Category Archives: sportsmanship

Sportsmanship: The good, bad, and hateful

There have been many great examples of good sportsmanship at the Rio Olympics. USA gymnastic teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman cheering each other on even as they compete against each other. USA’s Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin helping each other finish a race after colliding in a 5000 meter qualifier. Galen Rupp falling back from the pack in the 10,000 meter to check on Mo Farah after accidentally tripping him. Athletes throughout the games, winning or losing, acknowledging each other and the crowd.

There have been some bad examples too. Two stands out: USWNT goalie Hope Solo’s unfortunate comments after losing to Sweden and French sprinter Wilhem Belocian ripping his bid off in disgust after being disqualified for a false start. I understand both Solo and Belocian’s frustration and can easily see myself being overcome by disappointment or anger and responding as they did. These were not their best moments. Poor sportsmanship for sure, but these actions speak more to being overcome in the moment by emotions not necessarily to deeper character flaws.

But there were a few other examples of bad sportsmanship that fall under a different heading and require a different kind of analysis:

These sorts of actions regarding Israel are nothing new. Even just prior to the Olympics, Syrian boxer Ala Ghasoun refused to participate in an Olympic qualifying event in June against an Israeli. Similar refusals happened in the London, Beijing, and Athens Games.

While there are examples of bad sportsmanship no matter the event, at the Olympics where the philosophical basis and purpose is fundamentally about peace, these examples are especially egregious.

There are real problems and conflicts in the Middle East. There is a lot of violence and fighting and killing. This ought not to be denied, hidden, or ignored. Israel and her relationship to her Arab and Muslim neighbors, citizens, and residents is a complicated, complex issue on which rational people can and do strongly disagree. There are dangerous and violent conflicts all over the world.

But the point of the Olympics is to find a space beyond all this. The crazy idea is that we take a break from real life—a life where unfortunately conflict and violence might still rule–to play games, to watch humans excel and compete at the highest levels of ability and talent.

Here are two quotes from the Olympic Charter on the Fundamental Principles of Olympism.

  • “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
  • “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Olympism and the Olympic spirit calls for people to step outside their normal routine and see that there is a possibility of peace, a possibility of mutual understanding and prosperity. As Heather Reid writes “Playing sports together seems to humanize ‘the other,’ by overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers and demanding mutual respect”(1) Through sport, where individuals must cooperate to compete under a set of rules and norms, people can come to see that cooperation, respect, understanding, and dignity are indeed possible—even with people you are ‘supposed’ to hate.

It is this explicit hope and spirit of peace that makes the Olympics different from World Championships or the World Cup. This is not just another event on one’s pro tour. Its specialness comes from the underlying philosophy of Olympism and its explicit call for peace and mutual respect among and between nations and individuals.

It is this that the Lebanese delegation, the Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian violated. Their lack of sportsmanship is a denial of the very purpose of the Olympics. It doesn’t merely reflect poor judgment or an overflow of angry disappointment. It is rooted in hate and antisemitism. It is a refusal to even consider the possibility of peace and mutual respect. There is no more un-Olympic way to be.


(1) Heather Reid, “Defining Olympic Sport,” in Defining Sport, ed. Shawn E. Klein (Maryland: Lexington,  Forthcoming December 2016).
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Praiseworthy, but not Sportsmanship

Like most people, I found the story of Norton High School wrestler Deven Schuko and Dighton-Rehoboth wrester Andy Howard to be heartwarming and moving.

Andy, a special needs student with Down syndrome, was looking for a match and Deven, who hadn’t lost a match, agreed to wrestle him. Deven then let Andy win the match. In the process, Deven demonstrated maturity, leadership, and kindness. It was widely praised as a great act of sportsmanship.

I see this kind of praise of sportsmanship a lot in local press. It makes sense: people love these kinds of stories. I love them; they are uplifting.

That said, there is an aspect these kind of stories that I find troubling. There is an element of patronizing that partly undermines the moral value of these acts. Does Deven show Andy appropriate respect and honor by letting him win? I am not entirely sure, but since Andy, his friends, and family seem to appreciate what Deven has done here, I have no quarrel on that front.

Putting that question aside for now, I want to focus on the claim that this even an act of sportsmanship.

Stipulating that Deven’s act was praiseworthy, it is nonetheless incorrect to label it as an example of sportsmanship. Such acts are more about how we ought to live together as human beings; and less about the ideals of sport. Sportsmanship and morality are not the same thing. There are obvious overlaps and parallels, but doing the right thing is not necessarily the same thing as good sportsmanship (and, I suppose, vice-versa). It is a mistaken to label any good action by an athlete as a good sportsmanship (this holds, as well, for any bad action of an athlete as bad sportsmanship).

This points us to the important question: what is sportsmanship? At the core of most theories of sportsmanship is the view that sportsmanship governs or guides the participants’ actions within and related to the sporting contest. It is not merely the following of the rules of the contest; the focus is on the action within the domain of those rules. It is about how, in the context of the contest, the participants comport themselves; how they treat and deal with the other participants; and how they treat and deal with the officials, fans, and coaches.

So why isn’t Deven’s action in this particular instance a case of sportsmanship in addition to being virtuous? This wasn’t a true match (consider: would a college recruiter consider this match qua match as part of Deven’s wrestling track record?). It is more of a play-act, an exhibition, or a staged event. There is no criticism in that. But Deven’s action comes from, and is justified by, a concern about morality and generosity towards Andy; it doesn’t, primarily come from the nature of being a participant in sport.

My point here is not at all to criticize Deven or Andy. As a philosopher, I believe it is important to understand the concepts we employ and to employ them correctly. I know to many this sounds like empty semantics, but applying sportsmanship too broadly or too narrowly can lead us to misunderstand it. This can mean that it becomes less effective as normative guide of our behavior.

Here’s a potential concern. In the case of Deven and Andy, it seems like Deven is showing proper generosity and respect to Andy. But this would not always be the case; indeed I think this is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Imagine a different scenario. Drake is like Deven: he is one of the top wrestlers in his state. Andrea is female wrestler but there are few females in her weight class against whom she can compete. She hasn’t competed much and has never won. She is looking for one more match before graduating. Drake decides to accept a match. Is the lesson he takes from Deven and Andy that he should let Andrea win? That would be the wrong lesson (imagine Andrea’s proper outrage at learning of Drake’s plan). Sportsmanship tells competitors to treat opponents with proper respect by offering appropriate effort and competition. Drake, in this case, ought to match Andrea’s effort and compete against her on the basis of fair and equal respect for each other and the sport.

But this is not what is going on with Deven and Andy. Deven is providing for Andy the experience of what it would be like to win a wrestling match. Given this context, there is no demand on Deven that he offer the requisite effort and competition. In other words, it is not a case of sportsmanship; sportsmanship is not the relevant concept.

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The Sports Ethics Show: Pushing the Line: How far is too far?

New Sports Ethics Show Episode

How far is too far in the pursuit of victory? Great athletes push on the norms, rules, and boundaries of their games. This is part of what allows them to achieve excellence, but it also sometimes leads to crossing the line. Jack Bowen, blogger at the Santa Clara University Institute for Sports Law and Ethics blog, and Shawn Klein discuss several cases at the boundaries of the rules of sport: icing-the-kicker, non-traditional formations in the NFL, and “Deflation-gate.”

Show Links:

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Sportsmanship, MMA, and Sacrificing Victory

In his weekly blog, Jack Bowen of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics discusses a recent MMA incident.  Mike Pantangco submitted to Jeremy Rasner in an amateur bout. (Watch it here) The remarkable thing is that Pantangco was beating Rasner rather soundly. In Pantangco’s word’s:

“I just feel that there’s no point fighting him because he didn’t train against me and I didn’t train for him and I just feel like we’re amateur fighters…We don’t get money, we don’t get paid, and I know that the only thing I’m going to finish the fight is him to go in the hospital or get hurt. I just feel terrible so I’m just going to give him the win.” (Source)

In his blog, Bowen praised Pantangco’s action as exceptionally good sportsmanship and a gesture of compassion. Other bloggers and writers similarly praised Pantangco.

While I acknowledge his submission was an act of kindness, I do not agree that this was an act of good sportsmanship. Or, rather, I don’t think that claim is as obvious or as clear as my fellow sports ethicist seem to think.

I do not think Pantangco’s decision to submit was wrong or disrespectful. But I also don’t think it was necessary. Given the circumstances around the fight (Bowen explains), Pantangco and Rasner probably shouldn’t have been competing against each other in the first place. Once the fight is under way, Pantangco and Rasner, as a matter of good sportsmanship, ought to fight to win within the rules, norms, and expectations of their sport. Pantangco saw that Rasner was defeated and further blows would likely inflict unnecessary harm. His decision was to tap out and give the victory to Rasner. But as those more familiar with the sport than Bowen or I have suggested, there were non-sacrificial and non-(serious)-harm inflicting ways for Pantangco to bring the fight to a swift end. A friend of mine who was an MMA fighter and trainer said, “He could have taken his opponent down and ended the fight with a gentle submission”. Now, I am not sure how gentle a ‘gentle submission’ is in the context of MMA but I think it makes it clear that Pantangco’s choice wasn’t between tapping out or inflicting unnecessary and serious harm to Rasner. He had non-sacrificial options that were more in line with the norms and goals of his sport.

This discussion all hinges on a key question. What is sportsmanship? As in so many cases, a common concept we use frequently is hard to pin down. Since at least James Keating 1964 article, “Sportsmanship as a Moral Category,” philosophers of sport have been debating the question.

Without stepping too much into that tempest, I claim that sportsmanship is the embodiment of the kinds of virtues and moral dispositions that are proper for those participating in athletics and sports. I don’t think this is too controversial a claim; that is, until we start to unpack just what the claim really means (a huge project beyond the scope of a blog post).

But one important implication of this claim (one that follows from the nature of virtue) is that sportsmanship ought not to be reserved for exceptional or extraordinary actions. Sportsmanship is the manner of acting to which _all_ the participants should be held. It shouldn’t be analogous to sainthood.

Pantangco’s action of tapping out might be an exceptional act of kindness, but it is not the manner in which we ought to expect or demand MMA fighters to fight. Such dispositions would undermine the sport. The goal in combat sports, as I understand it, is to win the match by inflicting damage on your opponent through the use of a set of fighting skills (the specific kind of combat sport proscribes what is in and out of this set). A principle of tapping out when your opponent is losing or essentially defeated subverts this goal and the very idea of the sport.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that we should have a low moral standard for MMA fighters, that morality doesn’t apply, or that kindness or compassion should play no role in combat sports. I am saying the standard ought to be appropriate to human beings and to the ends of the sport.

Consider the following analogy. A man might jump in front of speeding car to save a child’s life. This is an exceptional act. One we are likely to praise. But such an action tells us nothing about how to act and live in the world. In a sense, it really has nothing to do with ethics. Ethics is about the goals and principles that guide one’s action and choices. It is about how we ought to approach each day and how to determine what actions we take in life.

Similar with Pantangco. The circumstances of the fight are (as far as I can tell) unique and his action is not generalizable to other fights. His action doesn’t tell us how MMA fighters ought to fight with dignity, honor, and virtue. In other words, it cannot serve as an exemplar of sportsmanship.

A possible objection to what I am arguing here is that while the normal circumstances of life (or a fight) don’t require jumping in front of cars or sacrificially tapping out, there are circumstances which might arise where such actions might be appropriate or called for. True enough. My point is that thinking about these as guides for how to live our lives is at best not useful (since the conditions in these situations are exceptional) and at worst it can undermine what it actually takes to live our lives or play our games well.

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Sportsmanship at the Olympics

One week in and I am enjoying these Winter Games. Plenty of exciting moments! (Warning: clear US bias in what follows)

There have been some disappointing moments for many heralded US athletes. Shaun White, Shani Davis, Bode Miller all failed to medal in events in which they were expected to medal (even win Gold). Hannah Kearney won a bronze in the moguls but she was clearly gunning for Gold. What I found heartening about all these cases was although these athletes were visibly dissatisfied with their results, they demonstrated great sportsmanship. In each case, the athlete congratulated and in many cases hugged the winning athletes. These moments seemed to be quite sincere. Each knew they had been bested on this day and acknowledged their competitor’s victory.

Olympics athletes work their whole lives often for one moment, one chance to medal. This is a tremendous investment of one’s resources, efforts, time, and emotion. The moment comes and for many it doesn’t pan out as they hoped. The pain, sadness, frustration, and disappointment, I have to guess, are unimaginable. And yet, most of these athletes face these moments with grace and honor, as White, Davis, Miller, and Kearney did.

Other positive examples that come to mind are figure skaters Jeremy Abbott and Evgeni Plushenko. Abbott took a devastating fall in his short program. Lying on the ice for several seconds, everyone assumed that his performance was done. Abbott got up, however, and finished his routine in excellent fashion. Plushenko aggravated a back injury during warm-ups. The Russian gold medalist realized he was not going to be able to compete and told the official he was withdrawing. Though in obvious pain (physically and emotionally), Plushenko handled this unfortunate moment with grace. He acknowledged the audience and took his final Olympic bow.

This is the core of what sportsmanship is: the virtuous balance and control of one’s emotion and action in challenging conditions. Whether in the middle of game or at the conclusion, whether the victor or the defeated, the individual who displays good sportsmanship is one maintains the appropriate balance and control of him or herself.

This doesn’t mean the absence of emotion. Hannah Kearney was near tears, but I don’t think that is inappropriate or bad sportsmanship in the least. Her emotion and tears are appropriate for the context (in the mix here is that she is retiring after these games). Similarly with Plushenko, the visible disappointment at not being able to compete one last time for an Olympic medal is entirely appropriate for the moment. The ability to maintain both the honest expression of one’s disappointment and the composure of a professional is what is so admirable about the sportsmanship of these athletes.

 

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Not how it should be: Heat, Lebron James, and bad sportsmanship

The Miami Heat lost to the Chicago Bulls in a hard fought game with lots of hard fouls. This loss brought an end to the Heats amazing win streak. (As a sports fan, the streak was exciting and I sort of wanted it to continue, but as a Celtics fan, I am glad to see the Heat finally lose.)

Immediately after the game, the Heat headed straight to the locker rooms without shaking ends or interacting with the Bulls players. This prompted the following exchange between the announcers:

Mike Breen: Didn’t have the normal post-game hand shake and hugs. The Heat went right back to the locker room, not interested at all. And you love that.

Jeff Van Gundy: That is how it should be. Teams should compete so hard against each other that at the end of the night, it shouldn’t be warm and friendly. There’s nothing wrong with this; it wasn’t bad sportsmanship by the Heat.

Mike Breen: Absolutely not. But it goes against what we normally see night in and night out.

No, that is not how it should be. Yes, that is bad sportsmanship. Teams should compete hard, play as hard and as tough as they can. But the very essence of good sportsmanship is that when the game is over, you step outside that frame of mind. You acknowledge the victor. You walk away with dignity and grace (not pout and make a beeline for the locker room). Especially after a game like this. A historic streak was on the line and it was lost in a tough, emotional battle. Both sides played well down to the wire. This is precisely when good sportsmanship is needed most: to temper your disappointment and emotions so that you show the appropriate respect to your opponent. The Bulls deserve the respect that would be shown by a simple handshake.

Now, in some pro sports the post-game handshake is not customary; in baseball for example, it is rare to see the teams shake hands at the end of a game. So there is nothing disrespectful there about not shaking hands. But it is, as the announcers acknowledge, the normal thing in basketball, so by not doing it, the Heat are showing disrespect, or at best their lack of being able to lose gracefully. Both, though, are precisely what is meant by bad sportsmanship.

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