Q&A: Sports Ethicist on Why Rules Matter

This is round two of “Deflategate” where the punishment is handed out for the “crime” of letting air out of a football. I’m not about to weigh in on whether this is just, or part of, a jealousy-driven conspiracy. What matters most is what lies at the heart of this sensational story involving the New England Patriots—that rules were...

This is round two of “Deflategate” where the punishment is handed out for the “crime” of letting air out of a football. I’m not about to weigh in on whether this is just, or part of, a jealousy-driven conspiracy. What matters most is what lies at the heart of this sensational story involving the New England Patriots—that rules were broken and that the boundaries of honesty and integrity were tested.

Since the most recent NFL play-offs, the New England Patriots have been embroiled in the scandal known as "Deflatagate," which has brought up issues of fair play, sportsmanship, and the importance of honoring rules both on and off the field. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison)
Emerging from the most recent NFL playoffs, the New England Patriots have been embroiled in the scandal known as “Deflategate,” which has brought up issues of fair play, sportsmanship, and the importance of honoring rules both on and off the field. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison)

We first tackled this issue in January with Rockford University philosophy professor and sports ethicist Shawn Klein (SK) (http://sportsethicist.com). The latest development is a good reason to revisit and update our conversation around the parallels of life and sport and the value of honesty in this Q&A with Dan Lothian (DL) of Heart Beings.

Heart-Beings-Shawn-Klein-Sports-Ethicist-Rockford-University
Sports ethicist, Shawn Klein, PhD, of Rockford University and www.sportsethicist.com.

DL: You said somewhere that sports is a microcosm of life. What did you mean by that?
SK: Within sport, we see the expression of much of what makes us human. We strive for achievement, for excellence. We engage and develop our physical and intellectual capacities. We risk ourselves in life and games: our physical health, our reputation, and our sense of self. We discover truths about ourselves and other people. We work together and cooperate to achieve our goals.

DL: What can deflategate teach us about life?
SKDetails matter. You can be responsible for outcomes that arise out of small details to which you normally don’t pay attention.

Don’t rush to judgment. Many in the media and in the ‘court of public opinion’ have already concluded that the Patriots organization, Belichick or Brady specifically, are guilty of these allegations. But we really don’t know anything. There are reports that many of the footballs used were under-inflated, but we don’t know by how many or by how much. We don’t know how this happened. Before concluding someone is guilty and impugning their character or integrity, we ought to wait for sufficient facts.

It might not have a significant effect, but rules still matter. Almost no one with any knowledge of football thinks the Patriots won the game or gained any significant competitive advantage because of under-inflated footballs. Nevertheless, the rules that define and govern a game are important; without the rules there is no game. So even relatively minor rules and minor violations can be serious since they have the potential to undermine the game itself. The rules and norms that govern society can also be like this. Minor norms like politeness and courtesy seem relatively unimportant compared to norms prohibiting lying or causing physical harm. Nevertheless, impolite and discourteous behavior slowly erodes the fluidity of our interactions with others and so slowly undermines civil society.

Almost no one with any knowledge of football thinks the Patriots won the game or gained any significant competitive advantage because of under-inflated footballs. Nevertheless, the rules that define and govern a game are important; without the rules there is no game.

DL: While some may dismiss this controversy, hasn’t it opened up a discussion about fairness, integrity, and honesty in sports?
SK: Yes, It has brought attention to the importance of these values for sport and for life. Hopefully these conversations will continue in sport organizations and amongst individuals.

DL: What should parents tell their young children,  especially those involved in competitive sports?
SK: Winning is important; it is one of the main reasons you play. But it is not the only value at stake. How you play, how you go about striving for your victory is equally important. A dishonorable victory isn’t a real victory and you cheat yourself by not focusing on working towards an honorable victory.

In many ways, victory depends on luck and on external circumstances (weather, the bounce of a fumble, etc). You can’t control for those. All you can do is focus on your preparation and actions. Success comes from consistent preparation and improving execution. That is what you can control. So, you can’t guarantee a victory in any one game – no matter what you do (to footballs or whatever) – all you can do is be as prepared as you can be.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

DL: Isn’t reputation also a big factor here?  Once a cheater always a cheater?
SK: Fair or not, this is a big part of why many have been quick to judge in this case. Because of the previous incident of illegal videotaping of games, many assume the Patriots are cheaters. This is one reason to always do your best to keep your house in order.

Winning is important; it is one of the main reasons you play. But it is not the only value at stake. How you play, how you go about striving for your victory is equally important.

DL: When this kind of thing happens, can a victory whether in the upcoming game or in life truly be a victory?
SK: In general, if you win because you cheat, you haven’t really won. You’ve played a different game than your opponent, so you haven’t bested them at the game they were playing. But this isn’t so simple to apply. What counts as cheating? Not all rule-violations are cases of cheating. Some rule violations are accidents or inadvertent. Others are intentional, but still aren’t cheating. Pass interference is against the rules of football, but it is neither considered cheating nor something that destroys one’s victory. Also, how much has to happen for the game to be undermined? Slightly (as is being reported now) under-inflated footballs didn’t have a material impact on the game, so it doesn’t undermine the game or the victory. But how far would something have to go before it meant you weren’t really playing the same game anymore? Neither question has a clear or obvious answer, but it is important to think about where these boundaries might be, even if they are always rough or vague.

But how far would something have to go before it meant you weren’t really playing the same game anymore? …it is important to think about where these boundaries might be, even if they are always rough or vague.

DL: Whether or not you agree with the merits, from an ethical standpoint, what are your thoughts now about sports and the endless drive to find an advantage even if it bends the rules?
SK: Rule violations need to be treated seriously and punished accordingly. At the same time, great players are always challenging and pushing the boundaries. Rules of games are open to interpretation and adaption (e.g., Dick Fosbury in high jump; Walter Camp in football). This is what pushes the game forward. Sometimes, though, this crosses the line from pushing the rules to violating them. The violators should be held accountable, but we also don’t want to eliminate the challenging and pushing that great players do. If we get too moralistic about certain kinds of rule violations, we undermine the creativity and interpretation that is important to sport. I don’t want to suggest that deflating footballs is some creative adaption to the game of football that should be ignored. Still, it is part of the attitude that also feeds the evolution and excitement of the game. I think this is part of what fascinates us about these kinds of cases. They are not simply matters of violations of black and white rules. They challenge us to think more about rules, their importance, and how to interpret and understand them.

[Note: For length and publication purposes, interview has been edited by Heart Beings Staff.]

Dan Lothian

Dan is a veteran national TV news correspondent and is a co-founder of Heart Beings. He is an avid runner, a musician, a husband, and a proud dad of two kids.

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