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Back To School With Jack Bowen: Using Sports To Teach Ethics

by Jack Bowen

09.05.2017

The following is adapted from the Preface of the recently published book, Sport, Ethics and Leadership (Routledge, July 2017). With permission from the publisher.

Nobel Prize winning author, philosopher, and soccer goalie, Albert Camus, once quipped, “All that I know most surely about morality and the obligations of men I owe to [soccer].” Camus considered sport a suitable analogy for getting at the moral nature of life outside sport as regards such things as friendship and fairness. His quote captures one of the great facets of sports, in that sports can serve as a catalyst for reflection on life’s “big questions” in a manner accessible to all.

The video featured below stimulated an intense discussion, even though the topic may not seem so grave as to incite emotional outbursts and impassioned arguments. The video addresses the ethics of pitch framing in baseball, in which a catcher subtly shifts his glove as he receives a pitch in hopes of garnering a favorable call (a “strike” instead of a “ball”).

Although this may initially seem quite benign compared with obviously serious issues in sport such as overt violence, athlete drug use, various forms of discrimination, and many others in which real harm results, as it turns out, discussions on pitch framing nicely capture the nuance and richness couched in sport…and, more so, in everyday life.

The conversation inspired by the video evolved into a conversation about issues much deeper than just framing pitches. Respondents on both sides of the argument often referenced such foundational concepts like: obligation of a player to his opponent and referee; what it means to deserve and to earn something; the role culture does and should play in ethics; empathy for all involved; fairness, responsibility, virtue and much more.

These issues reveal one of the real benefits of a conversation on sport ethics: such discussion serves as an ideal means for framing some of the richest ideals known to humanity. It allows us to explore such complex, abstract topics under the banner of sport without getting into heavier issues often referenced in conversations concerning ethics. In short, a discussion on the ethics of pitch framing boils down to a discussion on the foundation of human morality, much as Camus surmised many years ago.

Along with the benefits of this pursuit—i.e., discovering which actions are ethical; exploring deeper, core values; acting on these conclusions through proper leadership—comes one more, maybe of greatest value to the sport aficionado: a deeper awareness and appreciation of sport and one’s role in it. It is important to recognize, for example, that the pitch framing video deemed it an ethically allowable strategy in baseball. This is worth noting if only to demonstrate that the ethical evaluation of an action need not entail a condemnation of that action; such an evaluation can also inspire a deeper understanding.

As such, an investigation and exploration of virtue and ethics in sports—as in any walk of life—should not merely resemble the policing of behavior and meeting out of moral (and legal) judgments. There is an entirely different side of sport—and of being human—often overlooked if we allow this to serve as our only lens. It is the celebration of virtue itself: actions that embody what we value most, such as acting with respect and integrity and celebrating humans acting virtuously in the face of motivation and temptation to win in the face of it all. Important in any ethical evaluation is a celebration of the overtly virtuous actions that do happen maybe more frequently than many recognize.

There are countless examples of such moral courage in sport: cases when a competitor behaved virtuously even though doing so resulted in a diminished chance to win. One such case is the college softball player whose competitors carried her around the bases to help her complete the home run she had hit because she injured herself rounding first base, all in the late innings of a tightly contested conference game. And it’s often because winning matters so much—winning is, after all, “everything”—that these actions incur such profound meaning. It’s these moments at which, if you’re paying attention, you get the rare case of the chills that reminds you of how much good there is in humanity.

The aim, then, is not to blindly defend one’s position nor necessarily to change one’s views on all subsequent issues, but to reflect, be open to opposing positions, and empathize with all involved. This just may be a good platform for practicing the honest, thoughtful discourse, which seems to have evaporated from the public sphere as of late. Then, from this place, not only will we reach a heightened appreciation of the richness of both ethics and sports, but, we will connect with the core of our humanity and all those with whom we interact.

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Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR.  He spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe.  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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