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Philosophy and Sport

Sport and Moral Relativity

Hal Charnofsky argues that in a society obsessed with competition, sport is bad for our souls.

Today in the realm of sports, including amateur and professional sports, kids’ and adults’ sports, ethical behavior is taught and adhered to less as an absolute value than as a practical means of avoiding the ‘appearance’ of cheating. In other words, whatever a team or an individual athlete can get away with, while ‘seeming’ to be honest and forthright, is considered not only acceptable but positively admirable. “Nice guys finish last” (attributed to the late baseball manager Leo Durocher) implies that those who play by the rules may be seen as good people but they do not win, and as Vince Lombardi, the late football coach, is said to have stated: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” Both of these comments make success more important than values such as sportsmanship, the ‘fun of the game’, and being a good loser.

Al Davis, the controversial owner of the Oakland Raiders professional football team in the USA, is fond of saying, “Just win, baby!” This epithet has become the battle cry of his team, and the Raiders have earned a reputation as one of the roughest and dirtiest teams in all of the National Football League. What’s more, their fans have acquired a label as the foulest and least sportsmanslike of any home town group in the League. European football (called soccer in the USA) is notorious for the violent and hoodlum-like behavior of the fanatics who follow many of the teams. Some Little League Baseball parents, it has been reported, send their eleven or twelve-year-olds to bed without supper because the child struck out and his or her team lost.

In the recently concluded National Basketball Association Western Conference playoffs, when the Los Angeles Lakers won the decisive seventh game on the home court of the Sacramento Kings, a Kings fan was quoted as saying that he was so depressed he felt like committing suicide. This is evidence, albeit only a single example, of the seriousness with which sports is taken. Losing leads to depression, because people identify closely with their teams. Their thinking goes like this: “The team lost, so I have lost.” The self is battered when a team that is loved loses.

What is going on here? One clue may be found in the recent admission by two well-known ex-major league baseball players in the USA that they not only took steroids themselves but that 50% (according to Ken Caminiti) or 85% (according to Jose Canseco) of the players in the big leagues take steroids. If these claims are true, and no one seems to be rushing forward to deny the numbers, then even the most ardent sports defender might be forced to admit that the quest for superior performance may be going too far. In 1998, Mark McGwire hit 70 homeruns and broke the immortal Babe Ruth’s record of 60. He admitted using the drug supplement Androstenedione during that season but stated it was solely to relieve pain. Besides, it was not illegal.

In fact, Major League baseball in the USA does not do drug testing on the players. Other major sports do, and of course the Olympic Games are infamous for discovering athletes who have violated the prohibition against performance- enhancing drugs and then either declaring them ineligible for further competition or stripping them of medals already won, or both. There does seem to be general agreement from many segments of society that drugs should not be used in sports, even McGwire-type drugs. There also seems to be general agreement that cheating in sports is not a good thing; it provides poor role-models for children and creates cynicism among adults.

Yet, how often do we hear the statement, “Everybody cheats on his income tax, so why shouldn’t I?” Sociologists have written about the alienation felt by many Americans, and one of the several kinds of alienation is ‘normlessness.’ Society’s rules are vague, hard to discern, and besides, few people follow them. In fact, only a fool would adhere strictly to rules that everyone else ignores. A recent article in Newsweek was entitled “Are you a tax CHUMP or a tax CHEAT?” Its thesis is that big companies often use tax dodges and pay little or no taxes while the average person coughs up an inordinate percentage of his or her income yearly. Newsweek says that corporate America has a gift for finding loopholes which are legal. But that doesn’t make them right. Is it any wonder that in a capitalistic society which worships competition, finding tax loopholes is considered creative, especially if such manipulations give a company or an individual an edge on their competitors? Why should sports be any different? There is one compelling difference. Sports are supposed to appeal to the ethic of fair play. Sports, both professional and amateur, are supposed to teach children sportsmanship (not gamesmanship). Sports are supposed to teach the value of honest competition, win or lose.

In our morally relativistic society, however, the so-called virtues of sports have gotten lost and seem to have been replaced with the win-at-all cost ethic. Instead of preparing young men and women for a life that focuses on fairness, we have focused on success and getting away with whatever we can. We have come a long way from “the playing fields of Eton.”


The late Hal Charnofsky was Professor of Sociology at California State University’s Dominguez Hills campus. A former professional baseball player, he was the author of numerous sport sociology articles of which this is, sadly, the last.

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