Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More on Early Recruiting in the United States

Earlier this month, I briefly discussed some problems with the recruiting of young athletes by the University of Kentucky's basketball coach. Another article in the Lexington Herald-Leader continues the discussion of this issue. In the article, it is reported that Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie defended the practice of recruiting young players as something that is necessitated by the competitive nature of recruiting. Kentucky and the University of Indiana have both offered scholarships to Jeremiah Davis, who just finished his freshman year of high school. Wisely, his high school coach and his father agree that Davis simply needs to be a kid for a while.

Admittedly, Gillispie is not offering a philosophical defense of the practice. From the perspective of a coach who wants the best players he can get, Gillispie apparently feels that he should go after young players in his recruiting. However, the mere competitive nature of anything is not enough in and of itself to justify some practice. For example, consider the practices that could be "justified" by this same type of argument: doping, cheating, lying about age in the Little League World Series, and so on. Those who accept this trend in recruiting as something needed because of the competitive nature of recruiting and sport in general fail to consider the real threats to the welfare of children posed by this practice. Kids do need to be kids, while they can. Why rush them into the pressures and challenges of adulthood before they are ready, and before it is necessary? The competitive nature of elite sport is not a sufficient justification.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What would a "good" Olympic Games look like in 2012?

For some interesting answers to this question, see the conclusions of the 2006 Olympic symposium including the British Philosophy of Sport Association and UK Sport here.
The last set of comments by Jim Parry are particularly interesting for those interested in Olympism and moral philosophy.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Contributor Introduction- Char Weaving

I am a proud maritimer who teaches at St. Francis Xavier University in a Human Kinetics Dept. on the east coast of Canada. My Ph.D. research focused on the sexual objectification of female athletes and I continue to explore sexuality and sport in the philosophical context.

While driving home yesterday, I was thrilled to hear the softball news story from Portland Oregon. Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University hit her first ever home run and started to take her "victory lap". However, she collapsed quickly due to a knee injury but managed to make it to first base. The rules of softball indicate that she would be called out if her teammates attempted to help her. Consequently, two players from the opposing team, Central Washington University, decided to help Sarah out and carried her around the bases in true fair play spirit. Tucholsky's team ended up winning the game and advanced in the playoffs knocking off Central Washington.

All in all, it is a great story that should be celebrated. However, I was a bit put off while listening to the news story in that the radio journalist asked the players if they ever could imagine such an occurrence taking place in men's sport... right--fair play is reserved for women only :)

Sport and Children's Rights

Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that University of Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie has offered a scholarship to a California basketball player named Michael Avery. The surprising element of this is that Avery is an 8th grader, and has committed to play for UK beginning with the 2012-2013 season. Several uncertainties are in play here, as mentioned in the article: Avery, a 6'4" guard, has perhaps peaked athletically; he may suffer a serious injury; and who knows where Gillispie might be coaching in 2012?

Many ethical issues are raised by this turn of events, but I'd like to focus on one contained in several articles within a recent section of the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport devoted to children and philosophy of sport, namely, the right of children to an open future. Joel Feinberg describes this right as consisting of a child being entitled to having as many options open to her as possible upon becoming an adult, so that she will be able to exercise autonomy maximally as a competent adult. It is not clear to me that Avery's right to an open future is undermined by his commitment to Kentucky, given that he can opt out of the commitment in the future. However, I would argue that it is safe to say that such a development is troubling. Should 8th graders be making such commitments, and moreover should college coaches be seeking them? While this might not, strictly speaking, unduly limit Avery's present and future autonomy, it does seem to tighten the openness of his future in significant ways. The pressure to excel in basketball might cause him to forego other options that should still be live options at his age: other sports, music, art, scholastics, and free time to just be a kid, to name a few. Even if these factors do not obtain in this specific case, they could and likely would in other cases if this practice becomes more widespread. Is this a cause for concern, or am I merely making much ado about nothing?

If anyone has thoughts on this, please post them in the comments link below.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Very Short Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport (Part 2)

Part II: Ethical, Social, and Political Issues


Not surprisingly, ethical issues have drawn the most scholarly debate within the field. Aside from the general debate about the role of movement, sport, and play in “the good life,” the field provides a variety of issues that can be examined in a variety of ways. For example, the morality of doping may be approached from the perspective of traditional virtue ethics by developing a conception of a good person within sport (sometimes called sportsmanship or sportspersonship), then asking whether this person would use dope. From the perspective of Kantian-style duty ethics, one may point out that doping violates a promise made to a competitor. And from a consequentialist utilitarian perspective, one may argue that doping has negative health consequences. In recent years, Alisdair MacIntyre’s social practice theory (After Virtue, 1981) has been applied frequently to sport. On this view, sports are seen as group activities in which practitioners seek certain internal goods and uphold particular standards of virtue. From this perspective the question about doping is whether it interferes with the pursuit of those internal goods or group-defined virtues.

Of course the most basic ethical question in sport is cheating: is it ever morally permissible to intentionally break a rule? The most controversial example is fouling to stop the clock in basketball. A strict perspective on this practice is Warren Fraleigh’s “logical incompatibility thesis,” which says you can’t break a rule and play the game at the same time. Insofar as games just are sets of rules, violating rules amounts to not playing the game. A softer approach views breaking rules as unethical when it interferes with the game’s purpose of testing a prescribed set of skills. A third perspective views games as cultures rather than rule sets and defines sport ethics in terms of what’s accepted by the community of practitioners. The clock-stopping foul in basketball, on this view, is morally permissible because it’s accepted and even expected within the culture of the game. It’s not clear, however, that acceptance of a practice amounts to moral rectitude. Unwritten rules might also carry moral obligations—as with the soccer custom of kicking the ball out of play when a player is injured. If a player is somehow unaware of this custom, and therefore fails to do it, has she done something immoral?

Morality in sports competition involves more than rule-obedience. The interpersonal nature of competition itself implies certain moral obligations. In Fair Play: Sport, Values, and Society (1991) Robert Simon defines athletic competition as a “mutual quest for excellence” that is ultimately cooperative and therefore carries the obligation to provide a good test for one’s opponent. Violence, defined as the intent to harm or disable one’s opponent, is unethical on this model because it interferes with the cooperative quest for excellence. Aggressive but clean checking in hockey may be part of the game, but preventing a competitor from being able to test his skills is not acceptable. This is a problem for the sport of boxing insofar as its lusory goal—the knock out—just is the violent disabling of ones opponent.

Ethical issues in sport also examine actions in terms of what is good for the sport generally. The use of high-tech equipment, such as hydrodynamic swimsuits, is a good topic for debate. Robert Butcher and Angela Schneider define fair play as “respect for the game,” which they describe in terms of preserving what MacIntyre called the internal goods of a particular sport. Hi-tech equipment may interfere with these goods if, for example, it makes the sport too expensive for many to participate, or if it replaces one of the sport’s important skills with a mechanical advantage. On the other hand, high-tech equipment can be good for the game if it preserves or increases access to internal goods. Many would argue that the advent of the fiberglass vaulting pole made the sport safer and more accessible to athletes of all sizes and genders. Sports ethics does not always cohere with conventional athletic wisdom, but it does apply disciplined ethical thinking to practices which too often view themselves as “beyond” ethical scrutiny.

The Social and Political Functions of Sport

The third big area of philosophical speculation in sport has to do with sport’s social and political functions. Foremost among these is the use of sport in education. Many sport philosophers are also physical educators and the role and purpose of PE is a popular topic. R. Scott Kretchmar’s Practical Philosophy of Sport (1994) promotes a reflective approach to physical education that emphasizes finding meaning in movement. Sport is also discussed as a means of moral education, with special attention paid to its ability to reveal or perhaps cultivate “character.” Heather L. Reid’s The Philosophical Athlete (2002) focuses on what athletes can learn from participating in competitive sport. Finally, sport is discussed as a means of social education—a way of teaching the cooperation and teamwork necessary to succeed in modern society.

Philosophers of sport also debate issues of sport and social access. Sport, like society, has a history of exclusion by class, race, and gender. A hot topic in recent years has been the relationship of women with sport. In the USA a law called Title IX guarantees equal access for males and females to all educational programs—including sport. Educators note that sport helps females to compensate for social discrimination, and there are quantifiable data showing that athletic teenagers are less likely to become pregnant or use drugs. Nevertheless, Title IX preserves sex segregation in sport, which begs the question of whether separate can really be equal (and whether equal is really appropriate) for males and females in sport.

Sport is often discussed in terms of political concepts such as the social contract. Is accepting the rules of a game akin to entering a social contract? The political ideal of justice can be compared to the sport-specific concept of fair play. Principles such as equal opportunity seem to be reflected in sports by common starting lines and level playing fields, but they are also challenged by inequities of natural ability, coaching resources, equipment, and poverty. Sports sometimes compensate for competitive advantages by providing various “handicaps,” but are these always just? Issues of liberty and authority are frequently discussed in issues revolving around personal risk and safety, as well as social control issues, such as the excessive celebration rule in American Football.

Broader cultural issues are also examined in their relationship to sport. Prominent among these are questions about commercialization and commodification. Big-time college sport in the USA seems driven by business interests even while it applies the strictest amateur regulations to its athletes. Does professionalization make sport more work than play? Has sport lost the qualities of autotelicity (i.e. being an end in itself) and gratuitousness (i.e. being unnecessary for survival) that set it off from ordinary life and—at least to the ancient Hellenes—made it noble? William J. Morgan believes that the relationship between sport and culture teaches us as much about society as it does about athletes. In Why Sports Morally Matter (2006) he recounts the damage done to sport by so-called free-market values, illuminating at the same time sport’s potential to cultivate constructive social skills and values that challenge the dominant ideology. On an international level as well, sport has demonstrated its ability to encourage peaceful dialogue among diverse cultures—indeed this is a philosophical foundation of the Olympic Games.

Questions for the Future

By any standard, philosophy of sport must be regarded as a nascent academic field with a vast unexplored frontier. Important texts and ideas from the history of philosophy have been profitably applied to sport and there is still much ground to cover. Non-western philosophy offers many opportunities in this area; Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, is the only major work to date. The analysis of additional ethical and political issues is also ripe for development, particularly as sport plays a larger role in commercial society and international politics. Philosophy, ultimately, is about the desire to know—there is much to know about sport and our journey has just begun.

PhD Opportunity Available

The faculty of Sport, Exercise and Social Care at the University of Gloucestershire is advertising a three year fully funded PhD (£12,000 plus fees) in the Philosophy of Sport and Technology. The studentship is available to research the following questions:
  • To what extent can a meaningful distinction be made between the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ athlete?
  • Does the claim that we have entered a post-human age have any validity and if so, what are the repercussions for elite sport?
  • What are the implications for sport (for instance, the conception of (dis)ability sport) with the development of technology that obscures the line between the organic and inorganic?
It is a fantastic opportunity to secure a funded PhD in Philosophy (which are pretty hard to come by) and I encourage anyone with an interest and experience in this area to apply. The closing date for applications is Friday 23rd May and the date for interviews is Wednesday 4th June.

For more information please contact me and I would be happy to discuss it further.

Emily Ryall
Faculty of Sport, Health and Social Care
University of Gloucestershire