In his weekly blog, Jack Bowen of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics discusses a recent MMA incident. Mike Pantangco submitted to Jeremy Rasner in an amateur bout. (Watch it here) The remarkable thing is that Pantangco was beating Rasner rather soundly. In Pantangco’s word’s:
"I just feel that there's no point fighting him because he didn't train against me and I didn't train for him and I just feel like we're amateur fighters…We don't get money, we don't get paid, and I know that the only thing I'm going to finish the fight is him to go in the hospital or get hurt. I just feel terrible so I'm just going to give him the win." (Source)In his blog, Bowen praised Pantangco’s action as exceptionally good sportsmanship and a gesture of compassion. Other bloggers and writers similarly praised Pantangco.
While I acknowledge his submission was an act of kindness, I do not agree that this was an act of good sportsmanship. Or, rather, I don’t think that claim is as obvious or as clear as my fellow sports ethicist seem to think.
I do not think Pantangco’s decision to submit was wrong or disrespectful. But I also don’t think it was necessary. Given the circumstances around the fight (Bowen explains), Pantangco and Rasner probably shouldn’t have been competing against each other in the first place. Once the fight is under way, Pantangco and Rasner, as a matter of good sportsmanship, ought to fight to win within the rules, norms, and expectations of their sport. Pantangco saw that Rasner was defeated and further blows would likely inflict unnecessary harm. His decision was to tap out and give the victory to Rasner. But as those more familiar with the sport than Bowen or I have suggested, there were non-sacrificial and non-(serious)-harm inflicting ways for Pantangco to bring the fight to a swift end. A friend of mine who was an MMA fighter and trainer said, “He could have taken his opponent down and ended the fight with a gentle submission”. Now, I am not sure how gentle a ‘gentle submission’ is in the context of MMA but I think it makes it clear that Pantangco’s choice wasn’t between tapping out or inflicting unnecessary and serious harm to Rasner. He had non-sacrificial options that were more in line with the norms and goals of his sport.
This discussion all hinges on a key question. What is sportsmanship? As in so many cases, a common concept we use frequently is hard to pin down. Since at least James Keating 1964 article, “Sportsmanship as a Moral Category,” philosophers of sport have been debating the question.
Without stepping too much into that tempest, I claim that sportsmanship is the embodiment of the kinds of virtues and moral dispositions that are proper for those participating in athletics and sports. I don’t think this is too controversial a claim; that is, until we start to unpack just what the claim really means (a huge project beyond the scope of a blog post).
But one important implication of this claim (one that follows from the nature of virtue) is that sportsmanship ought not to be reserved for exceptional or extraordinary actions. Sportsmanship is the manner of acting to which _all_ the participants should be held. It shouldn’t be analogous to sainthood.
Pantangco’s action of tapping out might be an exceptional act of kindness, but it is not the manner in which we ought to expect or demand MMA fighters to fight. Such dispositions would undermine the sport. The goal in combat sports, as I understand it, is to win the match by inflicting damage on your opponent through the use of a set of fighting skills (the specific kind of combat sport proscribes what is in and out of this set). A principle of tapping out when your opponent is losing or essentially defeated subverts this goal and the very idea of the sport.
I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that we should have a low moral standard for MMA fighters, that morality doesn’t apply, or that kindness or compassion should play no role in combat sports. I am saying the standard ought to be appropriate to human beings and to the ends of the sport.
Consider the following analogy. A man might jump in front of speeding car to save a child’s life. This is an exceptional act. One we are likely to praise. But such an action tells us nothing about how to act and live in the world. In a sense, it really has nothing to do with ethics. Ethics is about the goals and principles that guide one’s action and choices. It is about how we ought to approach each day and how to determine what actions we take in life.
Similar with Pantangco. The circumstances of the fight are (as far as I can tell) unique and his action is not generalizable to other fights. His action doesn’t tell us how MMA fighters ought to fight with dignity, honor, and virtue. In other words, it cannot serve as an exemplar of sportsmanship.
A possible objection to what I am arguing here is that while the normal circumstances of life (or a fight) don’t require jumping in front of cars or sacrificially tapping out, there are circumstances which might arise where such actions might be appropriate or called for. True enough. My point is that thinking about these as guides for how to live our lives is at best not useful (since the conditions in these situations are exceptional) and at worst it can undermine what it actually takes to live our lives or play our games well.