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Competition and Fair Play

This is an excerpt from Ethics in Sport-3rd Edition by William J J. Morgan.

Considerations of Winning, Cheating, and Gamesmanship


James W. Keating and Randolph M. Feezell’s essays "Sportsmanship as a Moral Category" and "Sportsmanship," respectively, take on the important notion of sportsmanship. Armed with his well-known distinction between sport (a diversion whose main aim is to ensure all concerned have a pleasurable experience) and athletics (a competitive contest whose main aim is winning), Keating starts things off by claiming sportsmanship is not the all-embracing moral notion that many have taken it to be. Rather, he argues that its moral role is restricted and thus tailored to cultivate the festive atmosphere required to ensure the mutual pleasure of all in sport, but that in the separate case of athletics sportsmanship, it functions only as a legal constraint on what participants are permitted to do in their quest for victory. Feezell rejects Keating’s partitioning of sportsmanship into a moral code for sport and a merely legal code for athletics, arguing that the attitudes of participants in competitive sport properly reflect a balance of pleasure and joy and of dedication to victory. So construed, Feezell thinks sportsmanship is crucially linked to the preservation of a playful spirit in sport, which he interprets according to Aristotle’s famous conception of the mean: To be a good sport is to be both serious and nonserious in the right proportion - that is, to avoid the excesses of both capriciousness and overseriousness.


Nicholas Dixon’s "On Winning and Athletic Superiority" tries to answer the question of what constitutes athletic superiority by examining various cases of what he aptly calls "failed athletic contests" in which the "better" team did not come out on top due to things like refereeing errors, cheating, etc. In the course of his analysis, he effectively shows why athletic superiority cannot be treated as a synonym for winning and why qualities of action (e.g., guile, poise, and playing well under pressure) are not always good measures of athletic excellence. Dixon suggests that one reason athletic competitions fall short is errors made by officials as a result either of incompetence or simple bias. When such errors are responsible for swinging a contest one way rather than another, the team favored by these errors cannot be regarded as the better team. Another more obvious sense of a failed athletic contest is when an outcome is determined by cheating, which Dixon characterizes as deceitful rule breaking. Such rule violations mean that one or more participants have failed to observe the rules or have not properly recognized the equality of opportunity necessary to ensure a fair contest. A third example of a failed athletic competition is when victory is a consequence of one competitor besting another by cunning play or gamesmanship. Gamesmanship, unlike cheating, does not involve explicit or deceitful rule breaking but rather such behavior as trash talking, psychological trickery, or strategic fouling, in which the advantage gained is greater than the penalty levied. Here again, the winning team cannot be said to be the better team. A final example Dixon cites as leading to a failed contest is simple bad luck, in which an errant blast of wind or a freakish play results in an undeserved score. Once again, victory doesn’t go to the most excellent but to the most fortunate. The cumulative weight of these examples, as Dixon skillfully concludes, should be sufficient to demolish both the commonly held claim that athletic superiority can be equated with winning and that a playoff system that rewards teams not with the best overall record but with the best postseason record of playing well under pressure is the best way to measure athletic excellence.


Oliver Leaman’s "Cheating and Fair Play in Sport" provocatively argues that cheating, except in the most obvious circumstances (say, when the offensive line of a football team pistol whips their defensive adversaries) is never easy to get one’s conceptual hands around because it is a much more complex notion than most people imagine. Leaman further contends that there is nothing morally wrong with nondisruptive forms of cheating and that clever cheating adds to the range of skills contested in sports and thus makes them more exciting to play and watch. This is Leaman’s most controversial view of all, perhaps because it challenges our most basic moral intuitions regarding how competitive sports should be conducted.


Steffen Borge’s "In Defense of Maradona’s Hand of God" asks how we should morally evaluate actions in sport such as the Argentinean football player’s famous scoring of a goal by using his hand. His answer is that it depends very much on the kind of game in question. In this regard, he distinguishes between elite competitive sports and pickup or park sports. The key feature that distinguishes them is that in elite sports there is an appointed game official whose task is to decide when actions in the game violate the rules, whereas in pickup games it is the players who determine when actions run afoul of the rules. The presence or absence of an official game arbiter proves crucial for Borge, because it determines just what it is players agree to when they play a game. While it is true that in both kinds of games we want the game to be played fairly, it turns out that what counts as fair play differs in each. So, in the case of elite sports, players understand themselves to be playing primarily to win the game, and they leave the decision of whether one is playing the game fairly and according to the rules to the appointed referees. Elite players thus tacitly agree to try their level best to defeat their opponents, but they make no social compact to regulate their actions; instead they delegate that responsibility to game officials. Understood in this way, Maradona did not breach his social contract to win the game, because he did not agree to co-referee his own actions. By contrast, in pickup or park games, players make a social contract with one another both to win and to take it upon themselves to play fairly. This double commitment to win fairly follows from the fact that pickup games are self-refereed competitions. Had Maradona scored a goal using his hand in pickup football, therefore, he would have been obliged to call a foul against himself and disallow the goal. Doing so in an elite competition, however, would have been, according to Borge, the wrong thing to do.


Leslie A. Howe’s "Gamesmanship" tackles the moral issue of actions that fall under the category of gamesmanship. This is a thorny issue because gamesmanship is not something, she argues, that is prohibited by the rules in a straightforward way. Why? The answer requires an account of what gamesmanship is. Howe’s rendering is that gamesmanship is an attempt to gain a competitive advantage either by artfully manipulating the rules without actually violating them or employing tactics that aim to upset the psychological equilibrium of one’s opponents. It thus includes such things as trash talking, taunting, intimidation (e.g., brushback pitches in baseball), delay tactics, and appeal to obscure rules. Whatever is said to be wrong with such tactics, Howe insists that they are not unfair. After all, successful gamesmanship depends on the opponent’s lack of mental toughness, which is generally recognized as a bona fide part of the athletic test. What, then, is morally wrong with resorting to these kinds of psychological ploys? Howe says it very much depends on what form of gamesmanship is in question. Gamesmanship can take a weak form when it comports with what Simon calls the mutual quest for excellence. Actions that fall into this weak category include brushback pitches, withholding lineup or injury information, and the like. They are morally acceptable, and even required, because they recognize opponents as fully engaged participants and invite them to bring it on and to give their best, thereby enhancing the competitive experience for every participant. Strong gamesmanship, by contrast, involves deception such as diving in soccer, gross acts of intimidation, physical harm, abuse of officials, and the like. Such acts warrant our moral reproach because they are not in keeping with the mutual quest for excellence, they impede athletic development and preparation, and ultimately, they disrespect one’s opponents as persons in their own right.


In "Moral Victories," Paul Gaffney examines the interesting notion of a moral victory. This concept is bandied about in athletic circles, but it mostly has not gotten the careful philosophical analysis it warrants. The phrase itself, he notes, is a "curious hybrid," because it seems to express two different standards of evaluating success in sport. In this regard, Gaffney claims the adjective moral can be understood in three possible ways: (1) it is redundant because every victory represents a moral achievement of some kind, (2) it distinguishes some forms of victory from other immoral or morally neutral ones, and (3) it is ironic or perhaps even paradoxical because it expresses something at odds with the meaning of victory. He zeroes in on moral as ironic because he regards it as the most philosophically interesting. However, he distinguishes two additional understandings of this ironic sense of moral victory. The first he labels the British understanding, which conveys that the losing team played well enough to win and should have won were it not for refereeing errors, injuries, or bad bounces. The second he calls the American understanding, which conveys that the better team won fair and square but that the losing team nevertheless achieved something that it should take pride in. Gaffney faults both understandings for different reasons, the British one for being overly concerned with winning and the American one for being overly focused on morality, and he integrates elements from each. He treats the moral aspect as a competitive achievement - an indicator of athletic success or progress rather than a consolation prize. As such, he argues that moral victories are only available to losers who play especially well in a competitive encounter. However, the competitive achievement expressed by a moral victory, although deeply satisfying, is always partly qualified by its promissory character - the prospect of future "real" victories. This suggests, in turn, that one can have only so many moral victories before they become unsatisfying and perhaps even dispiriting. Gaffney concludes that moral victories are instructive examples of how non-zero-sum values in sport presuppose zero-sum structures and that, despite the many excesses in sport that are owed to overvaluing winning, winning still matters.


J.S. Russell’s "Play and the Moral Limits of Sport" supports the widely held view that there is an important connection between play and sport and that maintaining that connection is vital to the realization of sport’s perfectionist aim and values. But he gives it an interesting, if not controversial bordering on radical, twist by noting that playful sport introduces a fundamental tension between the aim of athletic excellence and the moral aims of everyday life. Drawing from Huizinga’s classic analysis of play and from other relevant literature in the philosophy of sport, he argues that play requires human agents to disengage from the serious concerns and moral values of ordinary life. In the context of sport, the effects of such playful moral disengagement can be readily observed in the kinds of morally ambiguous and questionable actions he calls competitive shenanigans, which are not only tolerated in sport but are often encouraged. Actions that fall into this category include deceiving umpires, gamesmanship, strategic fouls, and partisan fan behavior. None of these so-called competitive shenanigans, including those that involve actual rule breaking, are considered cheating, which attests to the moral dispensation the play element in sport gives such athletic behavior. Nonetheless, Russell argues that while competitive shenanigans have a place in sport that it would be wrong to deny, they need to be balanced by a concern for both athletic excellence and moral rectitude. The great challenge in this regard, therefore, is to give each sphere of value its just due, which means ensuring sport isn’t compromised by an overemphasis on perfectionist, moral, or playful concerns.


The last three essays of this section, Cesar R. Torres’ "What Counts as Part of a Game? A Look at Skills," Warren P. Fraleigh’s "Intentional Rules Violations - One More Time," and Robert L. Simon’s "The Ethics of Strategic Fouling: A Reply to Fraleigh," frame and critically probe the debate over the moral standing of strategic fouls. Torres’ essay provides a much-needed entrée into the debate by drawing an important distinction between constitutive skills, which are those skills basic to sport and to the central challenge they pose (e.g., in basketball, shooting, dribbling, passing), and restorative skills, which are those skills that come into play when a penalty-bearing rule is broken (e.g., in basketball, primarily foul shooting). Armed with this distinction, Fraleigh argues that strategic fouling is indeed morally problematic because it gives too prominent a role to what are only restorative skills and thereby discounts the greater role constitutive skills should play in athletic contests. This scanting of constitutive skills is his rebuttal to Simon’s claim that strategic fouls can be morally justified because the penalty-bearing rules they violate are not prohibited actions as such but rather a cost paid for exercising a certain strategy. Simon, however, is not persuaded by Fraleigh’s rejoinder and notes that Torres’ insightful rendering of restorative skills rests on two assumptions:

  1. The function of restorative skills is to get games back on track when certain rule violations occur (which essentially defines what these skills are).
  2. Because restorative skills are mere backups for constitutive ones, they are less interesting and complex (which justifies their subordinate status to constitutive skills).

He challenges the second assumption by arguing that restorative skills are as interesting as, and even more complex than, their constitutive counterparts, and he offers as examples penalty-killing in hockey and the psychological intensity surrounding foul shooting in pressure-packed situations when a basketball game is on the line. Simon further argues that in a match between teams of relatively equal constitutive skills, those teams that are superior in their restorative skills do seem to be genuinely better teams, which shows that, in some contests at least, restorative skills are as crucial and relevant to athletic success as constitutive skills. Simon concludes that strategic fouls that involve the complex performance of restorative skills are not morally objectionable, which grants them a legitimate ethical place in competitive sport.


Further reading on the topics covered in this section could include Simon, Hager, and Torres’ Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport (fourth edition) and Robert L. Simon’s The Ethics of Sport.1 More recent insightful essays are Sigmund Loland and Mike McNamee’s "Fair Play and the Ethos of Sport," J.S. Russell’s "Coaching and Undeserved Competitive Success," and Mark Hamilton’s "The Moral Ambiguity of the Makeup Call."2 An essay that discusses the main important German philosophical literature dealing with the issue of fair play is Claudia Pawlenka’s "The Idea of Fairness: A General Ethical Concept or One Particular to Sport Ethics?" A helpful survey of the literature on fair play is Heather Sheridan’s "Fair Play: A Review of the Literature."3 The literature on sportsmanship is voluminous, but more recent as well as classic treatments of this subject include William Lad Sessions’ "Sportsmanship as Honor," Anthony J. Kreider’s "Prayers for Assistance as Unsporting Behavior," Nicholas Dixon’s "On Sportsmanship and ’Running Up’ the Score," Peter Arnold’s "Three Approaches Toward an Understanding of Sportsmanship," and Kathleen Pearson’s "Deception, Sportsmanship, and Ethics."4

Learn more about Ethics in Sport, Third Edition.