacking of Brazil at the feet of German side, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of crying and tearful Brazilians. Many sports fan empathized with these pictures. Part of being a fan is suffering through bad losses. Every true sports fan has been on the losing side at one time or another. We know how those Brazilian fans felt.
Others raised the ridiculousness of crying over a game, especially a game one didn’t even participate in. It is one thing if you played in a game, gave your proverbial all, and then were overcome with emotion (such as Columbia’s James Rodriguez). But for fans in the stands or out on street to cry strikes many as silly. Something must be really out of whack.
There are really two questions here. One: is crying an appropriate emotional response to a sporting event? Two: is it appropriate to have one’s identity so connected to a sporting event/team?
The second question arises because of what I think the correct answer is to the first question. Sports fan invest a lot of themselves into their teams. This is not just a financial thing (tickets, merchandise, etc.), but a connection to one’s identity. For a die-hard sports fans, the game isn’t something we watch as entertainment the way one might watch and be fans of Games of Thrones(*). One’s sense of self: who they are, where they are from, what they value; is wrapped up in their sports fandom. Fandom is a mode of self-expression. To say one is a Boston Red Sox fan tells the world a little something about who one is.
It is apt that sports fans speak of having their hearts broken by their teams: there is something analogous between close personal relationships and sports fandom. The relationship takes time to build and develop. Whatever you think about ‘love at first sight’, the relationship – its meaning and role in one’s life—takes time. And one doesn’t just become a Red Sox fan. You have to grow into it; you have to earn the ability to say you are a true fan. (Side note: this is why I don’t call myself a Liverpool fan. I follow them. I root for them. But I haven’t earned the title of fan yet. To stretch the analogy here: we are dating and having fun; seeing where it might go.)
Much more could and needs to be said about the connections between identity and fandom. However, if we can see that many die-hard sports fans, like many Brazilian futbol fans, have a deep identity connection to their team, it makes sense that such a devastation loss (especially in a World Cup on your home soil where you were one of the favorites to win) would lead to tears.
This is where the second question comes in to play. Is it rational or moral to have one’s identity so profoundly connected to a sports team?
My short answer is yes. While, as with anything, one can go too far here, by and large, I think deep fandom is a healthy and fun way of being one’s self. The longer answer still needs to be worked out and developed but let me suggest a few points.
The fun part is mostly self-explanatory. It provides moments of joy and excitement. Still, there are times that it doesn’t feel very fun (that’s what all the crying is about after all). But, overall, in the bigger picture of a being a fan, it is fun and thrilling.
Sports Fandom is also by and large healthy. Fandom is an expression of choice and commitment. It is part of a process of self-definition. We define ourselves by the choices and commitments we make and this includes which sports and teams we choose to follow.
Fandom ties one into a community, providing feelings of connectedness to a region, city, or tradition. It is a way of being with others and sharing values with others.
Being a fan of a sport team or club is better than something more insidious like seeking the sense of community from a gang or looking for greatness in pushes for national conquests. Better that nationalism gets expressed in a sporting event than in geo-politics. The former might unfortunately lead to some fist fights in the stands, but the latter leads to wars.
Go ahead and cry Brazil. Let it all out.
(*)Update clarification: I don’t mean to imply or suggest that non-sport fandoms can’t or don’t invest part of their identity in their fandom. (As a Browncoat I wouldn’t want to make that mistake.) I only mean to say that sports fandom is not just about entertainment. I am not trying to say anything about other kinds of fandoms.
The next episode of The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday, March 31, 2014 at 6 pm CT on Rockford College Radio.
In this episode of The Sports Ethicist Show, we focus on the value of being a sports fan. In her paper, “Being a Sports Fan: Paradox and Intrinsic Value,” Prof. Gwen Bradford (Rice University) defends a view of the value of being a sports fan based on the idea that it is a good thing for fans to value the good of their team winning. This, however, seems to lead to a paradox because fans do not value the same good when their team’s opponents win. Prof. Bradford and Shawn Klein discuss the value of being a fan, this paradox, and other issues arising in fandom.