My post on 'Game Theory, Team Reasoning, and a Bit About Sport Too' has been longlisted for the Golden Giraffes for best online writing. Do feel free to vote below. (I am a bit below half way.)
For many years I played for a traveling cricket team called the ‘Old Talbotians’. Every weekend during the summer months we matched ourselves against village sides, or teams from London newspapers like the Times or Guardian, or simply against other sides like ourselves. There was no league, but matches were intensely competitive, and we were considered one of the tougher fixtures on the circuit.
Our name sounds as if we were an old boys’ side from some minor public school. But in fact it was a joke. The team had originally been started by the journalists on Now!, the short-lived attempt at a British version of Time magazine founded by the financier Sir James Goldsmith in 1979. For some reason, long since forgotten, the satirical magazine Private Eye, which was constantly at loggerheads with Goldsmith, always referred to his magazine as Talbot!
Now! magazine folded within two years. But the cricket team was more successful, and so the journalists kept it going, defiantly incorporating Private Eye’s slight into their club name. Over time, however, the links with Now! faded. When I first joined the team around 1989, there were still a few players left who had worked on the magazine. But age takes its toll, in cricket as elsewhere, and by the time I myself gracefully retired, some fifteen years later, all the old Now! hands had gone.
Should we still have been counted as the same team that the journalists had founded a quarter-century earlier? We still had the same name, but that was about it. The team had been replenished by friends of friends, younger acquaintances whose only qualification was that they knew what to do with a bat or ball. They included lawyers, salesmen, actors and a baker. Scarcely any of them had ever heard of Now! magazine.
Team identity may seem a funny thing to worry about, but it is an issue that can matter a great deal to sports enthusiasts. Players and fans form intense attachments to particular teams, and they maintain these attachments over time. They bask in past glories, look forward to future successes, engage in long-standing rivalries, and remember injustices from decades ago.
Still, do such continued attachments make any sense? Sports teams change a lot over time, as did my Old Talbotians. Often this involves more than just turnover of personnel. Teams can move location—the Los Angeles Dodgers were once the much-loved boys of Brooklyn. They can split into two—Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem and Hapoel Jerusalem, both in the second tier of Israeli soccer, are fierce rivals who have claimed the same ancestry since they split a decade ago. And teams can even merge—when I lived in Sydney, I was a fan of the proud Balmain Tigers, one of the founders of the Australian Rugby League, but in 1999 they were sadly amalgamated with Western Suburbs to form ‘Wests Tigers’.
How much change can a team tolerate and still remain itself? Philosophers have long asked this kind of question about other entities. The ancient Greeks started it when they asked if Theseus’s ship would still remain the same ship even if all its planks had been replaced over years of repairs.
This might seem a no-brainer. Isn’t it obvious that it would still be the same ship? You don’t destroy a ship just by replacing planks. But what if some smart Athenian had hung on to the old discarded planks, tidied them up, and put them together again to make another ship? Wouldn’t that have a better claim to be Theseus’s original ship? After all, it wouldn’t just look the same, but be made of exactly the same planks. But if this reassembled ship is the original one, then the one with the replacement planks can’t also be it—two different ships can’t both be the same ship.
Philosophers ask similar question about people. If I suffer an advanced case of Altzheimer’s disease, and my memories and character fade away, am I still there? Again, a first reaction might be that I am, even though in a sadly depleted state. But what if some future technology came to allow my memories and dispositions to be copied into some specially created healthy body before they faded away? Wouldn’t there then be a good case that this imprinted being was David Papineau instead? Still, as before, both answers can’t be right. The depleted body and the imprinted one can’t both be me, since they’re clearly two different people.
Even though philosophers have been asking such questions for centuries, it can’t be said that they have agreed on any answers. In the personal identity case, for example, some philosophers identify David Papineau with the depleted body, some with the imprinted one, some say that both the depleted and imprinted being were present in embryonic form in the young David Papineau’s body, some say that the original David Papineau ceased to exist once the two candidate successors come into being, some say that . . . well, take my word for it, the list of options is long and exotic.
Part of the trouble here is that philosophers generally try to resolve the issues by appeal to intuitions. They check their theories against our gut reactions to ingenious cases. What would we say if the Star Trek beam-me-upper malfunctioned, and sent a Captain Kirk up to the Enterprise without eliminating the Captain Kirk on the planet below? What would we say if my brain was split in two and transplanted into two different host bodies? And so on.
However, people differ in their reactions to these scenarios, and even one person’s reactions are not guaranteed to be consistent. It is scarcely surprising, then, that appeals to intuition leave us undecided between a range of incompatible theories. Instead of relying on intuitions, we will do better to step back, and ask about the underlying purpose of distinguishing parts of reality as persisting objects, like ships, or people—or indeed sporting teams.
A good way to focus this issue is to compare persisting objects with events, like battles, storms, lectures, political demonstrations, or football matches. In some ways, persisting objects and events are similar. At any time, both occupy a limited region of space, and this region can move about as time progresses. The demonstration starts in Hyde Park and progress to Trafalgar Square; similarly, I have breakfast at home and then go to my office. (For the mathematically minded, both events and persisting objects can be represented as ‘worms’ in a space-time co-ordinate system: the cross-section of the worm at any time T represents the spatial extent of the event or object at T, and the succession of cross-sections at different times shows how the event or object moves through space over time.)
Still, despite these similarities, we think of events and objects very differently. We think of events as being made up of stages. A football match has a first half and a second half, and if you’ve only seen the first half, you haven’t seen the whole match yet. But this doesn’t apply to objects. We don’t feel, just because your audience with the Pope only lasted a few minutes, that you didn’t meet the whole Pope, but only a small part of him.
As philosophers put it, persisting objects are wholly present at any time when they exist. By contrast, at any given time you only get a stage, or temporal part, of an event. The whole event is the sum of those temporal parts, from the beginning of the event to its end.
Some philosophers think that these differences between persisting objects and events involve deep metaphysical facts about being and time. I think that’s making a meal of it. At bottom, objects and events both simply fill up volumes of space-time. Their differences lie in the different ways that they do this.
What makes objects different from events is their stability. My facial features don’t alter much from day to day, nor my bodily shape, nor my gender, nor the languages I speak, nor the way I walk. The same goes for constructed and inanimate objects. My fishing boat doesn’t alter significantly between outings, apart from its capricious motor, while the north London hill I can see from my study is positively moribund.
Events are different. They are in constant flux. You can’t read off the later properties of an event from its earlier properties, as you can with objects. The battle may start with the cavalry and infantry in formation, but it will swirl around and lose combatants as it progresses. The storm may begin gently, but gather pace and leave destruction in its course.
Note that persisting objects vary across space all right, even if they are stable across time. My liver doesn’t share properties with my heart, nor my nose with my ears, in the way that my Monday self shares properties with my Tuesday self. In line with this, we happily think of persisting objects as having spatial parts, like livers and hearts, noses and ears, even if not temporal parts. By contrast, because events vary over time as well as space, we think of them having both sorts of parts.
The point is that we don’t need to think of persisting objects as having temporal parts. Because of their stability over time, there is no point breaking them into temporal parts, in the way we do with events. There are no differences for this temporal differentiation to track. Imagine. Here’s the Monday David Papineau, and the Tuesday one, and so on—but they are all pretty much the same.
So, in my view, we distinguish parts of reality as persisting objects precisely because we can reliably read off their later properties from their earlier ones. Of course, this doesn’t work for all properties. I might wear a blue shirt on Tuesday even though I wore a white one on Monday, and you shouldn’t assume I will be sober tomorrow just because I was sober today. But, still, it works fine for facial features, gender, languages spoken, gait, and a wealth of other properties, even if not for shirt colour and sobriety. And in general, for any kind of persisting objects, there will be a wide range of properties that they maintain over time.
So what about sports teams? Do they display enough stability over time to be taken seriously as persisting objects? I don’t see why not. They typically wear the same kit from game to game, select their sides from the same pool of players, play to a given standard, host home matches at the same ground, belong to a given league, and so on. Once you have played a team once, you will know an awful lot about what to expect next time.
With professional clubs, there is even more stable information that you will glean from an initial encounter. You learn about the stadium, manager, assistant coaches, nicknames, favoured tactics, type of fans, chants, and many other such items. You don’t have to check these things every time you watch the team. You can work on the assumption that they will be the same next time as last.
Of course some of these things will change in the long run. Players move on, managers get sacked, new kits get designed. But that’s not the point. The idea that persisting objects are distinguished by the stability of their properties doesn’t require that these properties never change, only that they normally remain the same from one encounter to the next. People grow taller and fatter, their features coarsen, they learn and forget languages. But we generally work on the assumption that such changes can be ignored in the short to medium term.
So I say that the Old Talbotians I left in 2005 was the same team that the Now! journalists had founded a quarter-century earlier. If you met them one season, they would be roughly the same the next: mostly the same players, of roughly the same strength, with the same opening bowlers and star batsmen, the same laggards who always arrive late, the same fixture list, playing the same teams on the same grounds, the same level of sociability after the game, et cetera.
Over time, these features gradually altered, with the result that the team at the end differed significantly from its original incarnation. But, precisely because these changes were gradual, you could still rely on this season’s Old Talbotians being more or less the same as the side you played last year.
What if a team’s features change suddenly? Then things are different. In the decade after WWII, the Brooklyn Dodgers were one of the greatest sides in baseball history. They reached the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, only to be beaten each time by the Yankees of Joe Di Maggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. ‘Wait ‘til next year’ Brooklyn parents would tell their kids. In 1955 next year finally came, and the Dodgers beat the ‘Bronx Bombers’ in a 4-3 series to take the title. Even I, with my limited knowledge of baseball, can name some of the iconic figures: Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson.
Then in 1957 the owner of the Dodgers, Walter O’Malley, moved the team to Los Angeles to make more money. He has never been forgiven. My older Brooklyn friends put him right up there with Hitler and Stalin.
At first some of the Brooklyn fans maintained a loyalty to the players O’Malley took with him. But once those players had moved on, there was little to connect the Californian side with the original. Different stadium, different fans, only half the name. Nowadays, the LA Dodgers organization still lays claim to the pre-move history, but scarcely anybody else counts them as the same side. The traumatic changes wrought by O’Malley cut the thread of historical continuity.
It’s rather the same when teams merge. At a stroke everything is changed. When my Balmain Tigers were amalgamated with Wests, we suddenly had a bunch of new players, a strip that we couldn’t recognize, and a new stadium out in Campbelltown for half our home games. A lot of the dispossessed fans supported the new club, for want of anything better, and it has achieved some success, winning the premiership in 2005, but it’s only a shadow of what we had before.
The Old Talbotians eventually met a similar fate. Towards the end of my career we started struggling for players, and so, a year or two after I stood down, we joined forces and fixture lists with a similarly challenged side, Gustavus Adolphus (don’t ask). We original Talbotians are still included in the emails from the new composite, now known as the G&Ts, and we follow the fortunes of our surviving ex-teammates with interest. But we don’t identify. When we have our annual Christmas reunion, at Ye Olde Cocke Tavern in Fleet Street, it is strictly Old Talbotians only.
When teams split, this can also obliterate the original club, but in a different way. Splitting needn’t involve any sudden imposition of alien features from outside, and both offshoots can be largely continuous with the original. Still, the mere fact of plurality can be enough to cut links with the joint origin.
Israeli football mirrors many features of the larger society. The teams are all identifiably either Jewish or Arab, though most feature players from both groups. The most prominent Arab team is Bnei Sakhnin ('Sons of Sakhnin'), currently in the premier division, and based in the northern town of Sakhnin (where, incidentally, I gave a talk last year on the mind-body problem and al-Kindi’s ‘flying man argument’ to the town’s outstanding specialist science school).
Bnei Sakhnin’s bitter rivals are Beitar Jerusalem, distinguished by their rabid supporters and long-standing policy of never signing Arab players. When Beitar recruited two Muslim footballers from Chechnya in 2013, many fans viewed this as a betrayal of the club’s motto ‘pure forever’, and weren’t satisfied by the manager’s revealing clarification that ‘there is a difference between a European Muslim and an Arab Muslim’. Unsurprisingly, matches between Sakhnin and Beitar often erupt into violence, both on and off the pitch.
For many years Hapoel Jerusalem was the other professional soccer club in the holy city. ‘Hapoel’ means ‘the worker’, and the many sports clubs in Israel with this cognomen originated in the labour union movement that flourished before independence. For most of the last century Hapoel were serious rivals to Beitar, but from the 1990s they started sliding down the leagues under the ownership of a pair of fractious businessmen.
In 2007 a section of the fans lost patience, and founded a breakaway side, with the joint aims of restoring their collectivist ideals and offering real opposition to the noxious Beitar. They’ve suffered various ups and downs, but they are now back with the other Hapoel Jerusalem in Liga Leumit, the second tier of Israeli soccer, under the name Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem (Katamon was the area of Jerusalem where Hapoel originated).
So which is the real Hapoel? Both sides can mount a strong case. Hapoel Jerusalem has the more direct line of descent, but Hapoel Katamon claims greater affinity with the club’s original vision. Moreover, a significant number of pre-split players have ended up with Katamon, not to mention the preponderance of the fans.
If the two sides have equally good claims, this means that neither can be the original club, which must therefore have ceased to exist. After all, when they play each other in the league this season, it will be a proper match between two different teams, not a club playing itself.
The funny thing is that this eclipse of the original club depends entirely on the duplication of successors, rather than any discontinuity in inherited features. Suppose that the breakaway club hadn’t been founded in 2007, but that Hapoel Jerusalem had developed just as it did in reality, losing some players and shedding some fans in subsequent years. Without the rival side, there wouldn’t have been any doubt that this was still the same Hapoel Jerusalem continuing its downward slide.
Or suppose that the owners had formally wound up their Hapoel Jerusalem in 2007, at just the point when the disgruntled fans got organized. Then there would have been no dispute about Katamon’s claim to the heritage.
Then point is that each club on its own had quite enough continuity with the original to qualify as its continuation. What messed things up was simply the duplication.
This phenomenon isn’t peculiar to sporting teams. If the beam-me-upper simply fails to operate, and leaves Captain Kirk on the planet below—well, there he is. And, if it works normally, he’s on the Enterprise. What causes a problem, though, is when the teletransporter duplicates Kirks, for then both have an equal claim to be him. It’s the same with ships. The repaired ship and the reassembled ship would each unquestionably be Theseus’s ship, if only the other weren’t there to contest its claim.
I said earlier that our rationale for discerning persisting objects is that we can read off their later properties from their earlier ones. But we now see that there is more to it than that. We also want to keep distinct objects distinct. From the perspective of tracking stable properties, we might as well lump the two Hapoels together, along with the two Kirks and the two ships. Their common ancestries would provide a perfectly good guide to their many shared features.
But this lumping-together would generate any number of tangles in our dealings with the duplicates. Which team gets relegated, when one finished bottom of the league? Who apologises, when a Captain Kirk loses his temper? Who pays the bills, when a ship loses a cargo? Our interactions with individual objects demand that we distinguish them even when they share many of their properties.
So it is just as well that things don’t split often. If they did, we would need to disavow continuities in order to keep distinct offshoots separate, and would lose our ability to read later properties off from earlier ones. Perhaps we should be thankful that duplicate people are largely restricted to science fiction, duplicate ships to philosophical imagination, and duplicate teams to the strange world of Israeli soccer.
My blog takes its name from the words of the legendary Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly:
‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.’
It’s a good joke, not least because Shankly wasn’t trying to be funny. But it also highlights a real issue. Where does sport stand in the scheme of things?
You don’t have to be Shankly to believe that sport adds a positive element to many lives. Still, not everyone concedes even this much. Another important thinker, Noam Chomsky, thinks sport is nothing but a capitalist trick. He dismisses it as:
‘. . . an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence . . .’
If you ask me, Chomsky is talking through his hat. He may know all about the foundations of linguistics—though I have my doubts about that too—but when it comes to sport I am with Shankly every time. Only someone who is a stranger to the joys of athletic achievement could dismiss sport as having ‘no meaning’.
Those few philosophers who have written about the value of sport tend to stand somewhere between Chomsky and Shankly. They don’t dismiss sport as meaningless, but at the same time they don’t count it as part of real life either. In their view, sport is worthwhile precisely because it gives us a break from more serious pursuits. I think that these philosophers have it wrong too. Sport doesn’t stand outside real life, but is part of it. Shankly may have been a tad overenthusiastic, but he had the right idea. Sport reaches deep into human nature, and can be as important as anything else.
Over the last couple of decades, The Grasshopper by the late Bernard Suits has acquired a cult status among philosophers who think about sport. It’s a quirky dialogue in which the eponymous grasshopper celebrates game-playing as the supreme virtue. Along the way Suits offers a convincing definition of games (thereby refuting Wittgenstein’s silly insistence that the notion can’t be defined). In summary, Suits analyses games as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. His idea is that all games specify some target state—like reaching the final square in snakes and ladders, or getting your golf ball in the hole—and then place arbitrary restrictions on the means allowed—you must go down the snakes but not up, you must propel the ball with your clubs and not carry it down the fairway.
So far, so good. But Suits goes wrong when he suggests that sports are a subspecies of games. In truth, while some sports are games—tennis, cricket, soccer—many others are not—running, rowing, skiing. And in assimilating sports to games, Suits misunderstands what makes them worthwhile. In Suits’ view, the value of games, and therefore of sports, lies in meeting the challenge of the arbitrary obstacles they impose. This seems to me to trivialize things. If something isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing even when it’s made difficult. If that was all there was to it, we may as well stick to snakes and ladders.
I suspect that The Grasshopper appeals mostly to the kind of reader who has never known the joy of hitting a six back over the bowler’s head, or of body-surfing a wave 100 yards up onto the beach, or of hitting a backhand top-spin crosscourt winner. The value of these things is nothing to do with overcoming arbitrary obstacles. Rather, their worth lies in the pure virtue of physical prowess. (All right, I confess. While I have hit sixes, and am proud of my body-surfing, I don’t have a top-spin backhand. I don’t care. Ivan Lendl won eight grand slams without one. Incidentally, if you’re not sure what body-surfing is, have a look at this video.)
Pride in physical performance is a deep-seated feature of human nature. Humans hone their physical abilities and take delight in exercising them. Perhaps this originally had its roots in the practical needs of hunting, fishing and fighting, but we have come to value physical performance as an end in itself. We devote long hours to improving our skills, and seek out opportunities to test them.
If you want a definition of sport, I would say that it is any activity whose primary purpose is the exercise of physical skills. This definition explains why plenty of sports are not games. While some sporting skills only exist within a game—top-spin backhands, for example—many others involve actions that are already found in ordinary life—running, rowing, shooting, lifting, throwing. These ordinary activities turn into sports whenever people start performing them for their own sake and strive for excellence in their exercise.
Doggett’s Coat and Badge is the oldest rowing race in the world, dating back to 1715, when the apprentice watermen on the Thames first tried their skills over a course from London Bridge to Chelsea. What could be more natural than for these young men to test themselves against each other? In fact there seems no limit to the range of everyday activities that can be turned into sports in this way. Bronco riding, sheep dog trials, medieval jousting, catfish noodling, trailer truck reversing, competitive barbecuing, speed eating . . . (I admit that these last two cases only marginally involve physical skills). My favourite example is competitive casting. When I was a youngster in Natal the local surf fisherman vied to see who could cast out furthest beyond the Indian Ocean breakers. Soon some of them decided to skip the fishing and concentrate on the casting—and so ended up holding casting competitions on sports fields with special equipment.
What is the relation between sport and competition? As I see it, there is a natural connection, but it is by no means essential. To want to exercise a skill is to want to do something well, indeed as well as is feasible. And a natural way to test whether you are doing as well as you can is to measure yourself against other people. It is scarcely surprising that people who take pride in how far they can cast a fishing line will want to see if they can cast further than others.
Still, even if sport lends itself naturally to competition, it does not require it. A rock-climbing team that sets out to conquer some challenging ascent need not be competing with other teams; when I became keen on golf, I was desperate to break 100, and then 90, and then 80, and played many solitary rounds in pursuing these challenges; recreational wind-surfers, skiers, and hang-gliders are not out to beat anybody, yet these activities are undoubtedly sports. Moreover, even in those sports that are competitive, it is normally the playing well that matters as much as the winning; after all, if people got nothing out of matches they lost, it is hard to see why most contests would take place.
Perhaps competition is crucial to spectator sports, and indeed a large part of the reason why people watch them. But that is a different issue. I am talking about the nature and value of playing sports, not watching them. There may well be a number of further features needed to make a sport worth watching, beyond those that make it worth playing. (Most obviously, it will need to be visually engaging. Many very popular participant sports fall at this first hurdle. Squash and field hockey spring to mind.)
Let’s go back to Suits’ definitions of games as ‘voluntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. As I said, while plenty of sports are not games in this sense, some certainly are, like tennis and cricket. But even then their value is to do with the physical prowess they involve, and not the obstacles they set. Top-spin crosscourt backhands are good because they are admirably skilful, not because you have to overcomes tennis’s arbitrary rules in order to win a point.
Not all games are physical—think of bridge, chess, ludo, monopoly, baccarat, craps. And those games that aren’t physical don’t count as sports, for just that reason. But my last point about the value of game-playing applies across the board. If a game is worth playing, it is always for some other reason than the obstacles it presents. Thus some games are worthwhile because of the mental powers they demand—bridge and chess would be the paradigms. Other games engender excitement, perhaps because money rides on the outcome. And in general, contra Suits, any game worth playing offers some further value beyond its arbitrariness.
I say that sport is worthwhile because it facilitates the exercise of valuable physical skills. Some will object that this fails to explain the sense in which sport is essentially lusory, play, leisure, unserious, the opposite of work. Suits’ analysis of sports as games makes this feature basic to sports. But my account arguably casts no light on this essential difference between sport and real life.
My response is to deny the premise. I do not agree that sport has a different kind of value from other things. As far as ultimate value goes, I would place the performance of outstanding physical skills pretty high. But in any case that is more than I need to argue. Maybe physical skills are less important than purity of character or artistic creativity. The more basic point is that they are valuable in just the same way as other things. Someone who devotes their life to high-jumping or baseball is no less serious a person than someone who devotes it to the ballet, say, or to making money. There is nothing intrinsically dilettante about sports compared with other walks of life.
I can’t help quoting from the scurrilous Sri Lankan cricket novel Chinaman by Shena Karunatilaka:
"I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports. I only agree with the first part. I may be drunk but I am not stupid. Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. THERE IS LITTLE POINT TO ANYTHING. In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities."
Note that Karunatilaka does not agree with his family that there is no value in sports. What he is saying is that sports are no less important than anything else. Of course if we set the bar of significance too high—surviving the passage of millennia—then sport will fall short. But so too will the other things that matter—family, friends, ambitions, prosperity.
If there is something peculiar about sport, perhaps it lies in the point that Karunatilaka does concede to his family—that there is no use in sports. It is true that sport doesn’t connect up with other aspects of life. For most non-professional practitioners, sporting achievements are disconnected from financial welfare, social life or personal relationships; they are ephemeral and lead to no lasting products, not even a garden or a stamp collection; they aren’t normally designed to entertain an audience, still less to explore and transform our perceptions of the world.
Maybe sport is special in this sense. It forms a self-enclosed realm, isolated from the rest of life. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people find sport absorbing and relaxing.) But I see no reason to accord sport less importance on this account. The exercise of physical skills may not win you friends or influence the rest of the world. But that doesn’t mean it is not important and valuable in its own right.
By the time Andrew Luck graduated in 2012, he had broken all records as Stanford’s quarterback and was the hottest property in American football. His reward was to be indentured to the struggling Indianapolis Colts for four years. The annual NFL ‘draft’ gives the first pick of the new players to last year’s bottom team. The Colts had propped up the league the previous season, and they didn’t hesitate to requisition Luck.
To European sensibilities, this system seems bizarre. Imagine if the young Steven Gerrard had been told that he couldn’t sign for his beloved Liverpool, but had to serve time with some feeble team at the other end of the country, like Swansea, say, or Hull. Not only would this strike most non-Americans as illegal and immoral—it would be more than human nature could bear.
It’s tempting to compare the collectivist regulation of American sport with the capitalist spirit that operates in the rest of the sporting world. Isn’t it ironic, commentators sometimes quip, that the world bastion of economic competition has centrally planned sporting institutions, while the more socialist countries of Europe subject their sports to the rigours of the free market? (For a recent article along these lines, see http://m.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/lebron-james-salary-caps-and-the-european-free-market/374527/)
However, this does little justice to the real sporting differences between America and other countries. In truth USA spectator sports have always been unapologetically commercial. American professional teams are money-making enterprises. In Europe and elsewhere, the big clubs stand on top of ‘pyramids’ built out of amateur sports clubs, and are traditionally governed by the same bodies, such as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) or the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). But American pro sports teams have always had private owners. Bodies like the NFL and the NBA are associations of these owners, and have no connection with amateur sport. (Have you ever noticed that American professional sports, with the possible exception of basketball, are just too hard for ordinary people to play? In Britain more than 2 million people play in an organized football match every week.)
It’s the American owners’ associations that impose the draft system, along with further measures like transfer fees, salary caps and so forth. The rationale is to maintain a competitive balance between teams, lest the paying public lose interest at too many one-sided matches. The American courts (unlike their European counterparts) have generally been lenient about these restrictions on the players’ rights to trade their skills, taking the view that they are justified by the needs of the sport.
(Why don’t bottom-half teams lose their final games, to improve their position in the upcoming draft—why not ‘Suck for Luck’, as some teams’ fans urged towards the end of the 2012 season? Apparently this isn’t a serious issue in the NFL, but in basketball the NBA has taken steps to discourage ‘tanking’ by distributing draft picks among the lower teams by lottery—so they can’t be sure that coming bottom last will help. The Australian Rules Football authorities have an even more ingenious solution. They determine draft picks by a complex formula based on a number of factors—and then keep the formula secret, to stop clubs gaming the system.)
Curiously, there is little evidence that the draft and allied devices really do anything to enhance competitive balance. The win-loss statistics have never changed much when the rules have been relaxed to allow greater player freedom. This might look paradoxical, but there is an elegant theoretical explanation—indeed so elegant that it won Ronald Coase the Nobel Prize for economics in 1991.
‘Coase’s Theorem’ generalizes an insight first used to explain baseball player trades (by Simon Rottenberg in ‘The Baseball Players’ Labor Market’ Journal of Political Economy 1956). Let us enter the weird and wonderful world of sports economics. According to Coase’s Theorem, the ownership of legal rights never makes any rational difference to their economic deployment. An example will make the idea clear. Suppose WindCo wants to build a wind turbine near Jane’s house. Jane goes to court, arguing that they have no right to make noise in her space. WindCo responds that it’s a free country for normal amounts of noise. It looks like the court will decide whether the turbine goes up, right? No. According to Coase’s Theorem, the legal ruling won’t make any difference to the skyline.
This might seem illogical, but look at it like this. There must be some amount of profit WindCo will make from the turbine—call it £X per annum. And there must also be a sum that signifies how much Jane wants to avoid the noise—£Y per annum. The turbine’s being built depends only on whether X is bigger than Y, not on what the court says. Even if the court finds for Jane, the turbine will go up if X is bigger, for then WindCo will buy Jane off and still make a profit. And even if the court finds for WindCo, there won’t be a turbine if Y is bigger, for then Jane will be prepared to buy Windco off. The court can decide who has to buy off whom, but not whether the turbine goes up. (What if Jane is too poor to pay? Concentrate. We’re doing economics here. No bleeding hearts. If Jane is poor, the sum Y that she’ll be ready to pay to avoid the noise will be smaller, and the turbine more likely to go up. You might think that’s a shame, but it doesn’t affect the analysis.)
Now let’s do it with football players. Suppose that Andrew Luck is worth $Y per annum to the Indianapolis Colts owner, but a larger $X to the owner of a big city team, where he will put more bums on expensive seats. Then it doesn’t matter if Luck is initially drafted to the Colts. Economic rationality will direct him to the big city club, who will be ready to offer the Colts more than they themselves can earn from Luck’s services. (In fact Luck is now in his third season with the Colts and doing very well. I can’t help that. We’re doing economics here. He may still be with the Colts in practice, but it’ll never work in theory . . . As it happens, the Indiananapolis Colts are a relatively prosperous team—their 2012 wooden spoon was an anomaly—who make good money out of Luck’s talents.)
Suppose we do have a genuinely poor club, and it does sell on its fancy draftees to its richer competitors. Won’t this still end up helping competitive balance overall? After all, these sales themselves will be a source of income, which the poor clubs can then use to boost their playing strength. But we’re going round in a circle. The original point was that the owners of poorly supported clubs will make more money by pocketing their draft windfalls than by spending them on high-end players who won’t boost gate receipts enough. So, while the draft system may indeed transfer some revenue to the poor clubs—maybe even helping them to stay in business—it won’t have the intended effect of making them stronger on the field.
Of course, all this assumes that the owners of professional sports teams are after money and not glory. And even by the standards of economics that’s not very realistic. It may have been different in the early days, but now a large proportion of US pro teams are rich men’s playthings. Of the current owners of major league teams, 34 are on the Forbes 400 list of the richest US billionaires. When property mogul Donald Sterling was forced to sell the LA Clippers after being caught making racist remarks, it was the recently-retired Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer who forked out $2 billion to take the team off his hands. These guys aren’t going to peddle their draft picks for a few extra bucks. What they want is to rub shoulders with stars on the winners’ platform.
What about the fans, whom this whole spectator circus is ultimately supposed to benefit? In the short term, rich sugar daddies can seem to be on their side. Instead of trying to drain every last cent out of their franchises, they will boost their teams’ finances and invest in winning. But sugar daddies can be fickle, and relationships can turn sour.
H. Wayne Huizenga is a capitalists’ capitalist. Starting with a single garbage truck in 1968, he spent the next three decades building up (and then selling) three successive billion-dollar businesses (Waste Management, Blockbuster Video, AutoNation). He is also a sports enthusiast, who bought the Florida Marlins baseball team in 1993 and backed them all the way to a World Series victory four years later. But that winter he fell out with the Miami-Dade county authorities, and in a fit of pique sold off all his victorious players. In 1998 the Marlins won just 1/3 of their games and became the only World Series champions to come bottom of their league the following year. If you are seduced by a rich suitor, you’ll do well to remember that he's likely to lose interest in you one day.
The best deal for the fans is undoubtedly to own the club themselves. This is common, if not normal, in European soccer leagues. The German Bundesliga requires all clubs to be majority owned by their members, and the two Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona, have similar ownership structures. By contrast, fan ownership is almost unknown in America. Still, the single exception is instructive. The Green Bay Packers is the most successful team in NFL history. Although the population of their home town is only just over 100,000, they have finished the season as champions a record 13 times, most recently in 2010. (The Chicago Bears are next with 9.) There is little doubt that this anomalous success owes something to the 360,584 Packers owners spread throughout Wisconsin and the mid-West. No one owner is allowed to hold more that 4% of the shares.
The advantages of fan ownership are obvious. All revenue is directed towards the future good of the team, and there is no question of a peeved tycoon packing up his toys and going home. Sadly, there seems little hope of fan ownership spreading. If anything the trend is in the other direction. The English Football League used to proscribe dividends for club shareholders, but this rule was dropped when the Premier League was formed in 1992. And the American NFL positively requires that at least 30% of each franchise must be owned by a single individual. (The Green Bay Packers are protected by a special ‘grandfather’ clause recognizing their historical idiosyncracy.)
If fan ownership is out, I think I'd rather have profit-maximizers than dilettante billionaires. Maybe the profiteers will sell on their top-heavy talent, in line with Coase’s theorem, and keep the small clubs small. But the European soccer leagues suggest that fans are prepared to tolerate a fair amount of competitive imbalance, and in any case there is always relegation—or the American equivalent of franchise relocation—to eliminate teams that really can’t cut the mustard. A more important point is that properly hard-headed entrepreneurs will want to do as well as they can for their clubs. After all, from their point of view, their clubs are capital assets. So they have a direct interest in enhancing their value, as opposed to exploiting them as a status symbol.
Once more, sports may point to a general moral. Communal ownership often works best overall, but short of that we will do better with proper competitive capitalism, not capricious plutocracy. It’s better to be ruled by the rational pursuit of profit than jerked around by the whims of the super-rich.
One of my childhood heroes was ‘Goofy’ Lawrence, an honest South African fast bowler who played five tests in the early 1960s, and should have played more. The funny thing, however, is that Goofy wasn’t South African at all, but a citizen of what is now Zimbabwe and was then Rhodesia, a quite different country, but which in those days was simply annexed by South Africa for cricketing purposes.
When Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party won an overwhelming victory in the first Zimbabwe independence election in January 1980, the country’s cricketers were perturbed. They asked if this meant that they weren’t part of South Africa anymore and would have to stop playing in its domestic Currie Cup competition. It was an absurd enquiry. The apartheid South African state was then at the height of its international isolation, not to mention that many of the largely white cricket team had been fighting Mugabe in a bloody civil war for the last few years. Mugabe explained to the cricketers that it just wasn’t on. But then—showing a proper sense of priorities for a life-long cricket fan—he gave them a special dispensation to play out the last few months of that Currie Cup season.
A number of events over the past few weeks have made me think about the relations between nation states and national sports teams. These don’t always line up together. I don’t have any particular philosophical theory to push in this post, beyond the thought that sporting nations suggest that citizenship can be more multi-faceted than is normally supposed.
Healthy political units need their members to think of themselves as engaged in shared projects. But this needn’t demand the familiar division into nation states, with just one body wielding legitimate power over any given place on the surface of the earth. There are various other possible models, including federal structures with nested powers, and even overlapping authorities with differentiated responsibilities (think of the European free trade, monetary, and immigration unions, all of which involve different sets of countries).
In the modern world, national sporting success can do much to unite a fragile nation state, as Nelson Mandela realized when he co-opted the traditionally white rugby ‘Amabokke’ as part of his rainbow project. But in other cases national teams cement identities that cross-cut official states. There are a surprising number of sporting countries that aren’t represented in the United Nations.
Last month Scotland voted on whether to leave the United Kingdom. But in sporting terms Scotland is already as independent as could be. As far as soccer, rugby, cricket, field hockey and most other sports go, Scotland is no more part of the United Kingdom than Peru is. The rivalry with England could not be more intense. The annual Scotland-England soccer match was one of the great sporting fixtures, until the fans’ excesses led to its cessation in 1989.
Not all the ‘home nations’ enjoy the same degree of sporting autonomy. Northern Ireland is particularly short-changed. It has its own soccer team, for what that’s worth, but in most other sports the historical inconvenience of Irish home rule and partition is ignored, and the north simply bundled up with the south. This atavistic obstinacy cuts across the political spectrum. Not only are the middle-class and relatively protestant rugby union and cricket teams emphatically all-Ireland, but so too are the gaelic football and hurling teams—or at least they would be if they had anybody to play against. For all these sports, northern Ulster is simply one of the four Irish provinces, alongside Connacht, Leinster and Munster.
(Incidentally, doesn’t it bother you that these four provinces represent Ireland in the Heineken European club rugby competition? They aren’t clubs. They’re provinces. It reminds me of an old exchange between Henry Root, the spoof letter-writing alter ego of the humourist William Donaldson, and A J Ayer. I’m still tracking down a copy of The Henry Root Letters, but I remember it going something like this:
“Professor Sir A J Ayer
The Wykeham Professor of Logic
Dear Sir Alfred
Yesterday evening I was enjoying an association football match on television between Tottenham Hotspurs and England. However, when my daughter Doreen came home from the local hostelry, she exclaimed ‘This isn’t a football match, it’s a category mistake!’, and switched channels.
I am puzzled. Doreen has not been the same person since she started her philosophy course at the University of Wolverhampton. Perhaps you can cast some light on the matter.
Henry Root, Esq.”
To his credit, Ayer was happy to play the straight man. He wrote back politely explaining that “a category mistake” was Gilbert Ryle’s term for a muddle, and suggesting that Doreen must have been disquieted at the idea of a club playing a whole that it is part of.)
Along with Northern Ireland, Wales also suffers in the sporting autonomy stakes. They have their own rugby and soccer teams all right—indeed these are both currently world forces in a way that Scotland’s are not—but when it comes to cricket they are simply absorbed into England, Rhodesia-South-Africa style. The governing body of the team that lost the Ashes last winter is the “England and Wales Cricket Board”, but the team itself is “England”. The distinguished and very Welsh cricketer Robert Croft was once asked what he felt about playing for the old Saxon enemy. “Ah,” he explained "When I play cricket for Glamorgan, I think of myself as representing Wales; but when I play cricket for England, I’m representing the British Lions."
Actually, in these less hegemonic times, we now take care to refer to the “British and Irish Lions”. Another oddity. Every four years the rest of the British Isles joins in the Irish pretence that history never happened. When it comes to battles with the rugby giants of the Southern hemisphere, we stand united as one nation. The political incoherence of this construction does nothing to dampen the intensity of the sporting contests. No northern rugby fan over forty will ever forget Jeremy Guscott’s last-minute game-winners against Australia and South Africa.
Is Hong Kong a country, or Taiwan for that matter? The People’s Republic of China says not. “ONE COUNTRY, two systems.” But then what are Hong Kong and Taiwan doing with their own national teams on every international sporting stage, including the 2008 Summer Olympics in Peking?
The Spanish football club Atletico Bilbao requires its players to have Basque ancestry or upbringing. I must say that this offends my cosmopolitan sensibilities. It strikes me as racist. I’m surprised that it’s allowed under European law. You’d think that it violated anti-discrimination rules, not to mention laws against restraint of trade.
All right, perhaps it’s my intuitions that need examining. When exactly did football clubs stop being emblems of local pride and turn into commercial bodies subject to competition law? In any case, it seems to me that FIFA and Spain could well take a leaf out of the home nations’ book. Why not give the Basques a proper national team, and excuse Atletico Bilbao from trying to cross categories? No doubt this would be resisted by opponents of Basque independence. But the British examples suggest that it could actually help to keep Spain united, working to make the Basques happier with devolved power in a federal Spain. Maybe the Catalans would like to become separate FIFA members too—though on reflection their contributions to recent Spanish successes might persuade them to stay federated in football (perhaps even after they become politically independent, on the Irish model).
And then there is the Ryder Cup. Every two years all the golf fans of Europe, many of whom you would normally expect to find on the Eurosceptic right, join together in frantic support of the team that plays the United States. Perhaps this augurs well for the future of a federal Europe. But before we draw any political morals, I need to explain some things about golf fandom.
The first thing to understand is that every adult golfer who is not American has just one concern when watching any professional golf tournament—they don’t want an American to win. Have you ever noticed that European TV golf coverage often displays an “International Leader Board” listing the scores of all the leading non-Americans? The sole point of this is to keep track of the prospects of some–any—non-American victory. It seems that this attitude is shared by the players as well as the fans. The English golfer Paul Casey was asked before the 2004 Ryder Cup to confirm that the teams’ rivalry was friendly. His response was “No, we properly hate them”. Afterwards he said he was joking, but I’m not sure.
This transatlantic golfing mistrust is mutual. Some years ago I was at a conference in the former Yugoslavia with two archetypical mid-Western philosophers, George Pappas and Marshall Swain. It was the year that the Masters ended in a play-off between Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Larry Mize. It wasn’t easy to get news, but in a bar I found a newspaper with a sports section. “Shit,” I said to Pappas and Swain, “Mize chipped in from 140 feet to beat them both.” I assumed they would share my disappointment. But, on the contrary, they were all whoops and high fives. How could anybody be pleased at that? It was as if a warthog had got into the garden and killed two peacocks.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, their sentiments were nothing but a mirror image of my own. I can appreciate that Phil Michelson and Bubba Watson are charismatic magicians on the golf course, and may well be charming companions off it. But I will happily sit up until 3am to watch a journeyman like Graham McDowell beat them in a major.
What is going on here? I’m pretty sure that it’s to do with golf rather than America. I count myself as an Americophile. Many of our family holidays have been spent motel-hopping across the States. And I don’t feel the same about other sports. For example, I felt nothing but pleasure when Andre Agassi completed his career grand slam in Paris in 1999, or the USA women’s soccer lifted the world cup before a 90,000 crowd in the Rose Bowl that same year.
Maybe it’s down to the way that America dominated golf for decades after World War II. Or perhaps it stems from the time that Deane Beaman, the PGA commissioner, made it so difficult for Seve Ballesteros and other European stars to compete in American tournaments. And we can’t ignore the determined provincialism of the many American golfers who rarely test their skills in the rest of the world. (One of them—can anybody help me track this down?—decided to skip the Open one year because he had doubts about the hotels. “As I see it,” he explained, “once you leave the States, you’re camping.”)
So I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that the fervour of the Ryder Cup followers is a harbinger of European unity. It's more likely that the Pringle-sweatered blimps in the members’ bars are united by their dislike of the opposition, rather than any enthusiasm for the European project. Still, who knows? As we have seen, sporting arrangements often uncover political affinities that cross-cut official state boundaries. I wonder if pan-European sides in other sports would get the supporters whooping along with the Ryder Cup fans.
This post is not one of my usual essays on sport and philosophy, but rather the latest edition of Philosophers' Carnival, a digest of each month's best posts from the philosophy blogosphere, which I was very pleased to be asked to host for September.
First up, as ever was, we have Hilary Putnam, who a few months ago delightfully started blogging on his own site Sardonic Comment, and whose latest post puts empirical pressure on the transparency argument for representationalism about sensory experience.
Then I would like to take you to two posts which in different ways query the cogency of western attitudes to eastern philosophy. Eric Schwitzgebel's The Splintered Mind argues that there's no good reason for us not to know our classical Chinese philosophy, while in The Indian Philosophy Blog Amod Lele objects to the apparently self-hating double standard that disallows western but not internal reinventions of Indian philosophical traditions.
On the mathematical philosophy blog M-Phi, Richard Pettigrew puts L.A. Paul's recent book Transformative Experience through the wringer of meta-decision-theory. There are two posts, on epistemically and personally transformative experiences respectively, and both of them are followed by some illuminating exchanges between Laurie herself and Richard.
Last month's host of the Carnival, John Danaher of Philosophical Disquisitions, makes a start on constructing an ethical framework for the use of enhancement drugs, and encapsulates his conclusions in the flow chart below.
Over at the communal blog PEA Soup, Antti Kauppinen wonders about the status of rage as a moral emotion--an excellent topic, indeed one which moved me to chip in with a Comment myself.
'Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds' said Barnet Newman in 1954, and this month James Harold was the guest blogger on Aesthetics for Birds, arguing that ethical criticism of art should stop bracketing the causal consequences of works of art.
To wrap up, allow me to give a plug to your two hosts, namely Tristan Haze, who runs Philosophers' Carnival, and myself.
Tristan's own blog is Sprachlogik. He has been developing the idea that meaning is 'granular' and here he enlists some of Quine's thoughts in support of this theme. And right now you are on my own blog, More Important Than That, where my most recent post (right below) explores the significance of team reasoning in sport and elsewhere.
Oh, and don't forget that next month Philosophers' Carnival will be hosted by Tristan himself on Sprachlogik--he does this every October--and that you can propose any posts that grab your attention over the next month by filling in the nomination form.
In an earlier post I talked about the altruism of road-cycling “domestiques” who sacrifice themselves for their team leader, like worker bees slaving for their queen. Oh no, said the cycling experts in their Comments. The domestiques aren’t being altruistic. They don’t care about the leader. They want their team to win, and are simply pursuing this personal desire.
I wasn’t convinced. For a start, some of the cycling experts seemed to be making the old mistake of ruling out altruism from the start, on the spurious grounds that everybody always acts on their own desires. (Of course everyone acts on their desires. That’s not the point. The interesting question is what their desires are aimed at. If they are aimed at other peoples’ benefit, then they are genuinely altruistic desires.) And, once we are clear about that, shouldn’t we count a desire for a team win as altruistic, given that the other team members will enjoy the victory too?
But on second thoughts I realized that the cycling experts might have a point. Do team aspirations really count as altruistic? Teams are curious things, more than the sum of their individual members, and don’t fit naturally into the way most philosophers and economists think about choices. Indeed, the more I thought about them, the more teams seemed to undermine conventional theories of decision-making, in at least two ways.
But first let’s get clear about cycle racing, as that’s puzzling enough in itself. Even in amateur races, cyclists will voluntarily form themselves into teams, and the members without a fast finish will devote all their efforts to getting their leader first across the line, happy to share the glory of a team victory. It is just a historical quirk, I am told, that the prizes are usually awarded to individuals. In truth, road cycling is as much a team sport as rugby or basketball.
(I’m still not sure I get it. If you were watching the Commonwealth Games women’s road race a few weeks ago, you would have seen England's Emma Pooley strike out with some 30km left to go. The idea was to make the opposition chase her, so they’d be out of puff when the England leader Lizzie Armistead made her bid for gold. And so it went. But what I didn’t understand was why Armistead didn’t help Pooley when she passed her with 7km left and they were a minute ahead of the rest. She was safe for the gold and could have made sure Pooley won the silver. I was Tweeting about it at the time. Richard Williams of the Guardian, himself a keen cyclist, put me right. “Now that would be, as they say these days, a big ask. The team rides for the leader: the leader's responsibility is to win.” This seemed oddly harsh to me, when Games medals were at stake. Happily, Pooley did hang on for the silver—but no thanks to her teammate.)
To get back to the question of teams and altruism, does wanting your team to win count as altruistic? If your team could be identified with its members, then the answer would surely be yes—wanting a victory would simply be wanting your colleagues to benefit thereby. But the relation between a team and its members is tricky (and something I’ll come back to in a future post). It’s still the same team if some of its members are replaced. Indeed it’s still the same team, and you can still want it to win, if you are replaced. Somehow teams transcend their current members.
I’m not really sure what we should say about this. Since teams are more than their members, wanting your team to win isn’t strictly the same as wanting other people to benefit. Still, perhaps we should adjust the definition of altruism to cover team spirit. In the end I don’t think it matters too much. We can stipulate as we choose.
So a first point about teams is that they add to the range of things that people care about, in a way that puts pressure on standard definitions of altruism. Perhaps that doesn’t seem worth writing home about. But teams also matter to decision-making in a second and far more interesting way. Once you are part of a team, you can address your problems differently. You are no longer limited to “what shall I do?” Now you can ask “what shall we do?”
Orthodox decision theorists have long viewed choices in terms of individuals. A single agent selects that action that promises to maximize wanted results. But more recently a maverick faction† has been urging that group decisions are no less fundamental than individual ones. Humans naturally form themselves into families, foraging parties, friends on a night out, . . . and sports teams. And when they do, they tend to think as a group. They select that joint strategy that promises to maximize benefit to the group, and then they all play their allotted parts.
It makes a big difference. Consider the set-up known in the game-theory literature as the “Footballers’ Problem”. Wilshere has the ball in midfield and can slide it through to Giroud either down the left or right channel. Giroud’s run and Wilshere’s pass must be simultaneous. Both know the defender on the left is significantly weaker. What should they do?
Go left, of course. But suprisingly the branch of orthodox decision theory that deals with co-ordinated actions, game theory, fails to deliver this result. This is because it starts with the choices of each agent, and the best choice for each agent depends on what the other does, and what the other does is supposed to be predicted by game theory . . . so orthodoxy runs into sand, and fails to select left as the uniquely rational option.
But now suppose the players are thinking as a team. They have four joint options. Pass right, run left; pass left, run right; pass right, run right; pass left, run left. What should we do? It’s a no-brainer—the last option is clearly best.
This is just one example of how team reasoning can find solutions that individual decisions cannot reach. Social choice theory is beset by scenarios—the “prisoner’s dilemma”, the “stag hunt”, the “tragedy of the commons”, and so on—in which a group of individuals each choosing for themselves are all too likely to miss the result that they want most. Team reasoning avoids these problems. The right result is often trivial once we ask “what should we do?”
With one bound he was free. Orthodox theorists think it’s a cheat. They object that group actions are nothing but a bunch of individual actions, and individuals are designed by evolution to further their own interests. But they are missing the point. Given that the best way to further your own interests is often to think as a team, it would be odd if evolution hadn’t made it natural to do so. Of course sometimes it also pays to think for yourself, and so evolution is likely to have made that natural too. I would say that both ways of thinking come naturally to human beings, depending on the circumstances.
Sport brings out the interplay between team and individual thinking. One of the things I used to love about cricket was the variety of rewards it offered. The best days were when your team won and you played well too. But even if your team lost you might still get runs or wickets yourself. Then there were games where a team victory made up for your individual failure. And even in the worst case, when individual failure was compounded by team loss, you could at least console yourself with the thought that the rest of your side didn’t do much better.
Nearly all team sports involve this combination of team and individual aspirations. You want your side to win and to play well yourself. Cricket and baseball stand out because their scoring systems automatically calibrate the relative contributions of the players. But they are by no means the only sports where you can take some pride in playing well in a losing team.
As a rule, individual and team imperatives pull together. What’s good for you is good for the team. But sometimes the two conflict. Your side wants runs quickly though that risks your getting out. We need you to man-mark their playmaker and forget the showy stuff. As a class, competitive athletes are surprisingly ready to put their team’s needs above their own. Selfish teammates are very much the exception.
I can’t help digressing for a moment. I used to play for a travelling cricket team that didn’t care about winning. The idea was to have a nice day out, and everybody got to bat or bowl. We lost a lot of matches and the team was struggling for players. Then Phil Webster, for many years political editor of the Times and now its digital editor, elected himself captain and ran things differently. He too made sure everybody got to bat or bowl—provided this didn’t damage our chances of winning. On one occasion we were defending a low total against old rivals and the first change leaked seven runs in his first over. Phil promptly whipped him off and went back to the opening bowlers for the rest of the 40 overs. We won that match and a lot more besides. Phil was a peerless captain. Adding the will to win to our individual aspirations made it much more fun.
It works better when players put the team first. But that’s not always enough. There is another pitfall in the way of team success. The side can forget how to reason as a team. The question “what shall we do?” assumes that everybody will play their part in the optimal team strategy. If this assumption is undermined, for whatever reason, the power of team reasoning is lost.
This is what happens when teams disintegrate or choke, like Manchester United over the past year, or the New Zealand rugby team in nearly every World Cup until the last. It’s not that these sides aren’t bothered about winning. Far from it—they are desperate for success. It’s rather that they lose confidence in their ability to coordinate their actions. They start worrying about the others’ choices, and end up in the plight of the poor game theorist, thinking that if he does that, then I’d better do this, but if he . . .—and then no-one is sure what to do.
Perhaps there is a wider moral here. In society as well as in sport, it is not enough for everybody to wish for the common good. They also need to trust everyone else to play their part in the optimal team strategy. Once lost, this kind of trust is not easily regained.
† Beyond Individual Choice by Michael Bacharach, edited by Natalie Gold and Robert Sugden, Princeton University Press, 2006
Many sports fans look back to a time when sport was unsullied by the imperatives of the professional era. As they see it, sports are meant for enjoyment, for friendly competition in a spirit of cooperative rivalry. To play for money is to contradict the very basis of sport, and so fair play and other sporting values inevitably go out of the window once the professionals take over.
What a load of tosh. I won’t go far as to say I reach for my gun whenever I heard the word ‘amateur’. But give me a crusade to keep a sport pure in the name of amateur values, and I will show you a hypocritical campaign designed to further some selfish interest.
In 1920 the American rower Jack Kelly entered the Diamond Sculls at Henley. He was the top American sculler that year, but this didn’t stop the Stewards of the Henley Royal Regatta rejecting his entry on the grounds that he had started his working life as a bricklayer, citing a local rule that denied amateur status to anybody who had ever earned wages as ‘an artisan or labourer’. The decision caused a furore and was widely resented in the States, but Henley stuck to its guns and didn’t change its rules for another two decades. (Kelly himself shrugged off the slight, going on to become a three-time Olympic gold medallist, a construction multimillionaire, and father-in-law to Prince Rainier of Monaco.)
You might think that the Henley rules were simple snobbery, but the clause before the one about artisans and labourers reveals a further purpose. This rule said that nobody ‘shall be considered an amateur who has been employed in and about boats for money or wages’. Back when the internal combustion engine was in its infancy, there were still plenty of working watermen who could row the socks off the part-time toffs who competed at Henley. The point of the rules wasn’t just to keep out the riff-raff, but to make sure that the college men and the city gents who filled the Henley boats could keep on winning the prizes.
Who remembers Alf Tupper, ‘Tough of the Track’? He flourished in the pages of British comics like Rover and Victor from the 1950s to the 90s. Every week he would leave his job in the welding shop, get into some scrape on the way to the athletics meeting, arrive in the nick of time, tangle with the stuffed shirts from the Amateur Athletics Association, gobble down his newspaper-wrapped lunch of fish ‘n chips, and then sprint past the posh chaps just before the finishing line.
He was immensely popular, largely because of the frisson engendered by the idea of a cheeky working-class chappie outdoing the snobs at their own game. But of course it was all a fantasy. The only way for someone like Alf to get the time and facilities to compete with the middle classes in their flexitime jobs would be to leave the welding shop and make money from running. Throughout the 20th century many international sporting authorities were determined that this wasn’t going to happen. Athletics was in the forefront, closely followed by tennis and rugby union, all desperate to keep their sports safe for the stockbrokers and solicitors who formed their core constituency.
Alf Tupper meets the stuffed shirts and wins the race
The rules on amateurism were responsible for any number of injustices and absurdities. The great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe was stripped of his two 1912 Olympic gold medals because he had once been paid $25 for playing minor league baseball. Many of the finest mid-century tennis players, from Bill Tilden to Rod Laver, could only afford to keep playing by embarking on a touring treadmill of one-night exhibitions. (I myself saw Laver, Rosewall, Hoad and Gonzales in a tiny stadium in Durban in 1960s.) In the 1980s Bill Beaumont and Fran Cotton, models of rugby union probity and both now reinstated as stalwarts of the game’s administration, were banned from all rugby activities for 10 years for receiving royalties from their autobiographies.
Perhaps some of the officials who enforced this farrago sincerely believed in the moral superiority of amateurism. But they shouldn’t have. There is no reason to think that professionalism as such is morally corrupting. True, some aspects of life are undoubtedly tainted by the intrusion of money. Sex and friendship are the most obvious examples. But why include competitive sports in this category? If people want to watch elite athletes, and pay them for displaying their exceptional skills, what has gone wrong? We don’t think that painters or musicians are corrupted when they make a living from their art. No more should we of athletes.
No doubt the pressures at highest levels of sport reduce the attraction of quixotic generosity and increase the temptation to behave badly. And nowadays the highest levels are normally professional. But it would be a fallacy to infer that, to the extent that top athletes do behave badly, it is because they are professional. In other areas of life, we don’t expect people to forget their manners just because they are acting in a paid capacity.
Maybe there has been a falling-off in the standards displayed on the sports field in the past few decades. I’m not convinced across the board, but I do admit that top-level soccer is increasingly blighted by nasty habits. Still, it’s not as if professionalism in new to soccer. If there has been a deterioration, the cause must lie elsewhere, perhaps in the readiness of the fans and the management to allow the end of victory to justify any unsavoury means.
It is instructive to consider those sports, like cricket and golf, that long observed an institutional division between the gentleman amateurs and professional players, but had them competing alongside each other at the higher levels. In neither sport was there any sense that the professionals couldn’t be trusted to behave well in the crunch. If anything, it was the other way round. The dominant image of the dour Scots golf pro, or the sturdy county cricket player, was of a chap who played hard and knew a few tricks, but was never less than fair.
Historically, ensuring that the part-time middle classes remained competitive wasn’t the only motive for enforcing amateurism. When I grew up in South Africa, there were three unmentionable sins, practices we knew about but were only discussed in whispers. First came contraventions of the Immorality Act, sex across the official colour lines, not only exotic but illegal. Then there was ‘IDB’, Illegal Diamond Buying—the De Beers corporation was fiercely protective of its monopoly, and anybody dabbling in contraband was liable to be spirited away by the De Beers special police in the middle of the night. And finally—and just as taboo—was taking the Rugby League shilling, emigrating to play professional rugby in England.
Back then Rugby League was the professional code, and Rugby Union issued automatic life bans to anybody over 18 who played in a League match. Union was the game of the white South Africans, especially the Afrikaners, and Springbok success on the field was a central element in their national identity. South Africa was obsessed with resisting the lure of professional rugby. They didn’t care a hoot about preserving part-time sport—half the national team had sinecures in the police or army—but they did mind about their best players being struck off for life. It was a national tragedy when the great wing Tom van Vollenhoven, scorer of a hat-trick for ‘Boks against the British Lions, left to earn his living playing English League in the mid-1950s, and it was compounded a couple of years later when he was followed by another fine Springbok winger, Wilf Rosenberg, ‘The Flying Dentist’.
'The Flying Dentist' signing up for rugby league. Amazingly, recent reports allege that Rosenberg was a two-time South African sinner, adding IDB to rugby league, much involved in illegal diamond dealing in his post-rugby career: http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/anglo-file/south-african-jewish-rugby-legend-rejects-muckraker-s-report-on-mafia-ties-1.294142
Thankfully, most of these contortions about amateurism have now faded into history. But there is one place they remain. American college sports are as fanatical about the amateur status of their athletes as any of the traditional authorities. The National Collegiate Athletic Association leaves no stone unturned in hunting down violations of their amateur rules. (For an exposé of the measures they are prepared to take, see: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/the-shame-of-college-sports/308643/.)
The motive behind the NCAA obsession is not hard to discern. It’s not protecting part-timers, nor national pride, but simply preserving a system that makes staggering amounts of money. Led by basketball and football, American college sports generate billions of dollars, precisely because they are distinguishable from the professional leagues. But by the nature of the case this amateur status then means that all that money must flow to the colleges, coaches and administrators, and not a penny to the athletes themselves. (The colleges can’t even buy their athletes insurance against injury, because that would be a form of payment.)
It is hard to believe that this system can be sustained. Everybody else gets rich from the labour of unpaid youngsters, most of whom end up with nothing. But this is just one of the paradoxes at the heart of the strange (and often unconstitutional) structure of American spectator sports. I’m going to return to this topic in a future post.
PS Apropos snobbery in sports, I can’t help quoting from a piece my wife Rose Wild—Archive Editor of The Times—wrote recently about a Times letters-page correspondence from 1914 bemoaning the new middle-class enthusiasm for golf. Here is a member of the old guard berating one of the few contributors to support golf: “He says he would rather teach his son to hit a golf ball than shoot a bird; we all know the end of that boy, and his father will only have himself to blame.” (You can see the whole article, if you can get past the paywall, at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/sport/golf/article4149250.ece.)
The Comments on my last post included this tale from Joanna Kennedy.
“The Irish Bar were playing Trinity College Dublin in an amateur but serious two-day cricket match, and the Bar team was captained by a High Court judge. The game was very close and by the last over Trinity needed five more runs. Off the last ball the batsman hit what looked like a six but a young barrister on the boundary performed an athletic leap and caught it. The Bar team was ecstatic with noisy celebrations and Trinity were accepting defeat graciously when the fielder came up and said that actually his foot had been over the boundary when he made the catch. Noisy celebrations from Trinity this time and polite acceptance of defeat through gritted teeth by the Bar. But as the teams walked off the judge said to the fielder ‘Who do you think you are? Fecking George Washington?’"
An excellent story. But the judge was quite wrong, as any cricketer will tell you. The young man had no choice but to confess. It would have been shameful for him to pretend he’d taken the catch fairly. He wouldn’t have been able to live with himself.
Here’s a funny thing, though. In baseball, claiming a catch you haven’t made is quite acceptable. As Tom Hurka observed elsewhere in the same Comments, a baseball fielder who knows he has trapped the ball on the half-volley is by no means expected to confess to the umpire, and will generally jump up as if he caught it on the fly. The contrast with cricket is striking. Cricketers are always supposed to say whether or not they made a catch, and even at the highest professional level the opposition and umpires will normally defer to them (though the television review system is now overriding this).
I don’t think that this makes baseball players less honourable as a breed than cricketers. As it happens, baseball is obsessed with propriety and good behaviour. But the different customs impose different moral demands on the players. Where cricketers ought not to pretend to a catch they haven’t made, it is morally unobjectionable for baseball fielders to do so.
But how can just the same action be morally acceptable in one sport but not in another? Am I saying that morality is relative? Not at all. To untangle this issue we need first to distinguish between morality and convention, and then to understand their relationship.
From an early age, all humans distinguish between morality and convention. They understand that morality is universal, independent of authority, and to do with genuine welfare, while convention varies across societies, depends on decree, and governs matters of no intrinsic importance. In a typical study, 5-year olds were asked whether the teacher’s permission would make it all right (a) to put your elbows on the table and (b) to steal. The children all agreed that putting elbows on the table would be legitimated by the teacher’s say-so, but they felt differently about stealing. ‘No, it would not be OK’, said one thoughtful boy. ‘People would just come and take your stuff.’
In the first instance, the difference between cricket and baseball is a matter of convention. No issues of human welfare hinge on whether catches are self-policed or left to umpires, the authorities could easily alter current practices, and the example itself shows that nothing universal at issue. But the difference in conventions also makes a moral difference. It wouldn’t just have been a social faux pas for the young barrister to have claimed the catch, like eating peas with your knife or addressing a duke as ‘my lord’. It would have displayed a real lack of moral fibre. I wouldn’t want anything to do with someone who could behave like that.
How does this work? If conventions are just matters of local manners, then how can they carry absolute moral force? Well, even if conventions aren’t themselves moral principles, they can change the social landscape in ways that matter morally. For example, many conventional practices play a central role in defining cultural identities, which can make non-conformity not just eccentric but insulting. More to the present point, conventions can constitute a kind of social contract, and so institute standards of fair dealing and justice.
It’s this that explains the moral difference between cricket and baseball. When you play a cricket match, the understanding is that fielders won’t claim catches that they haven’t made. So somebody who does so is taking advantage. They are benefiting unfairly from an arrangement which depends on others not behaving sneakily. That’s why there is no corresponding moral requirement in baseball. There it is no part of the deal that fielders must own up, and so you aren’t stealing a march by not doing so.
In baseball the umpires decide
Sports fans are very quick to complain about standards. Their favourite targets are sports other than their own and the depravity of the present day. Cricket fans are sniffy about baseballers, rugby fans are shocked by footballers, golf fans look down on tennis players, and all of them agree that contemporary sports performers can’t hold a moral candle to those of past generations.
In truth, these jeremiahs are nearly all mistaking conventional differences for moral failings. The different standards upheld by different sports are at first pass just alternative contractual arrangements, different sets of expectations about what the players owe each other. Given these arrangements, the players of any given sport have a moral responsibility to adhere to their agreed code. But it doesn’t at all follow that the sports with less restrictive codes are morally inferior.
Of course, sporting codes change over time, just as social rules of etiquette do. Cricketers now aim to distract batsmen by ‘sledging’, in gridiron football it is now standard practice to ‘ice’ the kicker, rugby spectators no longer fall silent for place kicks, and so on. But I see no reason to view these changes as moral deterioration, as opposed to a shift from one set of workable social expectations to another.
Still, having said this, I don’t want to insist that all sporting codes are equally admirable (as some took me to be suggesting in my last post). Some sports do end up encouraging genuinely bad behaviour. The comparison with social conventions is again instructive. As a general rule of thumb, it is not a bad idea to observe existing social customs. However, the principle ‘when in Rome . . .’ only takes us so far. Not all social mores are harmless rules of protocol. Many traditions demean women, others reinforce class prejudice, and some are downright abhorrent. With codes like these, it can be more honourable to breach than observe them. In his 2010 book The Honor Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses a range of repugnant social practices, including female foot binding in China, British duelling in the nineteenth century, and American slavery. All of these were once regarded as acceptable, indeed essential components of respectable society. Appiah explains how these traditions withered away once responses from the wider world made their defenders realize that they were an occasion for shame rather than respect.
It is hard to generalize about what makes some sporting codes morally corrupt. A first thought might be that they are bad to the extent that they authorize violations of the rules. However, as I argued in my last post, this doesn’t hold up. It’s perfectly proper in many sports to break a rule and take the penalty. Basketball players will foul in the last seconds to stop the other side running down the clock. Rugby players will kill the ball to prevent an imminent try. A snooker player will ‘miss’ rather than leave a ball on. Nobody thinks of these ploys as immoral sharp practice. They are normal moves in the game.
What about codes that encourage players to deceive the officials? Surely that’s beyond the moral pale. Not necessarily. In baseball young catchers are taught to ‘frame the pitch’—to choreograph their catching movement in such a way as to make balls look like strikes. Rugby try-scorers will disguise the fact they grounded the ball short of the line. Cricket batsmen who have feathered the ball will feign insouciance in order to persuade the umpire they are not out. (Some will feel that this last example represents a moral falling-off from the time when batsmen ‘walked’. But there never was such a time, save for those English gentlemen amateurs who prized this theatrical means of demonstrating their superiority. See http://www.cricketweb.net/blog/features/526.php.)
In the end, I don’t think that there is any mechanical formula for morally grading codes of accepted sporting behaviour. The relations between the scoring systems, the rules and the officials are too complex and varied to allow any easy generalizations. Perhaps all we can say is that codes that license immoral behaviour are corrupt. I have just argued that breaking the rules and concealing the truth are by no means always vices in sporting contexts. But other things surely are. It is not hard to think of examples.
In rugby union the forwards have a culture of punching and stamping on opponents, and this celebration of illicit violence can spill over into biting, eye-gouging and even sticking your finger up your opponent's bottom (though it should be said that this last practice is frowned upon even by front-row forwards). Until recently competitive road cyclists fed themselves a battery of performance-enhancing drugs, and this self-abuse was compounded by the corrosive hypocrisy of repeated public denials. And contemporary soccer is becoming increasingly mean-spirited, with many countries viewing it as a praiseworthy skill to get an innocent opponent sent off by feigning a blow to your head.
These practices are the sporting equivalent of Chinese foot binding. They take us beyond local customs and into the realm of objective immorality. In many cases, as with our young Irish barrister, it can properly be a matter of pride to respect the customs that govern your sport. But sometimes those customs are themselves repulsive, and then we can only hope that public reaction will in time persuade their practitioners that they are a source of shame.
Rivaldo's shameful display in the 2002 World Cup
Some philosophers say you can’t win a sporting contest by cheating. Their thought is that games wouldn’t exist apart from the rules that govern them, and so someone who ignores those rules isn’t even competing, let alone winning.
This is the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name. Tell it to the Irish soccer team after Thierry Henry’s blatant handball kept them out of the last World Cup. “It’s all right, boys. We’re going to South Africa after all. France didn’t beat us, because you can’t win a game of football by transgressing the rules that constitute the game.”
Of course France won that match. Indeed they did so as a direct result of Henry’s cheating. Still, there remains a good question here. What exactly does it take to be playing a game? Maybe you can break some rules, but there are limits. You can’t win by shooting the ref and carrying the ball over the goal line.
To sort this out, we need to distinguish between the rules of the game, the code of fair play, and the authority of the officials. And once we have done that, it will turn out that there are some interesting analogies between playing a game and being a citizen of a state. I’ll be arguing that fair play is often consistent with breaking a game’s rules, and I’ll infer from this, against philosophical orthodoxy, that there is no general moral requirement for good citizens to conform to the law of the land.
Let’s start with the difference between the rules of a game and the code of fair play. It’s not hard to think of examples where breaking the rules is perfectly acceptable. In basketball, if you are one point down and your opponents gain the ball with twenty seconds to play, you are downright supposed to foul them. It’s the only way you can stop them keeping the ball until the final whistle. So you foul them, halt the clock, and hope that you can beat their score once you get the ball back after their free shots. It’s an accepted part of the game. Everybody expects you to do it, the referee’s whistle is pretty much a formality, and nobody thinks of it as bad practice at all.
There are also converse cases, where you can violate a sporting code even though you aren’t breaking the rules. In 1981 New Zealand needed a six off the last ball to win a one-day cricket match against Australia. Trevor Chappell opted to roll the ball underarm at the batsman, making a six physically impossible. While this was allowed by the laws of cricket, it was universally condemned as against the spirit of the game. (The Kiwi prime minister didn’t hold back: "the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket . . . an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow.")
It is interesting to compare notions of fair play across different sports. Simon Barnes, the Times sports writer, reports a friend of his explaining, “I would die rather than cheat at golf. In cricket I cheat sometimes . . . And when I played football I cheated all the time.” The point isn’t that some sports are intrinsically more moral than others. They all have definite codes of fair play. The difference lies in the extent to which their codes float free of their official rules.
Golf is at one end of the spectrum. It’s easy to tee up your ball in the rough when no-one is watching. But so improving your lie is quite beyond the pale, even in the most insignificant competition. Someone caught out surreptitiously fiddling with their ball won’t just be penalized the two strokes required by the rules. They will be ostracized in the bar and very likely expelled from the club.
In soccer, by contrast, all kinds of technical infractions are an accepted part of the game. You steal as many yards as you can at throw-ins, you tug and pull your opponent as the corner comes over, you give away a free kick rather than let the attacker beat you. Still, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a clear moral code. It may be all right to take a red card to stop your opponent scoring, but it’s not all right to take one for a two-footed tackle that breaks his leg. Play-acting in order to get an opponent sent off is widely frowned upon. When one side kicks the ball out because someone is injured, everybody respect the obligation to give it back at the throw-in.
And so it goes. In rugby union, punching and even stamping are regarded as in the spirit of the thing (remember the saintly captain Willie John McBride’s decree on the 1974 Lions tour—“let’s get our retaliation in first”). On the other hand, disagreeing with the referee is a decided no-no (this season the French coach voluntarily dropped his star forward Louis Picamoles for mildly mocking a referee’s decision). In cricket, it has become acceptable to “sledge” batsmen to distract them, but everybody shuts up once the bowler begins his run-up. The laws allow you to run out batsmen who are backing up, but it just isn’t cricket not to warn them first.
Martin Johnson CBE, Eng and Brit Lions captain, off for 10 mins for twice punching opponent in face
Let’s get back to our original question. What does it take to be playing a game? If conformity to the formal rules isn’t the right answer, perhaps it’s that you must stick to the code of fair play. But that doesn’t seem right either. Think about Thierry Henry and Ireland. I’d say his handball overstepped the bounds of fair play, even by the standards of professional football. But this didn’t somehow invalidate the result. There were some forlorn Irish appeals for the match to be replayed, but no one took them seriously (Did professional footballers really consider the handball unethical? It’s debatable. No one really believes that Henry should have confessed to the ref after the goal was given. But I was disappointed that he handballed in the first place—Bobby Charlton wouldn’t have done it. Anyway, let’s not get bogged down in one example. The general point is clear enough. Take a more extreme case, like Rivaldo’s ridiculous play-acting to get an opponent red-carded in the 2002 World Cup semi-final against Turkey. Even though he was fined after the game, nobody suggested that the result should be nullified.)
Still, as I said, there are clearly some limits beyond which you aren’t playing any more. To my mind, the crucial issue is whether you continue to accept the authority of the referee or other officials. However badly you behave, you’re still playing if you defer to the decisions of the on-field authority. Once you refuse to do what the ref says, though, you’ve abandoned the game. You can have a game of soccer with innumerable and immoral fouls—we need only recall the last World Cup final—but you can’t have one where the players don’t listen when the ref blows his whistle.
Perhaps there’s a moral for political philosophy here. A central issue—the central issue—for political philosophers is “political obligation”. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, “to have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of one's country or state” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-obligation/. As the entry explains, there is plenty of debate about the basis for this duty, but pretty much all political philosophers accept that it exists.
Of course, they also recognize that even legitimate democratic states sometimes have immoral laws, such as laws prohibiting homosexuality, say, or enforcing racial segregation. But they don’t regard these as invalidating the moral standing of the law, so much as generating moral conflicts—on the one side we have the general moral duty to obey the law, and on the other the more specific moral duty not to discriminate unjustly, say, and somehow we need to resolve the two, perhaps by campaigning to get the law changed.
I wonder if the political philosophers aren’t missing a trick here. The sporting analogy suggests an interesting option. Maybe citizens have a moral duty to respect the authority of the state, but no further moral duty to obey the law as such—just as participants in a game must defer to the authority of the officials, yet beyond that are under no compulsion to conform to the rules.
In his classic The Concept of Law (1961), H.L.A. Hart distinguished between an “external” and an “internal” attitude to the law. Those who adopt the “external” attitude simply view laws as a source of potential penalties, and will happily break them as long as the expected fine or prison term is low enough, just as a footballer might calculate whether the cost of a red card in the first half is worth the gain of preventing a goal. The “internal” attitude, by contrast, is a matter of embracing the law as part of your own value system, and so viewing infractions as morally reprehensible in themselves. Hart’s view, and that of nearly all subsequent commentators, is that a healthy polity depends on the internal attitude, and that a purely external attitude to the law would be destructive of civil society.
I’m not sure I agree. I’m happy about taking an internal attitude to the state itself. We’d soon be in a brutish mess if we didn’t accept that the state has a moral monopoly on the use of force. But beyond that I don’t see why I have any moral duty to obey its laws. As we have noted, playing a game depends on my ceding authority to the officials, but not on my adhering to the rules—it can be quite proper to break a rule and take the penalty. So with civil society, I say. As I good citizen I defer to the legal system, but that doesn’t mean I am morally transgressing whenever I break a law.
What if someone murders his wife and accepts the prison term that follows, figuring that a few years in the clink is a small price to pay to be rid of her? Would that be all right then? Absolutely not. But that’s because murder is wrong, not because there is a law against it. Just as in sport, we need to distinguish between the rules and morality. Sometimes breaking the rules also violates standards of fair play, like two-footed tackles. But that’s not because it’s breaking a rule, but because it’s nasty. Think of all the cases where it’s quite appropriate to break a rule, such as fouling in the last seconds of a basketball game.
The analogy isn’t perfect. In the sporting case, it’s entirely normal for the rules and morality to diverge, given that the rules standardly impose arbitrary constraints on matters of no moral significance. But in the political sphere we generally don’t want laws that require people to do things that aren’t also morally required. Still, the basic point remains. When you have a moral duty to obey the law, that’s not because it’s the law, but because breaking it would be wrong anyway. You oughtn’t to commit murder, even if there were no law against it. And conversely, when the legislature makes a mistake, and legally prohibits me from doing things that aren’t wrong, I don’t see that I have any moral duty to obey. I’ll listen to the ref all right--but I’m quite ready to break the rules, if my sense of fair play allows it.
I am interested in nearly all sports from around the world. I used to play some but not so much any more.
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2 Mutual Aid and the Art of Road Cycle Racing
3 Why Supporting a Team isn't Like Choosing a Washing Machine
4 Civil Society and Why Adnan Januzaj Should be Eligible for England (Though He Isn't)
5 Why Does Test Cricket Run in Families?
6 Bruce Grobbelaar and Middle Class Morality
7 The Importance of Being Focused
8 Professional Fouls and Political Obligation
9 Morality, Convention and Football Fakery
10 Give Me a Defender of Amateur Values and I'll Show You a Hypocrite
11 Game Theory, Team Reasoning, and a Bit about Sport Too
12 Sporting Geography, Political Geography and the Ryder Cup
13 Competitive Balance, Coase's Theorem and Sporting Capitalism
14 Bill Shankly, Noam Chomsky and the Value of Sport
15 Sporting Teams, Spacetime Worms, and Israeli Football
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