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Galahad vs Odysseus

Emrys Westacott on honour codes and strategic thinking in sport and beyond.

In the last seconds of extra time in the 2010 soccer World Cup quarter final between Ghana and Uruguay, with the score at 1-1, Ghana were awarded a free kick deep in the Uruguayan half. The ball was crossed into the penalty area and a goalmouth scramble ensued. Twice the ball headed toward the net, and twice it was cleared off the line by Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez: the first time with his knee, the second time with his hands. Following the rule book exactly, the referee awarded Ghana a penalty and showed Suarez the red card.

Suarez left the field in tears. Most penalties are converted into goals, so at that moment it seemed overwhelmingly likely that Ghana would score and become the first African nation ever to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. An entire continent readied itself for ecstatic celebrations. Sadly for the Africans, Asomoah Gyan’s penalty hit the crossbar. The game went to a penalty shoot-out, which Uruguay won.

Afterwards, Suarez boasted that he had “made the best save of the tournament,” and was entirely unrepentant. “I did it,” he said, “so that my team-mates could win the shoot-out. When I saw Gyan miss the penalty, it felt great.”

Naturally, a Great Debate immediately ensued among soccer aficionados and other moralists around the world. Many were outraged that Ghana had been defeated by what they saw as a blatant piece of cheating. Others denied that Suarez had cheated, pointing out that the hand-ball had been instinctive rather than premeditated.

This incident raises all sorts of questions. Did Suarez cheat? If what he did wasn’t cheating, was it, nevertheless, unsporting? If so, should we describe his action as unethical? It also offers an opportunity for a meta-reflection on how we decide – and how we should decide – what view to take when confronted with controversies of this sort.

Enter The Champions

Let’s begin by giving names to two opposing views of Suarez’s hand-ball. The Odyssian perspective, named for Homer’s famously crafty hero, says that Suarez should be praised for his cleverness. What he did might have been foolish in some circumstances, but in the last seconds of extra time in a knockout round he has nothing to lose. If he lets the ball past him, Uruguay are out of the competition.

The Odyssian perspective admires success. It focuses on ends and doesn’t worry much about means. By contrast, what we can call the Galahadian attitude is not prepared to compromise ethical principles for the sake of achieving some end, no matter how great. To disciples of Galahad, the purest of King Arthur’s knights, virtue is non-negotiable. A code of conduct lays down what is right, and abiding by this code is always and everywhere a Galahadian’s first concern. From this point of view, Suarez acted dishonorably by violating the code. Far from being a hero, he is a sinner, a moral cynic whose reprehensible methods sully the prize he secured for his team.

Which of these perspectives is preferable? In order to answer this question we have first to settle the more basic question: how should we go about deciding which point of view to prefer?

Uncovering Cheating in Sport

One obvious approach is to ask: Did Suarez cheat? Underlying this question is the widely-held assumption that cheating is wrong. So if we can prove that he cheated, we will have proved that what he did should be condemned. But although the question is one that occurs naturally, it will only help resolve the issue if we have a generally-agreed-upon definition of cheating. We don’t, and there are two main reasons for this.

First, the concept of cheating is surprisingly hard to define with precision. For instance, must cheating involve breaking the rules? Some kinds of cheating do, but not all. Tennis players who, in unofficiated matches, call an opponent’s ball out when they suspect it may be good don’t break the rules, they merely violate what is known as ‘the code’. Yet they are universally regarded as cheats. Must cheating involve some sort of deception? It often does. Marathon runners hitching rides clearly seek to deceive. But not all cheating is like that. If Suarez had caught the ball, handed it to the referee, and left the field, his action would have been essentially the same, yet he could hardly be accused in that case of trying to deceive anyone.

The second problem with appealing to a definition of cheating is that the concept is ‘normatively loaded’. Like ‘murder’ or ‘perversion’, ‘cheating’ is a pejorative term. That is why although Suarez, his coach, and his teammates readily admitted that he handled the ball, none of them would concede that he cheated, preferring to reserve that term for other sorts of offence, such as those that are pre-meditated. Asking whether or not Suarez cheated thus gets us nowhere.

A second common approach in deciding what view to take of what Suarez did involves appealing to a principle of consistency. Here we are invited to compare our view of the Suarez episode with the way we regard other incidents we consider analogous. For instance, Odyssians might point out that in basketball it is standard practice for players to deliberately foul opponents, especially near the end of a game, in order to stop the clock and regain possession once the free throws have been made. Hardly anyone sees this as morally dubious – it is simply viewed as an intelligent tactic, and commentators will even call these fouls ‘good fouls’.

Galahadians, on the other hand, can point out that that in some other sports, an action comparable to Suarez’s hand-ball would be universally viewed as outrageously unsporting. For instance, they might liken what Suarez did to a golfer kicking away an opponent’s putt just before it reaches the hole – an action so shockingly improper it could cost you your country club membership.

But appealing to consistency, like appealing to the definition of cheating, turns out to be a dead end. It cannot, by itself, resolve the dispute between Odysseus and Galahad. There are two reasons for this.

First, both sides can equally well make this appeal. Odysseus will point to the general acceptance in basketball of deliberate fouls provided they are properly penalized and argue that a similar attitude should become the norm in soccer. But Galahad will mirror this maneuver and argue that since deliberate fouls are considered unsporting in soccer, we should extend this view to other sports, like basketball. Since both sides are appealing to the principle of consistency here, that principle can hardly be used to settle the dispute.

Second, there are different ways of being consistent. One form of consistency, for instance, would be to recognize that different sports have different conventions and to go along with these, whatever they are. From this perspective, one won’t expect ice hockey players to treat their opponents the way golfers do: rather, one consistently assesses conduct as sporting or unsporting in relation to the prevailing ethos within the sport being played. But suppose, instead, that one judged all conduct by all players in all sports by reference to the same ideal of sportsmanship – say, the ideal usually found in golf. That would be an alternative sort of consistency. Yet how do we decide which kind of consistency should be preferred? Obviously, we can’t appeal to the principle of consistency to settle the issue.

Choosing Sides

Let’s return to our original question. In the debate over Suarez’s hand-ball, two competing outlooks emerged: the Odyssian and the Galahadian. How should we decide which to prefer? We have seen that appealing to the definition of cheating or to a principle of consistency doesn’t help. These are dead ends that don’t take us beyond the impasse of the original opposition between the two perspectives. So how might we get beyond this impasse? In my view, the most fruitful approach is to ask which we would prefer: a world in which soccer is played in an Odyssian spirit, or one in which Galahadian attitudes prevail. If we prefer the former, then we have no reason to criticize Suarez; we might even applaud him. If we prefer the latter, then it makes sense to disapprove of his action.

Notice, this is a thoroughly pragmatist way of addressing the issue. It doesn’t assume there is any objective way of judging the morality of Suarez’s hand-ball. Instead, it holds that moral positions should be adopted or rejected according to how well they further our purposes and help us realize our ideals. It also assumes that our expressions of approval or disapproval may help nudge the ethos of a sport – and perhaps also of other sports, and ultimately, the culture at large – toward our preferred ideal.

There has been little systematic research on this, but it seems reasonable to suppose that if they adopt this approach, most people involved with soccer or any other sport will be led to disapprove of Suarez’s hand-ball, since there are good reasons to prefer a sports culture in which Galahadian norms prevail.

For match officials and administrators, the question is a no-brainer. Matches would be easier to officiate, and referees would spend less time wiping egg off their faces after video replays proved that they had once again been duped by some cunning piece of gamesmanship. Most players, one supposes, would also favor this environment. Competitors in sports where thoroughly sporting attitudes are the norm certainly don’t seem to enjoy themselves less. On the contrary, where cheating and gamesmanship abound, there tends to be more anger, bitterness, and even occasional violence. Also significant are studies showing that most athletes support drug testing as a deterrent against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. While doping isn’t quite the same as pretending to have been fouled, using drugs to gain an advantage obviously reflects an Odyssian attitude. (The hero of the Odyssey generally relies on Athena rather than amphetamines to enhance his performance, but the principle is similar.) Yet even those who have adopted the Odyssian attitude usually wish things were otherwise. They would prefer to operate in a drug-free environment, and if they take drugs themselves, they do so because they believe they must in order to compete in a wicked world.

No doubt there are some players and coaches who thrive in a Machiavellian atmosphere, who pride themselves on their ruthless, unsentimental natures, and relish the need for the keener wits that an Odyssian contest requires. According to them, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.” According to them, nice guys – and Galahad is unquestionably one of these – finish last. (It’s not true that Galahad finished last: one could even say he won the cup! But mythic figures don’t make good counterexamples.) But we should not assume that feisty Machiavellians represent the norm in sport. The majority of participants would surely prefer to compete in a setting where a strong honor code is in place and they don’t have to worry about anyone’s dirty tricks.

What about the largest group of those involved – the spectators? If a Galahadian attitude prevailed, would soccer be more enjoyable to watch, or less? Some might argue that soccer played in a spirit of unblemished sportsmanship would be anemic. After all, the players that reach the highest levels are fiercely competitive individuals; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have made it to the top. In a physically-demanding, fast-moving, full-of-passion contact sport, this competitiveness is not easily held in check. Inevitably, at times it spills over into rule-bending, rule-breaking, gamesmanship, and physical aggression.

Moreover, part of the appeal of soccer is the drama of the game. Competitive intensity and passion fuel this drama; and sometimes decidedly unGalahadian episodes can enhance the spectacle. Games have a narrative, and sometimes the story is that old favorite, the battle between good and evil, with certain players, or even whole teams, playing the despised but necessary role of villain. The disputed penalty, the flourishing of a red card, the controversies surrounding subtle bits of gamesmanship, the pleasurable experience of hurling abuse at wicked opponents and gullible officials, all add to the theatricality. Drain away these elements and soccer might certainly be more sporting, but wouldn’t it also lose some of its color and excitement? So might say the Odyssians, and they could probably count on tabloid editors for support.

On the other side of the ledger, were a Galahadian ethos to prevail in soccer there would be no more diving for free kicks, feigning injury to waste time or get opponents sent off, underhand shirt pulling, cynical tripping to blot out promising counter-attacks, discrete elbows in the face, or not-so-discrete tackles designed to injure or intimidate. Whatever small loss might be incurred in the realm of competitive intensity would be more than compensated for in most people’s eyes by a freer-flowing game. Soccer is, after all, supposed to be ‘the beautiful game’.

Moreover, Galahadian sport would offer its own form of pleasing dramatics – the sort of heroically sporting behavior that would follow were players’ actions governed by the consideration: What would Galahad do? An incident that made the local newspapers in 2008 offers a memorable illustration of such sportsmanship beyond expectations. In a softball game between the University of Western Oregon and Central Washington University, Sara Tucholski hit a home run for UWO but failed to touch first base as she ran around the diamond. Realizing her mistake, she turned back to first base, but in doing so she twisted her knee badly and collapsed in pain. Stuck at first base and unable to progress around the bases unassisted (under the rules, no teammate could assist her), it seemed the only option was for her to be replaced by a pinch runner, thereby reducing a well-hit home run to a mere single. But then two players from the fielding team went over to first base, helped her up, and carried her around the bases, making sure she touched each one in turn. As the trio group reached home plate, many of the players, as well as spectators from both teams, were moved to tears by such an outstanding display of sportsmanship.

Lest it be thought that this sort of thing would only occur among amateurs – or only among females! – consider the example of tennis player Andy Roddick. In the 2005 Rome Masters, Roddick was at match point against Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco’s second serve was called out. The double fault would have given Roddick the match, but Roddick told the umpire it was good. His honesty handed Verdasco a lifeline which, as it turned out, enabled Verdasco to win that game and, eventually, the match.

Sporting generosity of this sort even appears on the soccer field, at times. In a 2001 English Premier League game between West Ham and Everton, the Everton goalkeeper went down injured during a West Ham attack. The ball was crossed to the Hammers’ striker Paolo di Canio; but instead of trying to score into an unguarded net, di Canio caught the ball and indicated that the keeper needed urgent attention. Supporters of both teams gave him a standing ovation.

Such examples of outstanding sporting behavior – and many more could be cited – show that the Galahadian attitude is possible even in the heat of gladiatorial combat. They also underscore the fact that most people enjoy witnessing sportsmanship of this order and approve of it strongly.

Worlds of Sport

A Galahadian ethos would not only help to eliminate cynical cheating, it would also make exemplary sportsmanship the norm. To imagine how things would be in this alternative universe, consider two other controversies connected with the 2010 World Cup.

France qualified for the competition by beating Ireland. The winning goal was set up by the French captain Thierry Henry after he had clearly handled the ball. The Irish were naturally outraged. French supporters, after their initial jubilation, became decidedly shamefaced. Many, including the French sports minister, the newspaper Libération, and the trade union representing gym teachers (only in France!) urged a rematch. When Le Monde polled its readers on whether France deserved to be in the World Cup, 88% said no.

Henry’s reaction was inconsistent. Immediately after the goal he jubilated with his team-mates; at the end of the game he consoled his defeated opponents. Interviewed afterwards he admitted handling the ball, but made no apology, saying, “I am not the referee.” Two days later, aware of mounting criticism, he said he regretted celebrating the goal as he had done, and (unlike the French Football Federation) supported the idea of replaying the game.

What would Galahad have done? That’s easy to say. One can readily accept Henry’s claim that the hand-ball was an instinctive reaction as the ball came quickly to him at an awkward height. But once it has occurred, the sporting thing – the Galahadian thing – to do is obviously not to celebrate, but to tell the referee that the ball was handled and that the goal should not stand. If the referee is so pig-headed as to refuse to change his decision, then the French team could gift their opponents a goal, as the Dutch team Ajax once did in a game against Cambuur after they accidentally scored whilst voluntarily returning possession to their opponents following a stoppage.

The second-most-controversial incident of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (the Suarez hand-ball being the first) occurred in the second round match between England and Germany. The English midfielder Frank Lampard fired in a shot that beat the German keeper, Manuel Neuer, struck the crossbar, bounced down into the goal, hit the ground about two feet past the goal line, and then bounced back out of the goal, where it was caught by Neuer, who quickly threw it to one of his team, thereby suggesting that there was no reason for the game to be halted. Remarkably, neither the referee nor his assistant saw that the ball had crossed the line. Play was waved on, and a few minutes later the whistle blew for half time. Germany went on to win the game 4-1.

Neuer said about the incident, “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.” Cleary, Neuer is of the Odyssian persuasion. He knew a goal had been scored, quick-wittedly saw a chance to deceive the referee, and took it. Afterwards he was unapologetic. From an Odyssian point of view, of course, what Neuer did was entirely rational. In sport as in life, a lot depends on luck. The officials’ failure to spot the goal was a huge slice of luck for Germany. But over the long haul, good and bad luck balances out, so the Odyssian attitude is to accept whatever good fortune comes your way – to make gift horses, rather than look them in the mouth.

But what would Galahad have done had he been in Neuer’s shoes? Again, the answer is obvious. He would have signaled to the referee that the ball had crossed the line, disdaining to take advantage of a refereeing blunder and sparing the officials their subsequent embarrassment.

This did not happen, of course, and no one expected it. And given that Galahadian attitudes are not the current default in soccer, it was perhaps too much to expect in the heat of the moment. But a few minutes later the whole German team, assembled in the dressing room at half time, would have seen the replays and become fully aware that, by rights, the score should have been 2-2. Here they were no longer operating in the heat of the moment. And here was a marvelous opportunity to give soccer, and sport in general, a massive injection of Galahadian spirit. Had Galahad been giving the half-time team talk, he would have instructed his captain to pass the ball to the English team at the kick-off and allow them to score unopposed, thereby leveling the scores. The world would have been stunned; but once it had grasped what had happened, the world would almost certainly have given the Germans a deafening standing ovation.

So, to return to our original question: How should we decide what view to take of Suarez’s hand-ball? If we are convinced that soccer would be more enjoyable for almost everyone concerned should a Galahadian ethos become the norm, that gives us a reason to praise displays of outstanding sportsmanship and to criticize anyone who employs less than honorable methods to gain an advantage.

The purpose and rationale for our verdict is the same in both cases: to help nudge soccer toward the Galahadian ideal. It doesn’t follow automatically that we should take a similar line in every other sport. The pragmatic approach advocated here does not fetishize abstract consistency. Conceivably, some sports might be more enjoyable without a strict honor code in place. The only example that comes to mind, though, is all-in wrestling; and that is more properly classified as theater rather than sport. It seems reasonable, therefore, tentatively to generalize the Galahadian prescription across all sports. Eventually the ideal may be realized where every competitor has an internal voice of conscience that nips the very idea of dishonorable actions in the bud by asking always, everywhere: What would Galahad do?

Wider Fields

Whether the Galahadian attitude should be extended to moral issues beyond sport is an interesting question. Certainly, there are controversies that are strikingly parallel in form to the debate over Suarez’s hand-ball, and sometimes, an analysis of one debate can usefully illuminate an issue in a quite different sphere. To take just one example: is it unethical for homeowners to default on their mortgages simply because it is in their financial interest to do so?

With the sharp decline in house prices in many countries which began in 2006, this question has arisen for millions of people who have found themselves ‘underwater’. If you are making payments on a $200,000 mortgage to buy a house that is now worth $100,000, you may be better off walking away from the loan. Continuing with your monthly payments is like buying stock for $20 a share when its current market value is $10 a share. It’s a bad investment. From a strictly financial point of view, a ‘strategic default’ may be the best option.

As with the Suarez controversy, there are two main schools of thought. On the one hand, there are the moralists – disciples of Galahad – who see strategic defaulting as unethical. Signing a mortgage contract, they argue, is like making a promise. And just as it is dishonorable to break a promise for self-serving reasons, so it is wrong to renege on a contract unless breaking it is unavoidable. This is the view taken by a majority of Americans in 2010 according to a Pew Research Center study.

On the other hand, there are the legalists who point out that the contract signed by the bank and the homeowner stipulates what will happen if the borrower stops making payments. Typically, in that case, the bank is entitled to foreclose on the property. To the business mentality, the question of whether one should strategically default on a loan is entirely a financial matter. Morality doesn’t come into it. One looks at the terms of the contract and calculates the bottom line. Obviously, this way of thinking parallels the Odyssian view of Suarez’s hand-ball: there are times when it is makes sense to break the rules and pay the prescribed penalty. If the other party feels aggrieved, the appropriate course of action isn’t for them to scream “Cheat!” or “Swindler!” but to lobby for a change in the rules. In soccer, the referees could be allowed to award penalty goals, just as in rugby they can award penalty tries. In banking, the penalties for defaulting on loans could be made so severe that it would never be an attractive option.

The parallel between the Suarez controversy and the debate over strategic defaulting is almost exact. One side views breaking the contract as unethical; the other side views it as a legitimate option. Here, too, there is a temptation to settle the matter quickly by appealing to a supposedly self-evident principle such as ‘Thou shalt honor thy contracts’, or by claiming that a contract is, by definition, a kind of promise, and promise-breaking is wrong; or, from the other side, by showing how justifying strategic defaulting is consistent with one’s position on other supposedly similar questions. But, as with the Suarez controversy, these argumentative strategies don’t so much settle the dispute as short circuit it. They assume there is a Right Way, the rightness of which can be demonstrated.

By contrast, the pragmatic approach makes no such assumption. Instead it asks which way of thinking we would like to see prevail. If we would prefer a world in which people consider honoring contracts a moral obligation, and we see this as a realistic possibility, then that would be a reason to side with the moralists. If, on the other hand, we think things would be better were everyone on the same page as the unperturbed strategic defaulters, that would be a reason for endorsing their position. And doing so doesn’t make us cynical amoralists. It may simply be that we think that promoting the strategic attitude will do more good than harm since fewer people will bankrupt themselves, sacrificing their happiness, their children’s education, and other worthwhile things on the altar of abstract moral principle. Moreover, it might help level the playing field between the little folk, who view defaulting as shameful, and Big Finance, who don’t wear this particular moral straightjacket.

If, as a third possibility, we believe that the moralist’s attitude is destined for the dustbin of history but worry that widespread strategic defaulting would have bad economic consequences or undermine moral fiber, then we should urge that contracts or the law be written to make strategic defaulting so costly as to be irrational.

The Final Score

The earlier analysis of the Suarez controversy can be mapped onto many other moral debates in a similar way. But it is important to recognize that the pragmatic approach allows one to take different sides in different debates. One could advocate Galahadianism on the sports field without committing oneself to a moralistic view on mortgage defaults. And those who share the pragmatic perspective may still disagree over which ideals they prefer. One may find the Galahadian ideal attractive, both within sport and in other domains, yet recognize that others may rationally prefer an Odyssian world, relishing the opportunities it gives for playing the ‘Great Game’ – the unceasing battle to outwit everyone else in sport, in business, in politics, in life. Nevertheless, the pragmatic approach, precisely because it avoids the rigidity of moral stances that appeal to definitions or pride themselves on their unbending commitment to objective principles, is inherently flexible. And this makes it well-suited to a time when our forms of life, including our social conventions, are in constant flux.

© Emrys Westacott 2012

Emrys Westacott is Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University in Western New York. His most recent book is The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton University Press, 2011).


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