Unthinkable: Can you cheat in sport and still be said to have won?
Making a case for the ‘moral victory’ in sport
In a sport such as rugby, different positions in a team showcase distinct excellences: the virtues of Brian O’Driscoll are not identical to those of Paul O’Connell. Photograph: Inpho
Thinking and sport have an uneasy relationship. Normal priorities and even moral codes often go out the window when athletes take to the playing field, while fanaticism is celebrated on the sideline.
What coaches call “overthinking” is seen as a particular hindrance to sporting excellence. So if Johnny Sexton is lining up a place kick in tomorrow’s rugby international, he probably won’t be asking himself, “What exactly am I doing here?” or “What’s the meaning of all this?”
But why should sports people and sports fans be exempt from pondering such fundamental questions? John William Devine, visiting lecturer in philosophy at King’s College London (and a decent tennis player), is in the umpire’s chair, putting forward today’s idea: It’s not possible to win in sport unethically.
What’s the purpose of sport?
John William Devine: “At first glance, it may appear that sport has no single purpose. After all, what could possibly unify figure-skating with Olympic wrestling? Furthermore, different levels of competition within a single sport seem to exhibit different purposes.
“Recreational sport provides a means of promoting health, having fun and perhaps even building character. However, elite sport is often bad for athletes’ long-term health, it is commonly also their profession, and it is also, albeit uncomfortably, part of the entertainment industry. The intrinsic purpose that runs through every level of sport is that the rules are designed to require competitors to display certain kinds of ‘excellence’ – qualities of body, mind and spirit – in order to win.
“A sport like rugby, which involves kicking, passing, tackling and so on, showcases a complex web of excellences, and different positions in a team showcase distinct excellences: the virtues of Brian O’Driscoll are not identical to those of Paul O’Connell. This purpose of requiring players to display specific excellences provides the basis for argument about the value of a sport and the rules that govern it.”
Does a different moral compass apply in sport?
“The rules and norms that govern sport are derived from a different source to ordinary morality. If we don’t like the fact that it’s wrong to, say, kill innocent people, that doesn’t mean we can change morality to redefine killing innocents as morally right. However, if we don’t like the offside rule in football, we can simply decide to drop it from the rule book.
“Such changes can be costly, however. That the rules of sport are convention does not mean they are arbitrary. A change to the rules of a sport could undermine the purpose and distinctive value of that sport. Imagine if we decided to eliminate the rule against the forward pass in rugby or against outfield players handling the ball in soccer. These changes would radically alter the excellences that rugby and soccer challenge their competitors to display.”
Is it better to lose ethically or win unethically?
“If we understand winning unethically to mean employing means other than those permitted within the rules to achieve the desired end [scoring goals, winning points, crossing the line], then I’m not sure it is even possible to win unethically.
“Cheaters may enjoy the fruits of winning – trophies, money, adulation – but the appearance of winning is not the same as actually winning. The goal of any sport is inseparable from the means of achieving that goal. The marathon is not simply about crossing the finishing line before your opponents. One must run within the confines of the course once the starting gun has sounded.