What does sport tell us about morality?

Unthinkable: Each sporting code has its own moral customs but that doesn't necessarily mean all ethics is relative

A videograb of Thierry Henry’s handball that led to France’s goal against the Republic of Ireland in the 2010 Fifa World Cup play off. Photograph: Sky Sports

Hard-core football fans are not typically associated with critical thinking but they love to quote the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus when he said: "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football."

It is deployed with lofty pretension as though soccer is raised above gutter-sports like rugby and golf. But all is not as it seems.

According to the international Albert Camus Society, the quote hails from an article Camus had been asked to write for the alumni magazine of his former youth soccer club, Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA), where he played as goalkeeper.

Manchester United’s Roy Keane shouts at Alf-Inge Haaland after a red card tackle that contributed to the end of the Manchester City player’s career. Photograph: Gary M Prior/Allsport/Getty Images

“After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA,” Camus wrote.


In context, the remark was not aimed at pinpointing some kind of ethical purity in football but rather highlighting the difficulty in identifying universal moral principles for life. Camus contrasted the easy-to-understand and relatively uncontested rules of soccer with the unsettled nature of morality.

In a new book, Knowing the Score: How Sport teaches us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport), David Papineau explores just what exactly we can learn from sport, ethically and otherwise. The Italian-born professor who is attached to universities in London and New York has been blogging on sport for several years, stemming in part from his passions for cricket, tennis and sailing.

Everybody who cares about sport has an interest in drawing the line between acceptable customs and immoral practices

For those who see sport as a template for understanding virtue there is a troubling question: Who decides for the competitors what’s moral? While Papineau doesn’t believe ethics is entirely relative to each sport, he says, “there’s no doubt that sporting practices provide a good case for particularists”.

Are there universal ethical principles that apply to sport, or is sporting ethics entirely relativistic?

David Papineau: “Different sports have different codes of fair play. In rugby and ice hockey, a modicum of honest fisticuffs is tolerated, even encouraged, and will earn you only a few minutes in the sin bin. By contrast, in football or tennis a raised fist is likely to result in a multi-game ban. Similarly, cricketers claiming catches that they haven’t made are liable to be fined for bringing the game into disrepute. But in baseball even the best-behaved fielders do this.

“It would be a mistake, however, to infer from these contrasts that different sports uphold different ethical values. The disparities are more like variations in etiquette than any real moral divergence. In Japan the polite way to greet someone is by bowing, where in the West we shake hands. This doesn’t mean that the two societies have different moral standards, just that they express them differently.

“In the same way, most of the differences between sports can be seen as equally workable conventions about how to arrange a level playing field.

“Still, having said this, I don’t want to insist that all sporting codes are equally admirable. In my view, faking an injury to get an opponent sent off is simply nasty, and would remain so even if all professional footballers did it. I’d say the same about the culture of doping in cycling. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ only takes us so far. We shouldn’t forget that the Romans practiced slavery. Some social conventions are objectively immoral, encouraging cruelty and exploitation, even if they are universally upheld in certain societies – or sports.

“Everybody who cares about sport has an interest in drawing the line between acceptable local customs and definitely immoral practices. You’re a bit of a fool if you think that cricketers are morally superior to baseball players because they have made different agreements about how to police catches. But it doesn’t follow that all ways of arranging games are morally legitimate.

“The distinction might sometimes be difficult to draw. But it is worth upholding. It is only by drawing a line between reasonable conventions and corrupt practices that we can hope to keep the latter out of sport.”

Is it worse to be deceitful in sport than to openly and unapologetically break the rules?

“I’m not sure that we can generalise about this. Of course some attempts to deceive the officials are downright wrong. I’ve already mentioned footballers who fake injuries to get an opponent into trouble. Your readers will no doubt feel the same about Thierry Henry’s surreptitious handball in the 2010 World Cup play off. But it’s not just the deception that’s bad in these cases, but the unpleasant nature of the act that’s being concealed.

“In other cases, after all, deception is a perfectly acceptable part of the game. Rugby forwards who use their skills in a loose scrum to illegally slow the other side’s ball aren’t acting corruptly – it’s what they’re supposed to do. I’d say the same about cricketers who pretend they haven’t snicked the ball, baseball fielders who make as if they caught the ball cleanly when they haven’t, and so on. In all these cases, the athletes have in effect agreed that they’ll leave it up to the officials to make the decisions, and aren’t counting on each other to own up. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Manchester United’s Roy Keane shouts at Alf-Inge Haaland after a red card tackle that contributed to the end of the Manchester City player’s career. Photograph: Gary M Prior/Allsport/Getty Images

"Moreover, infringing in full view of the referee doesn't always make things better. When Roy Keane ended Alf-Inge Haaland's career with his vicious feud-settling tackle, he didn't try to hide what he was doing and scarcely waited for the red card before walking off. In my book, Keane's behaviour had no place on the football field, or anywhere else. If anything his blatancy only made it worse."

What’s the point of sport? Has it a value in its own right?

“Sometimes people cite the many benefits that sport brings: physical health, increased self-esteem, relaxation, and so on. That may all be true, but I’d say it’s putting the cart before the horse. In reality, the exercise of physical skills is one of the basic goods in life, along with happiness, friendship, security, and family.

“It [sport] is valuable in itself. Pride in physical performance is a deep-seated feature of human nature. Human beings hone their physical abilities and find value in exercising them. I don’t think we should look beyond this to find justifications for sport. Saying that sport is worthwhile because of its positive spin-offs is like valuing friendships because they will advance your career.”

Has reflecting on sport made you any less of a sport enthusiast?

“Absolutely not. The more philosophical angles I find in sport, the more interesting it gets. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’m not sure I agree in general - not everybody needs to be a philosopher - but for me reflecting philosophically on sport has only deepened my enjoyment of it.”

Ask a sage:

Question: Tipperary has Kilkenny, Liverpool has Everton. Why do sports fans need arch-enemies?

Lord Byron replies: "Hatred is by far the longest pleasure; men love in haste but they detest at leisure."