“There’s a difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
(Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics)
To understand the role ethics plays in sport and competition, it is important to make a distinction between gamesmanship and sportsmanship.
Gamesmanship is built on the principle that winning is everything.
Athletes and coaches are encouraged to bend the rules wherever possible in order to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent, and to pay less attention to the safety and welfare of the competition.
A more ethical approach to athletics is sportsmanship.
Under a sportsmanship model, healthy competition is seen as a means of cultivating personal honour, virtue, and character. It contributes to a community of respect and trust between competitors and in society. The goal in sportsmanship is not simply to win, but to pursue victory with honour by giving one’s best effort.
(Kirk O. Hanson & Matt Savage, Markkula Center / Institute for Sports Law and Ethics, 2012)
From time to time – usually triggered by watching matches live or by observations made when analysing video footage of matches in great detail at home – the numbers and stats take a back seat for me and bigger questions of a more … philosophical nature rear their head.
I have been told on more than one occasion, that my sense of fairness and “honour” (whatever that means) is somewhat overdeveloped and that I should just “chill and accept that life isn’t fair and get on with it.”
I get it!
While I am neither young nor naïve enough anymore to believe that life in general is “fair” I am just not willing to abandon the idea of SPORTSMANSHIP – especially in amateur sports.
To my relief I found out that I am not the only one who occasionally obsesses about ethics and sportsmanship. It is a real issue and maybe we (that is the people somehow involved in amateur sports such as the NRFL) would do well to pause every now and then and reflect on how we approach “our game” ?
Some time ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, USA has come up with a nice definition of ethics and sportsmanship:
Ethical conduct is a set of guiding principles with which each person follows the letter and spirit of the rules. Such conduct reflects a higher standard than law because it includes, among other principles, fundamental values that define sportsmanship.
The ROLE of coaches and players
FAIRNESS, INTEGRITY, RESPECT and RESPONSIBILITY have been put forward as the hallmarks of sportsmanship which is the opposite of gamesmanship, which subscribes to the notion of “winning at all costs, including foul play and cheating”.
(Kirk O. Hanson and Matt Savage, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)
It seems clear to me that SPORTSMANSHIP is first and foremost a virtue and a character trait of individuals (players, coaches, supporters, officials) but it can also be a matter of team culture if and when it is systematically and repeatedly substituted with GAMESMANSHIP as defined by the following mind set:
- Winning is everything
- It’s only cheating if you get caught
- It is the referee’s job to catch wrongdoing, and the athletes and coaches have no inherent responsibility to follow the rules
- The ends always justify the means
The means being justified by winning might be behaviours such as:
- Faking a foul or injury
- Covert personal fouls, such as hitting or pushing or grabbing a player when the ref is not looking
- Inflicting pain on an opponent with the intention of intimidating or knocking him or her out of the game,
- Fouling, taunting or intimidating an opponent- especially when done in order to provoke them, knowing that “retaliation” is typically being punished much more harshly than any original provocation
In football – as in all contact sports – foul play and infringements happen all the time. In that sense it is an inevitable part of a quite dynamic and physical game.
However, it seems to me that there are 3 very different levels of foul play.
There are situations that happen more or less accidentally because of a lack of skill or because of exhaustion (i.e. clumsy challenges, involuntary reflex leading to hand ball etc.). Typically the “offender” knows what they did was “off” and often enough they are the first ones to apologise – no big deal.
- “Losing momentarily control”
These are the “red mist situations”. The (over-motivated and over-excited or repeatedly provoked) player loses self-control and knowingly commits a foul or tries to cheat “in the heat of the moment”. Typically we do not see many apologies after that as a sense of righteousness (or desperation) prevents the player from regaining perspective and acknowledging the errors of their ways.
- “Cynical foul play”
These are the situations where knowingly AND intentionally (!) and even in a calculated fashion fouls are being committed and/or cheating (“diving” in particular) occurs. Of course, we won’t see any apologies or admission of any wrong doing here (by the player or anyone else sharing this particular mind set of Gamesmanship) as the basis of such cynical actions is a complete absence of FAIRNESS, INTEGRITY RESPECT and RESPONSIBILITY. What we witness on these occasions, instead, is a form of MALICE, DISRESPECT and DEVIANCY, actually. Cynical foul play is the epitome of gamesmanship.
The potential long-term consequences of cynical foul play
Something that has come to the fore for me this season – apart from the immediate undeserved advantage gained – has been the insidious consequences of players – or even entire teams – acquiring a “reputation” as being uncontrolled or “violent” because of having reacted to cynical foul play.
The laws of the game are clearly designed to prevent or at least contain any incidents of “violent conduct”. As such any behaviour by a player – factually harmless as it may have been – will be severely punished by a sent off and a possible prolonged suspension.
While violent conduct HAS TO be stopped, of course, a red card and suspension for the retaliating player also means that the cynical agent provocateur – if not equally being held responsible for their provocative actions – has been successful!
Some teams – subscribing to Gamesmanship as their philosophy – may even want to systematically capitalise on the reputation of their opponents by incessantly provoking them and complaining about them on and off the field.
Apart from being excluded from the match (and possibly others), the main problem with such a reputation (also known as “rusty Halo effect”) is that the public perception of such players will become naturally biased. Simply speaking a player with such a reputation will be much more likely to be judged in future games as having “misbehaved” even if they are objectively not.
A double standard develops that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the “known violent” player” will attract disproportional attention from bystanders and officials, thus “confirming” the bias even more. A nearly unbreakable vicious cycle has developed in such a case.
The recent spontaneous reaction of a Birkenhead supporter to a completely harmless coming together of players in a match that was actually marked by great fairness and sportsmanship all round. This person shouting out: ”Here we go again!” was a great illustration of the potential consequences of what amounts to character assassination for players who have acquired “ a reputation”.
Here is yet another viewpoint on this issue:
Ironically, violations also indicate a cheater’s lack in confidence in his or her ability to compete on a “level field.”
Ethical lapses redefine the game as not fair; in fact, cheating transforms the sport from a collegial celebration to a cynical manipulation. Any variety of serious cheating … defeats fairness and guts the meaning of the competition and the meaning of any awards given, especially to the cheater.
There is really not much more to say about the corrosive effect of gamesmanship.
Next time we will be looking at the role of spectators, supporters as well as officials when it comes to upholding sportsmanship in amateur sports.