Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
How to Know What "The Right Thing" Is
The definition of ethical conduct that Dr. Bob Bowman, Head of Upper School, learned from his 5th grade teacher, “telling the truth and doing the right thing” http://www.whschool.org/page.cfm?p=747 is a great starting point for discussing ethics in sport. Why is it so hard sometimes to do the right thing? As I sat down to compose this blog entry, there were two articles on the sports pages that revealed some of the unethical behavior that occurs in the world of athletics:
- “Russian Athletes Banned from 2018 Winter Games” due to a systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs by Russians in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
- “A Rivalry Grows Dangerous” as the NFL game between the Bengals and Steelers was marked by dirty play, with two players removed from the field on stretchers, and multiple players suspended for unnecessary roughness.
The above-referenced world-class athletes can reap great monetary rewards from winning a championship. Although high school and middle school athletes do not have the same monetary incentives, they may still struggle with what “doing the right thing” means in a particular situation, and from that struggle they grow as competitors, and as human beings.
A couple examples:
1. High school tennis and golf are played without officials. Tennis players are expected to fairly call their opponent’s shots “in” or “out” and golfers are responsible to call stroke penalties on themselves and to keep their own score accurately. The learning process in those sports has two dimensions:
o Getting athletes to commit themselves to acting honestly and fairly in carrying out these responsibilities
o Teaching athletes how to deal with an opponent who shows evidence of cheating
- Don’t get mad
- Continue to do the right thing
- Confront your opponent; try to convince him to change his behavior; don’t be bullied; and call in coaches when needed.
2. In sports where there is a referee or other officials to enforce the rules, the athletes still have a responsibility to behave ethically.
In any game, referees will make mistakes: out-of-bounds calls missed, fouls not called, timing errors, all of which often strikes a competitor as “unfair.” However, the game requires acceptance of an impartial rules enforcer to give the result legitimacy. Players and coaches who lose control while protesting a call run several risks:
Giving the team an excuse for failure (“the refs were against us”)
Losing their focus on the things they can control
Escalation of emotional response to the next disputed call
One other aspect of imperfect officiating is illustrated by the strike zone in baseball. According to the letter of the law, the zone exists as shown in the picture below:
On any given day, however, the actual strike zone depends on how the umpire calls balls and strikes. If a ball between the ankles and knees is consistently being called a strike, while every pitch above the waist is called a ball, that umpire is consistently calling a “low strike.” Protesting is likely a useless waste of time and energy. It is ethical, in that situation, for our pitchers to target their pitches to the area where strikes are being called because the umpire (who is granted authority by the rulebook) has demonstrated what he considers the zone for that day. Throwing pitches at the mid-chest level and arguing that they “should” be called strikes is a waste of energy.
The above argument does not apply to practices that are clearly damaging to the health of athletes or are universally disapproved. For example, the fact that many Olympic athletes have profited from performance-enhancing drugs does not justify their use by the Soviet team in 2014.
3. As competitors, both teams are trying to gain an advantage over the other – sometimes the methods of the other team seem unsportsmanlike. As an analogy, think of the basketball player boxing out to position himself for a rebound – the best response for our player is to concentrate on the “controllables”:
Push back, within the limits of the rule
Establish inside position quicker the next time
4. Within the team dynamic, athletes have an ethical responsibility to play to the best of their abilities, and to do so in ways that promote the growth of their teammates, and the strengthening of bonds between teammates. Within a team there is competition between players for playing time. Playing hard in scrimmages is desired, but playing dirty or using psychological intimidation against one’s teammates, increases the risk of injury and may make the team less able to compete against their real rivals. Since “what is good for the team” is at the heart of athletic ethics, such actions are to be avoided.
Those interested in a deeper examination of ethical conduct in sports should check out the following links:
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport
NYU’s program in Sports and Society
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport
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