Tuesday, January 27, 2009

100-0, with Honor?

The coach of a Texas high school basketball team that beat another team 100-0 was fired Sunday, the same day he sent an e-mail to a newspaper saying he will not apologize "for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity."

Given that I didn't witness the contest, I can't say a lot beyond speculation about the ethics of this particular scenario. However, it does seem to me that playing with honor and integrity would involve not taking 3 point shots in the 4th quarter of such a lopsided game. Sport philosophers Nicholas Dixon and Randolph Feezell have offered arguments about this type of situation. Dixon argues against a received view concerning sportspersonship that he calls the Anti-Blowout thesis:

It is intrinsically unsporting for players or teams to maximize the margin of victory after they have secured victory in a one-sided contest.

One of the strongest points in favor of his view raised by Dixon is that it is not true that those who suffer lopsided defeats have been humiliated or diminished as humans. The only cause for shame in such a situation would be giving up, if one is on the losing side. And in a competitive game, when part of the purpose is a determination of athletic superiority and excellence, there is nothing immoral about running up the score. (For more, see Dixon's "On Sportsmanship and Running Up the Score'," Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (1992): 1-13).

On the other side of this issue, Feezell argues that even if it isn't always wrong to run up the score, it usually is and strong overriding factors must be present if the following Revised Anti-Blowout Thesis is to be overridden:

It is prima facie unsporting for players or teams to maximize the margin of victory after they have secured victory in a one-sided contest.

For more, see Randolph Feezell, "Sportsmanship and Blowouts: Baseball and Beyond," Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (1999): 68-78. Both papers are also reprinted in Sports Ethics, edited by Jan Boxill.

Given the above principles and the ESPN account, was it wrong to run up the score?


Carl Thomen said...

Hi Mike. I don’t know whether it is either totally “right” or totally “wrong” to run up the score in the type of situation you describe. I’m not even sure that what we normally mean by “right” and “wrong” applies in cases like these, and I have a feeling that posing the question in that way will lead to good points being raised on both sides…What I do know, speaking as a coach, is that (if you are in charge of the winning team) a game like that tests your side’s ability to maintain the discipline, structure and ruthless efficiency needed to win much closer contests. Too often in those types of situations I have seen even the best hockey teams I have coached lose focus, and in many cases concede silly goals. I am therefore happy when my team twists the knife – as long as it is done the right way. I hate seeing any sportsmen taunt their opponents, but then, this can happen even in close games, and as such, is a more general issue pertaining to sportsmanship and ethical play. So, seeing as the contest is over, the question becomes: Why would you want your team to run up the score? If it is to hone certain tactics and positional play, i.e. to become a better team, then surely there is nothing wrong with it. However, if it is purely to add insult to injury, there might be something wrong with the idea, like there is something wrong with taking pleasure in other’s pain. So maybe its all comes down to your motives? Seen from the loser’s perspective, there is no dishonour in losing badly, but only if you kept fighting and scrapping, making the other guy work for it. I take it is a given that you play sport to win; failing that, it seems to me you are playing for respect, and it is surely always in you power to win that battle?

Mike Austin said...

I agree with what you say generally though I am a bit torn. I coach soccer in our small town, and have had the good fortune of coaching some very skilled players. I've pulled players when the score gets too high, partly out of respect for the opponent. In some blowouts the considerations you raise are relevant, e.g. honing tactics. In other games, the teams are so outmatched that the opponent is no longer posing a challenge, and then pulling my best players seems in some sense obligatory.

Joe said...

Mike and Carl,

I gather that Carl's larger point is that his best players, if not his team, will suffer (psychologically or otherwise) more by playing in such a lopsided game because not much skill will be demanded of them. On Carl's account, since coaches have an obligation to maintain team discipline, focus, etc., during a game, it is obligatory to remove the best players from the game. Otherwise, the coach may have a hand in the demise of his own team.

In a sense, I take it that you're both arguing for the same point. Carl's focusing on a coach's obligation to his own team, and Mike's concerned about the sportspersonship toward the other team.

Of course there are cases where I don't think such sportspersonship will apply unequivocally. I'm thinking especially of the 2000 U.S. Open Golf Championship at Pebble Beach. Tiger Woods won that championship by the widest margin ever recorded in major golf championship history - 15 strokes. Does Tiger have an obligation to "tone down" his game because he's so good at golf?

It would seem arguable that if Tiger Woods had toned it down, he would have cheated the field by not acting virtuously.

Tait Szabo said...

I wonder what the alternative really is for the winning team or player. Do the players of the winning basketball team intentionally turn the ball over? Intentionally miss shots? Allow the opposing players a free drive to the basket? Actions like that compromise the integrity of the sport. In this case taking three-pointers late in the game was criticized. What would have been better, short of the examples above? Drive to the hoop to take much higher-percentage shots? Perhaps the only moral requirement is to win with respect for your opponent. "Do your best and be a good sport." Being a "good sport" should not have to come at the expense of doing your best.

Steve Weimer said...

I'm inclined to think that there is something wrong (at least, less than virtuous) about running up the score, but the Tiger Woods case definitely seems like an exception to that. How about this as a (first step toward a) way of covering both cases: when victory is assured and a player/team is in danger of running up the score, she/it should handicap herself/itself in those ways that (A) can be expected to minimize the margin of victory, while (B) not (significantly?) insulting the opponent.

So, for team sports, the most obvious handicap is resting the better players and putting the worse players in the game. This has other advantages (e.g. resting the good players, getting the worse players some valuable experience and/or rewarding their efforts in practice with some game time, etc.) and is commonly enough done that I don't think it is ever insulting.
Further handicaps might be. For instance, in Little League baseball games, I've seen coaches with a big lead instruct their players to all bat from the opposite side of the plate (i.e. left-handed if they are naturally right-handed). The basketball analog might be to have players shoot from their off-hand. These might be insulting, but could perhaps be seen as valuable practice?

This seems to cover the Tiger Woods case because *any* handicap he gave himself would be insulting to his competitors. Of course, the task then is to explain the different standards regarding what is insulting in the different cases ... probably has something to do with the context, level of competition, etc? (For a sporting event involving very young children, it's hard to imagine many handicaps that a team might adopt in a blowout that would be insulting. So that does seem to be the reverse of the Tiger Woods case, which lies at the opposite end of the "level of competition" spectrum.)

Jesús Ilundáin Agurruza said...

I have read many sensible suggestions in this thread. And not to muddle things, but maybe the "answer," if there is such a thing, to this may lie in the direction, not of encompassing "rulings" that apply to all cases, but rather of a more "casuistic" nature: different standards apply to different sports and to different levels. Hence, what "running up the score" or showing up the opponent amounts to, and how to deal with it will differ if one is playing team sports, versus individual ones. And whether one is dealing with young players or athletes or professionals...

I do think that some of the suggestions that seek to preserve "honor" and find ways to further develop skills are probably the way to go for team sports of young people ...

Andrei said...

Taking it easy on your opponent does _not_ benefit them (especially in the long-term). It is in their interest that you continue to play to the best of your ability because, in order to defeat you in the future, the opponent needs reliable information on how you play at nothing less than your _highest_ level of performance.

Experience of a far superior level of performance can also serve as a more general education. Once the soon-to-be-vanquished has given up hope of winning, they can focus on analysing superior performance at first hand. This analysis is easier to do if the superior player's performance is consistent.

Personally speaking, once I know that a game is in the bag, I will modify my style and lower effort levels, withholding as much information as I can about what I'm capable of, giving little opportunity for my opponent to learn from me.

Minimising the margin of victory can also make my win seem the product of luck rather than skill (especially if skilful early play is overwritten by haphazard subsequent efforts) - which thought can, in itself, be somewhat demoralising for my opponent (and distracts them from clear-headed analysis).

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