Michael Moynihan: Isn't now the perfect time to address morality in sport?

When the dust settles, the usual preoccupations will reassert themselves. Wins and losses, scores and decisions: sport in all its infinite variety.
Michael Moynihan: Isn't now the perfect time to address morality in sport?
Vittorio Bufacchi is senior lecture in political philosophy in UCC

When the dust settles, the usual preoccupations will reassert themselves. Wins and losses, scores and decisions: sport in all its infinite variety.

But are there deeper questions in sport? Matters of morality and ethics which are rarely addressed? If so, is this not the perfect time to address them before sport resumes?

Vittorio Bufacchi is senior lecture in political philosophy in UCC. His starter: what role is played by ethics in sport?

“Every sport has rules, and ethics is also about rule-following — at least the deontological (duty-based) approach to ethics, according to which we live in a universe of moral rules, and it is our duty to follow those rules.

“Of course things get a bit more complicated in ethics when the rules we are told to follow are not moral, like laws under Nazism or apartheid) but we don’t have to worry about it here. In terms of ethics and sport, there is a prima facie duty to play within the rules of the game, and that’s how it should be, but as we all know that is often not the case.”

Marta Rocchi, assistant professor in corporate governance and business ethics at DCU Business School chips in: “What I think is happening now with ethics and sports, the interesting part, is that on one hand sport is still a human practice that helps to achieve excellence, that helps living a virtuous life virtues.

“On the other hand, sport has also become an industry, with all the challenges of ethics in an industry — which differ from the challenges of each discipline..

“There’s a tension that needs to be worked out to understand the ethics of sport.

“What happens when something becomes an industry? In any industry, there is a desire for the achievement of material goods, like money, or goods that philosophers like MacIntyre would call “external,” such as reputation or success.

"Think of someone in sport who is practicing that sport not because he enjoys it but because it’s a successful career where he can get a reputation, more money, more influence — all of those things.

When the sport becomes an industry it faces the challenge of keeping its original spirit. If the desire for material and external goods prevails over the desire for the achievement of excellence, then we’re destroying the practice of sports.

"We want to see athletes that are first of all good people, with virtuous characters, with passion for their discipline and healthy ambition: we want to see the real essence of sport embodied in those who practice it.”

The challenge for sportspeople, then, is in conforming to the rules. Or bending them, as Bufacchi says.

“Rules are open to interpretation, so participants must decide how far they can bend the rules of the game. It is not unethical to bend the rules, but it is unethical to break the rule.

“There is the grey area where something can be wrong but still acceptable —  within limits. The fact that everyone knows that everyone is doing it is regrettable, but it makes the wrongness more acceptable. The way to deal with it is to introduce better or stricter rules.

But we need to ask ourselves what motivates athletes to cheat. The amount of money in sports today in part explains why ethics seem to be out of fashion.

Rocchi adds that the nature of sporting rules should also be considered.

“If we’re thinking about how far we can go with the rules — in sport or business — then I think we misunderstand the practice of both sport and business.

“People think that ethics is just about rules and how to stay within the rules.

“But the relationship between ethics and rules is just one part of ethics. If we look back at when ethics started as a philosophical and practical reflections on human actions, among the ancient Greek philosophers, it was about the excellence of human beings, not just about how human beings could respect the rules — or not.

“That’s why in the culture of ancient Greece, sport was so important. The games held in the ancient Olympia, from where the current Olympic Games took inspiration, for instance, were a way for people to show their excellence, achieved by cultivating their virtues.

“They had to be constant in training, fair in competitions, and their virtues were well rewarded in that society.”

Yet many athletes struggle to live within ethical guidelines both within their sports and outside. Why is that?

“The problem is that sports are no longer practised for fun," says Bufacchi, "as a healthy form of competition between friends or peers: instead sports are now very competitive, grounded on animosity. From a very young age kids playing a sport are told that the point is to win, not to participate.

The expectations (of the parents and clubs) is for the kids to win, to be the best, or at least better than the opposition. This is potentially unhealthy, and it brings us to the question of cheating in sports.

“Individuals cheat because they fear being mediocre and losing — see Lance Armstrong — but clubs are also guilty of another type of unethical behaviour.

“Many believe, wrongly as far as I’m concerned, that the only thing that matters is winning, and it cannot be wrong to do everything that it takes to win. That’s the sort of mentality that precipitated the global financial meltdown in 2008, but that’s for another day.

“The point is that clubs do all sorts of unethical things, in the sense that their actions cause immense harm to individual athletes, but somehow they assume that this is ok because they have to win.”

Flip that around, though. Doesn’t the pursuit of sporting excellence have the potential to make an athlete self-centred?

“That’s a good question,” says Rocchi. “Because to achieve excellence we have to look at ourselves and we have to understand how we can achieve our goals in a way that make us better people.

“A person who truly believes in his or her sport is not someone who just advances him or herself — which is still very important — but is advancing the practice of that sport itself.

“When you set a new record you’re setting a new standard, a new level of excellence for others to reach.

“You can have two players who both achieve great results, but one may be doing so through hard work and training, while the other may be using illegal doping methods.

“What’s the difference? Externally they have the same results, but internally one of them truly believes in and enjoys the sport, while the other, in the end, is cheating and is not contributing to the practice of the sport."

Bufacchi points to “another hidden danger. Success in sport, especially at an early age, and the adulation this brings, leads some athletes to suspend or conveniently forget the generally accepted rules of ethics.

Sports create heroes and monsters in equal measure. While there is no justification for the unethical behaviours of some athletes, their clubs could and should do more to protect their young stars, not just from the outside world but from themselves.

“Many young (male) athletes simply cannot cope with the money and fame that they have, but clubs are not interested – they chew them and spit them out, and move on to invest in the next young athlete.”

Rocchi points out that ultimately ethics in sport relates to an athlete becoming “the best version of him or herself”.

“If we need to think about ethics in sport then, as I say, we are discussing excellence, the way a player becomes the best version of him- or herself while practising sport.

“Sometimes when we see players claiming as valid something that was clearly outside the rules, we blame them — when something like this happens in public they lose their credibility, because someone who can lie and cheat when playing can also lie and cheat in normal life.

“We’re the same person every time, which is the kind of answer Aristotle would have given.”

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