“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.
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 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.
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.