Category Archives: sportsmanship

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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Filed under MMA, sportsmanship, violence, virtue

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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Filed under basketball, sportsmanship