Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Consent and potentially harmful acts

During last weekend's British and Irish Lions match against South Africa, Schalk Burger, the Springbok flanker, was sent to the sin bin for attempting to eye gouge Lions wing, Luke Fitzgerald. Burger has since received an eight week ban from the international governing body who deem it as one of the most unacceptable and dangerous actions a player can carry out in the game. Yet Peter De Villiers, the Springbok coach, appeared to make comments that justified Burger's actions. He retorted to those complaining about the over-aggressiveness of the South African players which also left Lions prop, Adam Jones with a dislocated shoulder from a dangerous tackle, "why don't we all go to the nearest ballet shop and get some nice tutus, get a great dancing show going on, no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing and then we will all enjoy it. There will be collisions in rugby and I will always pick the hardest guy. If people want to make it soft because we won a series, I cannot do anything about it." (Rees, The Guardian)

Whilst De Villiers has been condemned for seeming to condone foul, and potentially very harmful play, arguably the issue behind all of this is not the manner of the action but the matter of consent. Although there are those that would take a paternalistic stance and say that individuals should not be allowed to consent to the possibility of being eye-gouged, the libertarian position states that if 'rational' 'autonomous' adults do agree to be party to such things then that is their perrogative. So for those players that wish to punch, bite and eye gouge they should be free to participate in a sport that allows such things. In the same way, individuals who do not wish to be tackled or the recipient of other physical contact (as defined according to the laws of rugby) should not play that game (they may, as De Villiers suggested, wish to go dancing instead). The relevant issue here is that in the sport of rugby, players are not consenting to being on the receiving end of particular actions like the one received by Fitzgerald and therefore it is wholly unacceptable for any player to carry (or attempt to carry) those actions out. Rather than encouraging foul and dangerous play (in a win-at-all-cost mentality), coaches have a moral duty to ensure that their players recognise that the matter of consent is intrinsic both to the good of the game and to the development of themselves as moral citizens. This is why De Villiers' comments were tasteless at best, and immoral at worst.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reith Lecture on Genetic Technology in Sport

The BBC's annual Reith Lectures are presented this year by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel and the third programme in the series covers the ethical dilemmas posed by innovations in genetic technology, including the use of this technology in sport.

(This is an issue in which I have particular interest, having written my PhD thesis, entitled 'Genetic Techology in Sport; Metaphor and Ethical Judgment', on the subject)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Pinnacle of Existence? Death and Art on the Isle of Man

John Crellin raced past me as I sat at Greeba Bridge. Minutes later, he was dead.
“Found him about 100 yards from his bike”, says Dave, one of the marshals. “He was just lying there twitching.”

The Isle of Man TT motorbike race kills people. On average, more than one person will die every year. Sometimes, even marshals are killed. This year there was only one death, but also a handful of serious accidents that landed some unlucky riders in intensive care. Despite the obvious risk I let Dave and John, another marshal, take me around the course on the back of John’s 1000cc Honda Fireblade (a slightly tweaked version of which was ridden by this year’s overall winner, John McGuiness). If I had come off at140 miles an hour on the narrow mountain road…well, I didn’t.

“You don’t think about coming off”, says no. 48 Tommy Montano, “I knowingly take the risk when I get on the bike. What else would I do, bowls?” You do get the sense that these speed freaks are souls in harmony. Sure, they race for the win, for adrenalin and prestige. But there is more to it. They simply must do this. But if they accept the risk to themselves, what about their responsibilities to others, what about their families?
“Yeah, sometimes I do say to myself, you gotta slow down Tommy. And I am. I can’t beat the kids any more. They push too hard. You come back here, you make friends, it’s just a great event. But I’m almost done.”

And then there is the quest for the perfect lap. Going smooth. Not fighting the bike. The TT demands respect, but also intimate knowledge of every turn, wall and rise. This is knowledge that none of the bikers share. Popular opinion is that you need to race in the TT for four or five years before you can even think about competing. The smoothest riders know the course like a lover, and it is a superlative aesthetic experience to watch them move.

A lot of people have called for the TT race to be stopped because, well, people die. But I don’t think that is a good enough argument. “As soon as there is life there is danger”, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. If celebrating life means accepting the ever-presence of death, so be it.

My ride was exhilarating. I had what Tyler Durden refers to as a “Near-life Experience”. Graham, an oil-rig worker from Inverness calls it “The Pinnacle of Existence”. Rudi, a social worker from Belgium, agrees: “If I die on my bike, I die with my boots on.”
“Yeah,” says Graham somberly, “there is death here.”
Rudi looks at me.“And art,” he says.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday, June 5, 2009

Why I love Transworld Sport...

Many of my first year undergraduate students are baffled by the time dedicated to considering the concept of 'sport' and its relationship to 'games', 'leisure', 'play', 'recreation' and other concepts. "Of course we know what sport is, we don't need to spend weeks thinking about it" they often lament, as I discuss the notion of conceptual analysis, ostensive definitions, and necessary and sufficient conditions. And unfortunately that's often the response from even the most engaged of students. The others simply shrug their shoulders as if to say, "Why would I care whether something is sport or not?"

There are two prongs of response to such apathy: one, it is an attempt to give some indication of philosophic methods - methods which I fear are severely neglected in many courses on research methods. Definition of terms is crucial in any exegesis of a problem or issue in order to ensure that what you are trying to study is really what you are studying, as well as to ensure that others are clear as to what you are talking about and mean when you use particular concepts.
Two, from a more practical and pragmatic point of view, there are people (who may, in the future, be my former students) who are tasked with the responsibility of deciding whether a particular activity fulfils particular criteria to be allocated funding or a place in an event (such as the Olympic games). Decisions have to be rationalised and justified to other parties (i.e. the public, Governments, the media) and it would simply not be acceptable for such judgements to be made on a whimsical subjective preference.

So where does
Transworld Sport come in to all of this? For those of you that are not familiar with the television programme, it is the broadest and most global sports broadcast that exists. For instance, the programme I was watching today highlighted the sport of sheep shearing in New Zealand and the Columbian target sport of Tejo (where a lead weight is thrown twenty meters into a box of clay in an attempt to explode a small paper triangle filled with gunpowder). That such obscure activities are showcased indicates that the concept of sport has an ethereal and ambiguous quality. How can sheep shearing possibly be a sport when it is simply a means to an end in gathering wool to provide warmth and comfort? When it is regulated, timed and primarily done to discover who is the fastest, fittest, and most skilled in displacing one object (wool) from an other (sheep). When is a recreational game that was labelled 'the devil's game' and banned due to its association with an alcoholic drink, a sport? When those involved practice for hours every day, embed gym sessions into their routines, wear a team uniform in a formal event that is officiated by a governing body.

Transworld Sport is a wonderfully democratic and inclusive sports programme that doesn't pander to the hegemonic Westernised, male and affluent business conception of sport with which we are bombarded on a daily basis in the similarly hegemonic media. Rather, it reveals a conception of sport that is as broad and as deep as human imagination allows a physically skilful activity that is bounded by rules but done for its own sake, to be.