The Super Bowl, Badminton and the Athlete’s Social Contract
Nearly 112 million people in the United States watched the Super Bowl last year. Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was, per NPR, the most watched show in the history of television. Clearly, professional sports are highly esteemed in America. In the run-up to what is sure to be another highly anticipated Super Bowl, it is a good occasion to consider the moral value, if any, of athletic competition. To do so, I want to draw your attention to a curious occurrence that happened several years ago in a much less popular sport, badminton.
Badminton, a sport similar to tennis that uses racquets to hit a shuttlecock across a net, has been an Olympic sport since 1992. 20 years after its Olympic debut, at the 2012 Summer Games in London, this sport became mired in scandal. According to Wired, eight badminton players competing in the women’s doubles tournament were disqualified for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” The disqualified teams—two South Korean teams, one Indonesian team, and one Chinese team—were all intentionally trying to lose their matches so they could face easier opponents in their next rounds. In one match between a South Korean team and a Chinese side, both sides were actively competing against each other to lose (for a great story on this match, check out this RadioLab podcast). These players were not exactly trying to hide their losing strategies, either. In serve after serve, the world’s best players can be seen hitting the shuttlecock straight into the net or watching as the shuttlecock flies right past their racquets and into the ground.
A USA Today article at the time asked the question, “was this ‘cheating or clever gamesmanship?’” Many expressed moral outrage in response to these scandalous matches, but these badminton players were still trying to win Olympic medals. It just so happened that their strategy to win the tournament involved losing a match or two along the way. They were not throwing the matches in order to earn a payoff from gamblers. Furthermore, these badminton players were not alone in employing strategies to “game the rules” to improve their competitive advantage in apparent violation of the spirit of the sport. Professional players in major sports such as soccer, baseball, football and basketball appear to often exaggerate the extent of contact with the opposing team’s players to manipulate referees to call fouls. Other professional league teams have been accused of intentionally losing games late in the season to gain a more favorable schedule or higher draft pick for the next season. These teams and players are all trying to gain an advantage within the existing rules system to win. They should not be blamed; rules that incentivize this kind of behavior should be blamed and changed.
Regardless of problems with rules or tournament structure, there are reasons to hold players and teams who engage in such behavior morally accountable. The badminton players’ actions appear unfair to the fans in the arenas and those watching at home. Sporting teams need their fans’ support. Fans provide psychological support that helps motivate athletes to perform better. The existence of a fan base convinces sporting bodies like the International Olympics Committee to take the sport seriously enough to include it in the Olympic Games. Sports fans buy tickets to matches and sporting memorabilia that ultimately keeps the sport profitable enough to pay the athletes. In return for all of this, fans may reasonably expect that the teams they support will do their best to win their matches—which is what the fans ultimately want. The disqualified Badminton players violated the implicit social contract that exists between competitors and their fan base.
The moral issues may go deeper than this merely transactional wrong; most commentators and sports officials suggested at the time that these badminton players committed a profound wrong. Dan Lebowitz, executive director of a Northeastern University sports research center, wrote, “Sport at its best is a great intersection between the cooperative spirit of teamwork and the competitive spirit of trying to excel. The Olympic Games are in many respects ultimate testimony to sport as it should be played.” Sports are enjoyable to play and to watch, but they are not merely enjoyable. They are symbolic social celebrations of admirable human qualities—cooperation, competitiveness, perseverance, bravery, and so on.
The Olympic Games function as international rituals, and the athletes lucky enough to compete and represent their countries are the high priests and priestesses of these rituals. The players’ attempts to lose the matches in order to win the medals subverts the valuable symbolic meaning of sporting events by suggesting that one can win without displaying the admirable human qualities sports exhorts us to emulate. The badminton players who lost the matches intentionally—and any sports player who cheats—makes a mockery of the symbolic value of sports, and thus violates the sacred social obligations placed upon athletes.
What is interesting about this second argument is that it views professional sports not just as another form of entertainment that people consume for enjoyment alongside sitcoms, popular music, and Hollywood blockbusters. Professional sports are part of the moral fabric of society, and athletes who participate have special obligations to society in virtue of their social roles. This speaks to a larger philosophical issue that is very much still an open question: What are the source of moral obligations? Community relations or individual rights?