Injuries, Future Selves, and the Difficulty of Goodness

I had an interesting conversation with a student today. She runs tracks but had been injured for a good chunk of the semester. I asked her how her foot was doing and she said it was okay now although it still hurt. Moreover, she thought there might be some more serious damage to the bone. After she went into some detail as to why, she said she would see someone after the season. When I asked why not now, she said she can walk and run without too much pain at the moment, so she’ll compete and wait to get things looked at later. Even though she knew she was risking further and possibly permanent damage, she had made the decision–with the apparent sign-off her training staff–to compete in the last two track meets.

What struck me as interesting here, from a sports ethics perspective, is the difficult balancing of interests in cases like this. The trainers and coaches have an interest in her competing now. They also have an interest in protecting her for future meets in seasons to come. And, of course, they have an interest (obligation?) in protecting her in the here and now from doing this further damage.

She has these same interests and obligations to herself. She has an interest in competing now and in the future. She ought to be taking care of herself in the here and now as well.

I don’t have any deep insight into what (if any) of these interests ought to be decisive. Inclined towards a kind of Aristotelian virtue ethics of some sort, I veer towards individual phronesis (practical wisdom) to weigh these different interests and obligations ought for the individual in her circumstances given her goals in life. That said, an 18 or 19 year old is still developing phronesis and needs the help of those more experienced and more wise than she from whom she can learn. And as members of an academic institution, her coaches and trainers have an obligation to help her develop this phronesis (that is, in theory,part of their central purpose at the institution).

Although the question of what she really ought to do is an important one, I am not going to explore it here. There are two more comments that I want to make.

First: One of the tensions is the interests of the person today: she wants to compete now; and the interests of the person down the road: when she is 30, 40 years old, how will this decision affect her. This kind of issue comes up all the time. Most people, in my experience, tend to think that the future person has a kind of trump. That is, let’s say she does some permanent damage to her foot that makes it more likely that she have early arthritic pain in her foot. Not so much that she is incapacitated, but enough that it is a regular feature of her experience. Most people seem to want to say that she was wrong or foolish to take this risk because of this future damage. Similar cases abound from issues like concussions and other injuries in sport. Since the future person is going to experience pain and some level of damage in the future, the present person ought not to engage in that behavior. “You’ll regret it later” we say.

I am skeptical that this is universally true. That is, I am not convinced there is a good argument for why we ought always to privilege the interests and concerns of our future selves. Certainly in many cases we should—that’s a big part of learning how to be a rational adult. But always? That I am not so sure about. Is it true that an athlete engaging in risky sporting activities today at the expensive of his or her future self is always in the wrong? If it is not, then this seems to cast doubt on many of the arguments against dangerous and risky sport.

Second: This case, and ones like it, highlight just how complicated things in ethics (and life) really are. This is not some acquiescence to what Ayn Rand called the cult of moral grayness.  It is to point out that even in a single case where everyone, let’s presume, is trying to do what is best and right, it is not easy or obvious to know what to do; let alone actually follow through and do it. As Aristotle said: “it is no easy task to be good”.

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Filed under athletes, coaching, Sports Ethics, virtue

Teaching Economics of Sports: The Big Leagues

From time to time I invite colleagues to write a guest post for The Sports Ethicist. In this post, I asked my ASU colleauge, Brian Goegan, to write about a model he uses for teaching “Economics of Sports”. Brian is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the 
Department of Economics here at ASU and uses this fantasy-like game to teach the his students about the economics of sports. If you are an ASU student and interested in sports, you should look into taking this course (as well as my Sports Ethics course).

The Big Leagues

Sports provide an endless number of great examples that can be used in the economics classroom, and countless teachers have drawn on them for a wide range of courses and topics. But for a class on the Economics of Sports, I thought I’d try making the example the lesson. In fact, I have built a syllabus which revolves almost entirely around an elaborate simulation of the sporting world which I call The Big Leagues.

In my section of 68 students, we have organized into 30 teams, each owned by a group of two of three students. In their groups, students must manage their franchise, making decisions about where to locate, how big and how nice their stadium should to be, what strategy to take to win games, what prices to set, and what coach to hire. As a league, students must also grapple with a Players Association and vote on the rules which will govern their league. All the while, they need to manage their books, and make sure they end the game with enough profit to buy their grade for this portion of the class.

By acting as the owners, students end up experiencing the lessons they’d learn from a Sports Economics class first hand. Leagues collude to keep player salaries down, and are combated by the players’ union that threatens to strike. When the league is dominated by one or two teams, and matches are no longer competitive, fan interest (and TV revenue) declines. My game also allows owners to dope their players in secret, boosting their performance at the risk of being found out, and each semester I get to see an institution deal with the fan and media wrath after a huge swath of players get caught, voting to impose fines and punishments on each other. They also have to work through complicated formulas and gut instinct to figure out what the profit maximizing prices for their tickets and luxury boxes are, the bread and butter of any good economics class.

The list of complexities goes on and on. Stadiums degrade, players develop across seasons, owners choose actions which influence both of those things, players have ‘suits’ which have combination effects when put on a team with other players, teams can field substitute players, different general managers and different coaches enhance different strategies both for profits and for wins, and contracts with players can include different clauses that give the teams different options down the road. The rulebook for The Big Leagues is 21 pages long, but as one of my students put it recently, “the more you play the smaller the game gets.” In other words, it is a lot easier to understand that it sounds. To make sure they get all the lessons the game has to teach, I devote about 50% of my class time to it. The other 50% is devoted to linking up their choices and outcomes in the game to the real world.

Given its complexity and startup costs, I wouldn’t expect a lot of instructors to adopt the game. And that isn’t even mentioning all of the spreadsheet maintenance and troubleshooting needed to keep the game running from season to season. What I can report though is its effectiveness. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, little economic lessons are incrementally imparted with every decision the students make in the game, and they barely realize how much they’ve learned until I point it out to them. And given my discipline’s disinterest in finding alternatives to the lecture-based format, they also find it to be a refreshing change of pace.

If you would like to learn more about The Big Leagues, please feel free to contact me at

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Filed under Arizona State, economics, Fantasy, games, Sports Studies

Extended Deadline for IAPS CFP

The deadline for the Call for Papers for the IAPS conference has been extended until April 7, 2016. The conference will be held September 20-24, 2016 in Olympia, Greece.

The official CFP and other information about the conference available at the IAPS website.

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PHI 394: Sports Ethics (Fall 2016)

SportsEthicsFall2016After having taught Sports Ethics at Rockford University for many years, I’m bringing Sports Ethics to ASU this Fall.

PHI 394: Sports Ethics

A study of moral issues in sports, including, but not limited to, the value of sport, the nature of sportsmanship, the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs, the value of fandom, the social effects of sport, and the role of danger and violence in sport.

The class will meet Tuesdays/Thursdays 10:30 – 11:45 am.

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IAPS at APA: Defining Sport

This year’s IAPS session at the Central APA meeting in Chicago is featuring three papers that tackle issues in defining the concept of ‘sport’. I hope to see you there!

Time: Saturday, March 5: 12:15–2:15 p.m

Topic: Defining Sport

Chair: Shawn E. Klein (Arizona State University)


  • Chad Carlson (Hope College) “A Three-Pointer: Revisiting Three Crucial Issues in the ‘Tricky Triad’ of Play, Games, and Sport”
  • Francisco Javier López Frías (Pennsylvania State University) “Broad Internalism and Interpretation: A Plurality of Interpretivist Approaches”
  • Kevin Schieman (United States Military Academy) “Hopscotch Dreams: Rectifying Our Conceptual Understanding of Sport with Its Cultural Significance” (Cancelled)

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Aaron Harper on Playoffs

One goal of my work is to promote and develop the field of philosophy of sport. This informs why I organized the Sport Studies Symposiums at Rockford University and continue to organize panels for IAPS at the APA. It is also part of why I write this blog, do a podcast (on hiatus currently), and tweet. It is a great pleasure to see a colleague whose work in its early form was presented in one of these avenues be published on a major platform.

The most recent case of this is Aaron Harper’s new publication: “”You’re the best around”: an argument for playoffs and tournaments” in the latest issue of the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. Aaron criticizes the arguments in the literature critical of the value of playoffs and offers a defense of what he calls Championship Pluralism. This is the view that there are multiple worthwhile ways of determining and deciding the best team or player.

Aaron presented an earlier version of this paper at the Central APA IAPS meeting in 2015. He and I also discussed the issues raised by his paper in a podcast in 2014. All the credit for this achievement is Aaron’s, but I am glad to have helped Aaron in a small way to develop his work from an idea to a publication.

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CFP: Philosophy of Play Deadline Extended

Submission deadline extended: March 1, 2016

Reason Papers: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Normative Studies (of which I am a co-editor) is soliciting contributions for a Spring 2016 symposium on normative issues in play. The journal invites submissions that explore the nature of play; its developmental importance; and its role in human lives, values, and societies. We are also interested in explorations of the relationship between play and other human activities (such as other recreational activities, education, or work), structured vs. unstructured play, and children’s play vs. adult play.  Submissions are due by February 1, 2016. March 1, 2016

The CFP at Reason Papers.

Information on Submitting.

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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.


Filed under sportsmanship, wrestling

Reminder: CFP: Philosophy of Play

Submission deadline approaching: February 1, 2016. March 1, 2016

Reason Papers: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Normative Studies (of which I am a co-editor) is soliciting contributions for a Spring 2016 symposium on normative issues in play. The journal invites submissions that explore the nature of play; its developmental importance; and its role in human lives, values, and societies. We are also interested in explorations of the relationship between play and other human activities (such as other recreational activities, education, or work), structured vs. unstructured play, and children’s play vs. adult play.  Submissions are due by February 1, 2016. March 1, 2016

The CFP at Reason Papers.

Information on Submitting.

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Filed under CFP, play, Uncategorized


The University of Iowa has announced a search for a lecturer in Sport Studies. I thought some of my readers might be interested.

The University of Iowa is seeking a sport studies scholar for a three-year renewable lectureship teaching in the sport studies curriculum of the Department of American Studies. The position is effective August 17, 2016.

The teaching load is four undergraduate courses each semester; teaching assignments might include Inequality in American Sport; Women, Sport and Culture; Sport in America after 1900; and Race and Ethnicity in Sport. Teaching in the summer session for additional salary is also a possibility. Some undergraduate advising will be expected.

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