Thursday, December 03, 2009

Cheating and Sport?

I am not that interested in professional football; the cultural imperative for all men to attend with irrational gusto to the minutiae of its details leaves me cold, and feeling distanced from it. Nonetheless, I was struck by Guardian sport blog headline:

The night France's philosopher king spat in the face of the common man

Now, the headline seems wholly over the top: but maybe there is something of interest here. I forced myself to read the entry. And, there was indeed something of interest there. The blog author (Paul Hayward) notes that the French coach sees the incident as failure of the referee - and not a matter of cheating. I can see it is a mistake by the referee. To me this is the game and not cheating says the French coach.

The blog author advances more evidence of the same attitude in sport - and this leads him to the view that as far as many players and others are concerned - they should be able to do anything and it is then the job of the match officials to spot and punish rule-breaking. Paul writes:
With each swan dive, handball and feigned injury we have shuffled to the moment where the modern player thinks it is his duty to cheat, and the responsibility of the state to stop him. To Henry and Domenech, this was a failure not of spirit, of fair play or values but of governance
This is interesting. The idea here is that you should do anything you can to win - and the game is to avoid detection. The rules, it implies, are to be enforced onto you, not something you seek to follow from an intrinsic respect for them. Is it fair to say that many feel the same about the law? If we think about a particular part of the law - motoring restrictions (against speeding, parking where we choose, etc) - I think there parallel is quite striking.

To return to sport though, does such a view not mean that cheating is impossible? If you get away with it - that is fine; if you are caught, you are punished and the rules are upheld. I wonder if I feel the same about lying, or stealing...




    The guardian love their philosophy / football crossover stories! Why is that?

  2. Roy Jackson10:06 am

    Yes I know that great philosopher Bill Shankly said “Some people think football is a matter of life and death...I can assure them it is much more serious than that” but, honestly, it is ‘just a game’ and needs to be treated as such. We make a clear distinction between a ‘game’ (an amusement or pastime, a diversion) and ‘life’ (what we tend to do the rest of time), hence driving on the motorway is not a ‘game’ and rules should be followed because it is a matter of life and death. Games have rules, but part of the fun of a game is trying to bend or break those rules. Sport thrives on controversy and drama, which is why it is a diversion from life which is, on the whole, a very dull affair!

  3. I prefer to take a social contract perspective of rule breaking in sport. For if everyone takes the view that they will cheat and see if they get away with it then the game will become unplayable either because officials (and the any introduction of technology) will see infringements and stop the game, or officials won't see infringements and other players and spectators will feel there is no point playing and will leave the game. Either way, the game will become frustrating and unexciting to watch and play and professionalism will die.

    Players ought to abide by the rules of the game not because they have a moral duty to do so but because there is a pragmatic reason for doing so.

  4. for Henry to have repented his decision to match official would have been a disgrace of loyalty to his team mates. To be caught deliberately breaking the rules can have you dismissed from the game - this is usually what prevents it being a free for all, well, that, plus a dedication to skillful play. The sport is played with passion. Sometimes opportunities present themselves to exploit rules (e.g. diving when fouled to ensure the foul is awarded). Wreckless decisions sometimes manifest. At times, to acknowledge them as wreckless/unfair/etc. would be a betrayal of the team - in particular where it is matter of life or death (win or lose in a tournament). In football you make your decisions, stand by them and take the consequences. That is the mindset, and I doubt if player or supported alike would disagree. Responsibility is your own. You know the rules. If you escape punishment you will be seen as a villan (in the eyse of some) or a silent hero. Loyalty is paramount in football.

    In a variety of contexts the same may be said of lying or stealing (think, for example, of matters of national security).

  5. I think that by using Bernard Suits' account of what it is to play a game (roughly to play a game is to attempt to achieve a certain state of affairs using only means permitted by the rules where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means and where adopting the rules is what makes the game possible--for a fuller account see his delightful book THE GRASSHOPPER: GAMES, LIFE AND UTOPIA) we can then distinguish between two kinds of rule violations, constitutive and instrumental. Obviously, if "players" started putting the ball in a canon and firing it right through the goaltender this would violate a constitutive rule of football. (If "players" used only the most efficient means possible of getting the ball in the other team's net they would not longer be playing football.) Not using one's hands seems (initially) to be a constitutive rule of football whereas, say, deliberately going off side when one's team is disorganized or one's goalkeeper is injured so as to stop play seems like a mere instrumental violation. After all agreeing not to use one's hands to move the ball is adopting less efficient means and seems to be constitutive of what football is. But Henry's case is a borderline one. Regardless of what he thinks--we now know that our "privileged access" to our intentions is not very reliable--he may have just used his hand somewhat inadvertently, or at least not fully deliberately. (It appears that he could not have got to the ball with his foot or knee and that without deflecting it the result would have just been a kick away by the Irish goalkeeper. So, great player that he is, he likely subconsciously realized this and did whatever was needed to keep the ball in play.) So this may have just been an instrumental not a constitutive violation. One that is (to go back to the legal analogy) more like thinking of speeding fines as the tax on driving fast than like imprisonment for assault which usually is not thought of as a tax on hitting people.
    It is, it seems to me, perfectly appropriate to think that one will cheat and see if one can get away with it if one's cheating is simple instrumental violation rather than cheating that threatens the constitutive rules of the game.
    Most of us, quite rightly, do not think of parking violations or moderate speeding as undermining the rule of law and the civil society it makes possible. And most football players do not think of feigning injury when tripped as undermining the game. Most of us think, however, that speeding to the degree that it constitutes reckless driving--to the point of putting others in unwarranted danger--as a more serious threat to society. What Henry did seems to be somewhere in the range of very, very fast driving but not quite reckless driving.
    Of course, it is unfortunate the referee did not spot it. (The World Cup would do well to consider allowing--at some cost, say a free kick from fairly far out so there was about a 10% chance of a goal--the coach to challenge a play, in the manner that has been adopted by American football. With the appropriate implementation it could serve to make the beautiful game even more so.)

  6. I recently was a third reader on an MA thesis in kinesiology about ethics and sport. Apparently team sports (and to a lesser degree individual sports) undermine a person's moral sensibilities -- contrary to received wisdom that sport build moral sensibilities. There is a good body of data showing this.
    The specualation is that team members build a gang mentality, but the cultural problem in/of sport is clearly wider than that.

  7. Patrick B3:18 pm

    Well i will try not to go into a rant about how Thierry Henry is a cheat! But it is clear that cheating in sport is becoming more and more of an issue and as said below if people get away with it they will carry on!

    Is guilt the feeling of moral wrong doing? Im a guilty person so maybe thats just me!

  8. Isn't it strange that athletes caught taking performance-enhancing drugs are accused of cheating, whereas those who obviously pray to their gods for high performance are not (e.g. crossing themselves before a race starts). What's the difference? Is it just that the second form of cheating is known to be futile?