On Thursday morning (April 28), I took part of a discussion of sports and domestic violence on Minnesota Public Radio. MPR archived the show as a podcast, available here: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/04/28/sports-ethics
Category Archives: violence
In comments to WBBM Newsradio in Chicago, Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte said that “I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life.”
This sparked an interesting discussion on ESPN’s Mike and Mike morning show about the choice of professional and elite athletes to engage in their sport. Many sports, not just football, pose health risks to players. Football, though, is most salient because of its popularity, the physical and violent nature of the game, and the greater attention on concussions. Football players are likely more aware of the dangers they face in playing their game than other athletes and so they are in a better position to make the explicit trade off that Conte is talking about. And Conte is not alone in choosing the glorious short life over the quiet long life. The Mike and Mike show highlighted several football players who seemed to concur with Conte’s view.
What was particularly interesting, though, was that both Greenberg and Golic looked at this choice from the perspective of being in their late 40s and early 50s. Golic, a former professional football player, said something to the effect that when he was in his 20s he thought like Conte, but now as father at 52 he wouldn’t want to give up the longer life. In particular, he wasn’t willing now to forsake the values achievable in his more mature years: such as seeing his children grow up, get married, and have kids of their own. The Mikes took care not to invalidate the choice made by Conte and others, but expressed a warning that they might not think the same way when they got older. The trade-off might be obvious in one direction when you are 22 years old, but it might be just as obvious the other way when you are 50.
The discussion of this trade-off and which choice is better choice is not new.
In Book 9 of the Illiad, Achilles tells us of his fate:
“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” (http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.9.ix.html)
Achilles obviously travels the path of staying at Troy and fighting. And we know that he dies after the close of the Illiad. And, of course, his name has not died. He is one of history’s greatest warriors and heroes.
In the Odyssey, Homer shows us Odysseus meeting up with Achilles in the underworld. Odysseus asks Achilles, essentially, if death is so bad. Achilles was great in life, remembered by all, and he holds an honored place even in the world of the dead, so surely death can’t be that bad for him. Achilles response is fascinating.
“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.” (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0012.tlg002.perseus-eng1:11.486-11.537)
Another translation that hammers this point home:
“I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” (http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.11.xi.html)
So Achilles, with the perspective of hindsight, seems like he would have chosen a different fate. If he knew back on the fields of Troy what death was truly like, maybe he would not have entered the fight. Maybe he would have gone home to Phthia and lived out a quiet life of obscurity.
Homer seems to be giving us the same warning that Greenberg and Golic are. Be careful how you make this choice. Try to imagine what it will look like on other end of the choice.
This is central to how we live; and so central to ethics. We all make this trade-off in some way, every day. We choose paths in life balancing the long and short term interests, benefits, costs, and harms. We forgo tasty treats out of a concern for our longer term health. Or one chooses to continue to smoke cigarettes because they derive an irreplaceable joy from them, despite knowing the long-term health risks. A young woman chooses to forgo time and money in the here and now to invest years (decades even) of her life in medical education and residency so that she can be a great surgeon. We choose to drive cars knowing the risks because of the benefits we can get. Examples are everywhere: every time we choose something for the short-term benefits at the sake of longer-term interests, we choose like Achilles and Conte. This trade-off might be worth it. Short-term goods and benefits are after all goods; we have to live in the now and there may be many good reasons to risk tomorrow for the now (see my post on violence and football). But someday far-off tomorrow will be now and that has to be considered as well.
Roger Goodell is rightly under siege for his mishandling (at best) of the Ray Rice domestic violence case. The focus right now is on whether Goodell will lose his job (he will), but the bigger story here is the widespread problem of domestic violence in the NFL. Since 2000 there have been more than 80 domestic violence arrests and there are at least 14 currently active players who have a history of domestic violence (accusations or charges).
Before we tarnish all NFL players with one brush, it is important to note that arrest rates (for all crimes) for NFL players is much lower than the national average for men in their age range. According to this 538 article it is just 13% of the national average. That said, the article points out that domestic violence accounts for nearly half of the violent crime arrests for NFL players. So even though vast majority of NFL players are not getting into any kind of trouble, the NFL does have a domestic violence problem.
Of course, this is a much broader problem than the NFL or sport more generally. It is a societal problem. Goodell and the NFL have failed to take it seriously enough and for that they deserve moral blame. But why do we find that our professional sport leagues are the ones meting out the punishment? Because our legal system is failing to respond appropriately to domestic violence. Ray Rice got probation; the prosecutor publicly stating that even with the now public graphic video showing Rice punch his then fiancé in the face, Rice would not have gone to jail. And in case after case, we see the same: probations and suspended sentences.
It is right to criticize the NFL (and the other leagues). They have acted wrongly, or at least, negligently. But I think we are missing a deeper problem. Our legal system is not taking domestic violence seriously enough. These cases are most often prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses and not felonies. And as the prosecutor in Rice’s case said, probation is the typical result. Moreover, this is not special treatment for professional athletes. This is, apparently, the norm for such cases.
There is a real and interesting debate to be had about what the responsibilities of a private institution like the NFL are. To what extent should the NFL be policing its members and employers for behavior that is only indirectly connected to the NFL’s mission? This is an important question to ask. And many are now thinking about this and related questions of institutional responsibility.
But whatever one’s answer is to the above question, most of us agree that the state and its justice system do have responsibilities for policing the kind of behavior that we call domestic violence. One of the primary roles (maybe even the only role) of the state and the justice system is to protect individuals against the violent attacks of others. But in regard to domestic violence, the state is failing woefully.
We are rightly angry and disgusted by the NFL’s failing to do the right thing regarding these cases. But we wouldn’t be relying on the NFL to punish these players if the legal system was doing its job. We ought to be directing more of our outrage at the feet of the prosecutors, judges, and lawmakers (and ultimately ourselves as the voters putting these people in power) who have been coddling these violent abusers for years.
Update Sept 8, 2014: After a new video was released to the public, Rice was cut by the Baltimore Ravens and then suspended indefinitely by the NFL. ESPN story.
Let me join my voice to the cacophony of criticism crashing into the NFL regarding the Ray Rice suspension.
Rice, a running back with the Baltimore Ravens, received a two game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He allegedly hit his fiancée (now wife) in an Atlantic City hotel in February. The incident was caught on video and Rice was arrested for assault. He avoided trial by entering an intervention program.
Since the league announced its suspension last week, there has been near unanimity in opinion that the suspension was too light and that it sends the wrong kind of message. Like most, I was surprised that Rice was only suspended for two games. I expected at least four.
I don’t have much to add to what has been said all over the internet and airwaves. Like all decent human beings, I abhor this kind of violence and think Rice deserved a harsher punishment (both from our legal system and from the NFL). The first fault lies with our justice system which allows one to avoid justice through so-called intervention programs. The second fault lies with the NFL system of administrating violations of its personal conduct policy. It is arbitrary, lacks consistency, and has little transparency. Both of these need serious reform.
I decided to write a post on this because there is a philosophically issue worth pointing out. It might help explain the disconnect between the NFL and the rest of the country (but it might not!).
What is punishment for? Is the point of punishment to give wrongdoers what they deserve? Is the point of punishment to deter other like behaviors? Is punishment about giving something back to the victim? Many of the ways people respond to cases like Rice’s depends in part on how they answer these questions.
There is a long philosophically history to these questions that, like all interesting and worthwhile philosophical questions, traces back to the Ancient Greeks. I don’t intend to answer them here (I refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia and the Internet Encyclopedia for good summations of various theories and views).
Most of the public response to the Ray Rice case centers on the question of sending a message about domestic violence. The perception is that the NFL went light on Rice and so is implicitly saying to the world, especially to its players, that domestic violence isn’t all that bad. The league has wide discretion in cases like this and so it could have suspended Rice for much longer. In not doing so, it looks like it doesn’t take domestic violence as serious as the rest of think it should. It isn’t so much about Rice, his actions, and what he deserves; it is about the perception and impact of the punishment on society. (Call this the ‘message’ view.)
On the other hand, the NFL might not be thinking about punishment as a message. It may be that they are looking at specifically what Rice deserves in this particular case. (Call this the ‘desert’ view.) Rice was a first-time offender. He has a good reputation for community work and as a teammate. His wife, the victim, went to the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, to plead for leniency in Rice’s case. In his meeting with Goodell, we have to assume (based on Goodell’s comments) that Rice was contrite, that he took responsibility for his actions, and that he outlined the steps he is taking (counseling and what not) to make sure he doesn’t screw up again.
If Goodell’s thinking on punishment is primarily about what the wrongdoer deserves (as opposed to the message sent or the broader consequences for society), then maybe Goodell looked at all of this and determined that Rice didn’t deserve in this case a harsher punishment. (I don’t think this; I am only suggestion a possible way to interpret Goodell’s decision.)
If this is the case, then it helps to explain (maybe) the disconnect between the NFL and the rest of us. We are looking for the message, the consequences for society. We want to see a powerful institution like the NFL tell the world that domestic violence is intolerable under all circumstances. Goodell and the NFL, on the other hand, might just be looking at the specific circumstances of Ray Rice and what his case of assault deserves independent of any social message.
This leaves open the question on both theories of punishment of what the appropriate punishment ought to be. What amount games would have been appropriate for the ‘message’ view? Four? Eight? The whole season? And for the ‘desert’ view, is two games really what Rice deserved? I don’t envy judges or commissioners who have to make these determinations. But it is essential to be clear on what standards one uses and what justifies those standards.
Furthermore, it is an interesting ethical question about which standard ought to be in play here. Should the NFL make its disciplinary process one primarily about the message it sends? That seems like a recipe for injustice in cases where the message demands a drastically different penalty (either harsher or more lenient) than what the individual really deserves. On the other hand, treating each case as only about what the wrongdoer deserves misses the potential impact (positive or negative ) of such discipline.
In the end, though, I don’t actually think Goodell and the NFL were taking what I have called the ‘desert’ view. The NFL is always concerned about the message. The conduct policy is there, as we hear so often, to protect the shield. That is, to keep the image of the NFL pristine. Since that is its primary concern, the NFL missed the uprights wide right.
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.
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.
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).
My readers, listeners, friends, and students all know I am a Red Sox fan. I am from Boston and root for all things Boston sports. I also do not like Alex Rodriguez. I am glad the Sox dodged that bullet in the failed trade for “A-Rod” in 2003. I am not a fan A-Rod more because of his on-field tactics (slapping at Arroyo’s glove and shouting “Mine” while rounding third to confuse the defense) than his alleged PED use. His public, off-the-field personality is not one Dale Carnegie would likely recommend. If the charges prove true regarding A-Rod’s PED use and obstruction of MLB investigations into Biogenesis, that certainly adds to my (and many other’s) disdain for him.
Pragmatically, it was not a wise thing to do. The Red Sox are trying to hold on to first place in the division and have been struggling to win as of late. Throwing at A-Rod gave the fading Yankees life, encouraged them to rally around A-Rod, and A-Rod ended up having a great game at the plate (and the Sox lost).
But this was not merely a bad tactical decision. Whatever the justification might be for the tradition of bean balls in baseball for on-field retaliation and justice, throwing at a batter for off-field reasons is wrong. There may be a place for on-the-field, player policing of the game—and this might actually help to reduce overall violence in the game. But it violates the spirit of the game to bring the outside world into the game.
Here are two main reasons for thinking this.
- A game is in part something set apart. It is distinct, in significant respects, from the rest of life: it has its own time, it is own space, its own internal structure (not entirely so, of course, it is still a part of existence). When the external world interferes with a game, the game suffers. Think of the absorption one has while playing a game that is destroyed when the phone rings. By bringing in to the game retaliation for activities external to the play, one undermines (at least partially) the ability of players to play the game. (Admittedly, this point rests on a theory about play and games that I can’t elaborate on here).
- The player, in this case Dempster, is not in the appropriate position to be judge, jury, and executioner. Is Dempster in a position to know about A-Rod’s PED use? His obstruction of the investigation? His reason for appealing his suspension? Is the “punishment” appropriate to the “crime? Obviously, I think the answer to all of this is no. These issues have to be determined through the league and its processes, not a player on the field in the middle of game.
Some in Boston and around the nation have said that Dempster made a lot of fans and that he is a hero for throwing at A-Rod. You want to be my hero? Strike the bastard out; don’t put him on base.
On the most recent Sports Ethicist Show, I spoke with my friend Joe, a die-hard hockey fan, about whether fighting in hockey is ethically justified. In this post, I will summarize and revisit some of the main points of the discussion.
Hockey is known for frequent in-game fights: so much so that there is a joke about going to a boxing match but a hockey game broke out. Fights, of course, happen in other sports: baseball, football, etc., but only in hockey is it seemingly accepted and even used strategically in the game. Other sports leagues (included European hockey leagues) eject, fine, and suspend players for fighting. In the NHL, a fight typically only results in a five minute penalty. NHL rules even stipulate the conditions around fighting.
Fighting in the NHL is controversial. Many traditional hockey fans and players see fighting as an inherent and important part of the sport. Other fans and critics regard fighting as unnecessary and barbaric.
My position is that fighting in hockey is for the most part unnecessary and wrong. It is a lack of sportsmanship and self-control, and overall does more harm to the sport than any purported benefits. Nevertheless, I do think there is a case to be made for the NHL status quo.
Those who defend hockey fighting offer several reasons. I think the following list is representative of these reasons.
- Intimidation: Fighting as a strategy gives the team a psychological edge over opponents.
- Momentum-Changer: Fighting can swing momentum in a team’s favor.
- Entertainment: Fans want to the see fighting.
- Offensive/Defensive Balance: Fighting helps to maintain the appropriate balance between offensive and defensive strategies. Prohibiting fighting would favor more finesse offense.
- Retaliation/ Self-Policing: Fighting is justified in retaliation for cheap shots and agitation.
- Deterrence Effect: By allowing fighting, the overall level of violence, instigation, or cheap play is reduced.
- Penalty Draw: Fighting or agitation by threatening fighting can be used strategically to induce the opposing team to commit a penalty.
- Outgrowth of Physical/Aggressive Play: Fighting is an occasional, though expected, consequence of the physical play that is necessary to hockey.
In what follows, I analyze the relative strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. For the most part, except for #8, these don’t measure up to justifying hockey fighting.
The first three arguments (Intimidation, Momentum, Entertainment) beg the question by assuming the justifiability of fighting in the first place. For an activity to be acceptable as a legitimate strategy for intimidation or momentum, it has to be a one that is already a justifiable strategy. For example, taking a player out by beating him over the head with a baseball might intimidate the opposition, but it is clearly not justified. But this justification is the very thing in question here. Moreover, there are plenty of alternative and legal strategies to gain a psychological edge or change the momentum of a game.
Similarly, the possible entertainment value of fighting is not sufficient to justify fighting. We still would need to show that it is something appropriate for entertainment. Where fighting as such regarded as benign or otherwise acceptable, then the fact that folks find it entertaining would be sufficient; but, since fighting is not something normally regarded as acceptable behavior(in regular life or most sports), it stands in need of justification beyond the spectacle.
I do not think the Offense/Defense balance argument justifies fighting. One, I am not sure fighting has a significant role in maintaining the balance. Though I have little direct experience of them, Olympic and European hockey leagues don’t seem too far out of balance in this regard and they do not allow fighting. Two, if there is an imbalance, the league ought to look to its rules to help restore the balance in a way that doesn’t require the violence of fighting. This argument, like the earlier ones, also seems to beg the question. Fighting could be used to maintain the balance, but only if we already accept that it is an acceptable activity. Its acceptability is, however, the thing in question.
The retaliation argument is a common one. The claim is that the in order to prevent agitation, cheap shots, and outright attacks on smaller or star players, the bigger, tougher players have to engage in the occasional fight. My friend Craig Carley suggests that the medieval concept of a fighting champion might be relevant here. The goalie or skilled, non-fighting player needs the fighters (“goons”) as a champion to protect them from and retaliate for violence done against them.
Nicholas Dixon, in “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport,” argues against this view. He argues that by analogy to criminal law, we don’t allow self-defense to extend beyond the moment of danger. While one can justifiably defend themselves (or someone else) from an attack, one cannot hunt down and retaliate against the assailant later. That is the job for the justice system. By analogy, the referees and league officials are the ones that ought to police cheap shots and illegal violence in the game. Players can certainly defend themselves and teammates, but once the initial aggression is thwarted, it ought to be up to the officials to dispense justice.
I am sympathetic to this view. It is one thing for a fight to break out in the course of self/team defense. It is quite another thing for the coach to send out a player later in the game, or even a subsequent game, to fight someone on the opposing team in retaliation for some earlier improper action. This latter induces more violence rather than curbing it. The former might reduce violence by countering it at the point of attack and possibly deterring it in the first place. But to strike back later, after the fact, likely merely initiates a new round of violence.
Another objection to the retaliation argument is that European hockey leagues as well as the Olympics explicitly prohibit fighting and punish it more severely. It is not clear that this diminishes the game, makes it any less exciting, or puts the smaller, star players in to more vulnerable positions. This undermines the claim that hockey wouldn’t be as good or safe without the fighting.
At the same time, the policy of self-policing in the NHL is an attractive aspect of the game. Unlike in football or basketball, I rarely think about the referees. In almost every NFL or NBA game, the officials seem to make bad calls that have significant effects on the game. In my experience, this is much rarer in the NHL. In part, this is due to allowing the players to police certain aspects of the game themselves. If the referee role was increased to root out fighting, we would see the referees having more of an effect on the game—and one fans and players won’t like.
The deterrence effect argument is another one that has some pull on me. It makes some intuitive sense that players would be less likely to instigate or agitate if they knew a “goon” was going to be coming after them. So it might be true that by the NHL being open to some minor fighting, it reduces the overall level of violence in the game. This is true even if fighting is rare. It can be just the goon-threat that prevents the initial instigation from occurring or getting out of hand.
A direct attempt to reduce fighting in the game might, then, have the unintended consequence of increasing violence and potential injuries. As we have seen in baseball, the introduction of the bench warning process for hit batsman has actually increased the number of hit batsman, not reduced it as intended. (See this article: http://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/organizations/journals/bulr/documents/BUEHLERandCALANDRILLO.pdf)
The weaknesses of this argument are similar to the retaliation argument. The policing of inappropriate violence in the game is best left to the officials and it is not at all clear that the empirical claim that this reduces violence is true. One way to test this is to look at the leagues that do not allow fighting: do we see more or less violence and agitation? (And we don’t seem to see more.)
The use of fighting or, rather agitation by threatening fighting, can be used strategically to induce the opposing to team to commit a penalty. To the extent that the instigating player stays within the rules and draws a penalty by getting the other play to lose his composure, this doesn’t seem objectionable. If one is merely counting on not getting caught throwing the first punch, this strikes me as unsportsmanlike. It is one thing to harass, within the rules, the opposition; it is another thing to violate the rules while hoping you don’t get caught.
This argument, then, doesn’t support the justifiability of fighting. It supports the attempt to get the opposition to initiate a fight so that one’s team gets a power play. This presupposes that fighting deserves a penalty.
The last argument is the one I think is strongest for continuing the NHL status quo. This is the claim that fighting is an occasional, though expected, consequence of the physical play that is necessary to hockey. The players on the ice are constantly in a physical battle for establishing their position and claiming their space. This involves the jostling of bodies and hitting of opposition players. This is essential to the play of hockey. But it is also likely to sometimes erupt into fights just as an outgrowth of physical, aggressive play. Since this play is necessary to the game, the expected outcome of the occasional fight is also a part of the game. This fits into Robert Simon’s category of mixed fouls:
“Mixed strategic fouls occur when athletes play more aggressively at key points in the contest, knowingly taking on the increased risk of fouling because the price of fouling might be strategically worth paying.” (The Ethics of Strategic Fouling: A Reply to Fraleigh.)
This doesn’t celebrate the fighting as such (or condone strategic fighting), but it does recognize that the occasion fight is an expected outcome of the kind of play that is essential to the game, both in terms of playing it well and fan enjoyment. Attempts to reduce fighting in the game significantly would likely have the unintended consequence of reducing the physical, aggressive play of hockey and thereby, undermine a significant aspect of the game.
From this, I conclude that the strategic and intentional use of fighting in hockey is not justified. Moreover, that while fighting should not be encouraged or celebrated, the NHL should be wary of moving too strongly or too quickly to reduce or to eradicate fighting from its game.
The podcast for episode 9 of The Sports Ethicist Show is available for download.
Most hockey fans have heard the joke: We went to a boxing match but a hockey game broke out. Hockey is unique in its tolerance of fighting on the ice. In nearly every other sport, fighting is prohibited and punished by ejections, suspensions, and fines. In the NHL, the rules do not actually prohibit fighting and it’s punished typically only by a five minute penalty. Can this acceptance be justified? Or should the NHL move to restrict and prohibit fighting? The Sports Ethicist discusses the ethics of fighting in hockey with long-time hockey fan and best friend, Joe Danker.
Original Air Date: June 3, 2013 on Rockford College Radio.