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The Obligations of Players and Fans

Color photograph of a crowd of football fans, one of whom is dressed up like the Hulk

Recently, Cristiano Ronaldo slapped the phone out of a 14-year-old fan’s hand, as the kid tried to take a photo from the terraces. The kid’s phone was broken, he was apparently bruised, and the police are investigating this “assault.” Meanwhile, Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges threw his mouthguard at an abusive fan, accidentally hitting a girl. And finally, Ronaldo’s fellow Manchester United player Marcus Rashford was also embroiled in some controversy after apparently swearing at a fan who had criticized his performance. Rashford denied swearing, claiming that he instead said “come over here and say it to my face,” which he acknowledged was silly.

These cases are a bit different – Ronaldo hit a child (though there is no suggestion he knew this was a child, and it was hardly violent), Bridges did something perhaps less violent but a bit more disgusting, and Rashford merely swore. How should we judge these sports stars? My inclination is that the Ronaldo and Bridges cases are fairly obvious: they shouldn’t have been violent, and it was obviously wrong to act in that way.* Rashford’s case raises more interesting questions.

In Rashford’s case (and Bridges’s), he was being berated by fans – this was not on-pitch or in the stadium (like it was for Bridges) – and those fans then reacted with complete indignation when he dared respond to them. And this raises a question: why can fans swear at players, as they so often do, yet when a player raises his middle finger it is (according to the same fans) an outrage?

Perhaps a good starting point is the concept of a role model. People often criticize the behavior of sports stars by saying that they should be exemplars – they should act in a way that encourages other people, especially kids, to behave correctly. If this is true, it explains why fans can, say, swear but players cannot.

But should players be seen as role models? Basketball player Charles Barkley – who had his run-ins with fans – famously said, in a Nike commercial: “I am not a role model… Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” This hits on something very basic: his job is to play basketball, it is to throw a ball through some hoops, and that is what we admire him for. What does being a role model have to do with that?

Alas, this is an overly simplistic view of the role of sports in society. Sports clubs are socially important, and how they do – as well as how players behave – reflects on fans. As Alfred Archer and Benjamin Matheson have argued, sports stars are often representatives of their club or country; when they misbehave, this can bring collective shame on the whole club. When a player is embroiled in a scandal, when a player does something morally disgusting, this makes everyone connected with the club ashamed. And this means that players should be expected to behave in certain ways. (In some scenarios, this might apply to fans, too, such as if they engage in racist chanting – or the Tomahawk Chop – but generally it seems as though players are representatives, fans less so.)

So, an argument like this – though Archer and Matheson are not explicitly trying to argue that players are role models – can ground the idea that players have special obligations to behave appropriately. That said, it might not extend to all sorts of behavior. Perhaps players can be adulterers, who are moderately unpleasant to those around them, but it does mean that players have an extra obligation to not be morally awful: firstly, they should not be morally awful for the standard moral reasons, secondly, they should not be morally awful because it can bring shame on so many others.

I am partial to the idea that players do have certain obligations to behave appropriately, since they are not merely playing sport. Even so, this does not establish the perceived gap between how players should act and how fans should act.

Firstly, it’s far from clear that Rashford’s behavior rises to the level of being bad enough to bring shame on Manchester United. Secondly, we haven’t explored what obligations fans have. How should they behave toward players?

Start with the idea that fans are supposed to support a team. Support can range from cheering them on in the stadium to decking out your home in a variety of merchandise. But you can support someone while criticizing them: after all, if you support someone you want them to do well, and that can involve telling them when they’re doing badly. When it comes to sports fandom, that might even involve booing if a player doesn’t perform well.

But even if booing is okay, there are limits to this, too: criticism and displeasure is one thing, abuse another. As Baker Mayfield has reminded us, the player is doing their job. Mayfield wonders whether the fan would be so keen on booing, if he had things his way: “I would love to show up to somebody’s cubicle and just boo the shit out of them and watch them crumble.” Perhaps fans need to bear this in mind, even if booing is occasionally acceptable when a player really underperforms.

Yet even if criticizing a player is acceptable, this seems to cross a line when the player isn’t playing. To intrude at work is one thing, but when they’re headed home, or to the team bus, seems to be another. It is to treat the player as having no personal life, but having a personal life is something everybody has a right to.

This brings us back around to Charles Barkley’s complaint with being a role model. Yes, he’s an athlete and that is what we are meant to respect, where he’s wrong is in thinking this shields him from any non-sporting expectations. But he is right that he is a man with a life to live, and once we get far enough away from the basketball court, we shouldn’t have much interest in what he does with his life (so long as it isn’t too egregious!).

All of this is to say, slapping a kid’s phone out of his hand or throwing a mouthguard is bad, but so is abusing players. Perhaps the real problem in the Rashford incident isn’t that he failed to be a role model – he in fact is a role model who behaves admirably in the public sphere – the problem is that fans lose sight of how they should behave.

 

*Around a week after this incident, Ronaldo’s child died. We do not know what stresses Ronaldo was under that might change how we view this incident. His bereavement obviously changes our view of this situation.

On Banning Russian Athletes

photograph of gladiator statue at Spartak Moscow stadium

In response to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been banned from international football competitions and Russia’s last remaining team in European competition – Spartak Moscow – has been expelled. Russian teams have also been banned from competing in international cycling events, though individual cyclists can still compete.

In The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan has argued that, despite the temptation to see it as such, these bans are not merely symbolic. By kicking Russia out of sport, by not releasing Disney movies in Russia, by not subjecting Russians to the Eurovision song contest, we send a message: “If Russia acts beyond the bounds of the rules-based international order in Ukraine, it will be treated as an outsider by the rest of the world.”

According to Serhan, these cultural sanctions might not make much of an economic impact, but they do stop Russia from succeeding on the World stage – a key Putin aim. What’s more, “if ordinary Russians can no longer enjoy many of the activities they love, including things as quotidian as watching their soccer teams play in international matches… their tolerance for their government’s isolationist policies will diminish.”

I want to take up two distinct issues that spring out from reading Serhan’s persuasive piece.

Firstly, let’s talk about sportswashing – that is, the laundering of one’s reputation through sport. As noted in Serhan’s piece, Russia has been using sport to increase its global reputation by succeeding – albeit through doping – in athletics, and hosting events like the World Cup in 2018 and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. War is as good an excuse as any to prevent nations from laundering their reputations through sports, but we could perhaps learn a lesson here. As The Guardian’s Barney Ronay notes, it’s often just far too late by the time we react to evil regimes’ sportswashing. Much of the damage has been done already. Last year, cycling’s European Track Championships were stripped from Belarus, only after a state-sponsored hijacking of a plane to capture a dissident journalist. But what will Qatar have to do for FIFA to take the World Cup away from it: kill more immigrant laborers?

It’s all well and good that Russia, and its clubs, can no longer compete, but poisoning people on British soil was fine, so long as the money kept flowing into London. It might be time for sporting associations to take their social responsibilities seriously, even if just for the purely egotistical reason that they look pretty stupid when everything blows up.

Beyond these tangible impacts of cultural sanctions – and this is my second point – there is more to be said about their symbolic purpose.

George Orwell said sport “is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” I have little time for this sentiment in general, but something about it is instructive. When we play sports, we compete. We want to win. But sports have arbitrary goals: we aren’t competing for natural resources, or for power, or for love. We’re competing to be the best at kicking a ball into a net. And, ultimately, we are often doing that for glory. This drive for glory can be perverted, such as when evil regimes use the desire for glory to improve their own standing. And the desire for glory has an egoism at its heart: I want the glory, I want to be better than you. Still, this is a long way from war.

And it doesn’t strike me as particularly morally problematic. In fact, it strikes me as a good thing that we have a space where we can express this desire to win, to be better than others, in fairly harmless contexts.

But that’s precisely why Russia shouldn’t be allowed to compete: because Russia is not just trying to be better in a sporting domain, it is trying to take over another country. There is no way of competing with Russia at sport and this not being manifestly obvious. Every kick of the ball would be imbued with this context.

Sports are games, when we engage in sports we are playing. How can you play with somebody who is trying to kill somebody else you are playing with? The same applies on a global scale. How can you play football against Russia, when Russia is trying to take over Ukraine? There seems to be something about the nature of sporting competition (and think of the use of “sporting” that means “fair”) that excludes competing with murderous regimes. By imposing sporting sanctions, we make it clear that we – the global sporting community – will not engage with such regimes.

Now, perhaps you think that other nations do things that are just as bad, or perhaps you think we should draw the line earlier than full-on war. Perhaps you think the human rights abuses that go on around the world mean other nations, clubs, or players should be excluded from sports. That is all well and good – but the focus here is simply Russia, and we needn’t engage in working out the full expanse of a theory in order to see how it can apply in a clear case.

Further, my argument has its limits. Individuals don’t necessarily represent their nation. That’s why I think that it’s perfectly fair that a Russian cyclist or footballer might still be able to compete for a foreign team. The gray areas come up when we consider club sides (like Spartak Moscow) and individual athletes competing under a national banner (like at the Olympics).

Football clubs might, in some way, represent their local area. But even if we think that Spartak Moscow represents Moscow, or part of it, it’s far from clear that they represent the political entity that is Russia. And although athletes compete at the Olympics for their nation, when it comes to the individual or pairs events, they are very much also competing as individuals.

Thinking about these cultural sanctions solely in terms of having an impact (and trying to prevent needless suffering in Ukraine) might point us in favor of harsh sanctions, including against sports teams that play in Russian, and even Russian individuals. But thinking about the symbolic and sporting value of excluding Russia from sporting events gives us a clear reason for excluding Russia. After all, Russia is using tremendous violence to achieve its political aims, so it should not be permitted to compete on the relatively friendly sporting stage. It has shown itself to not be a friend.

Kamila Valieva, Lia Thomas, and Fairness in Sports

So far, the biggest moment of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has not been record-breaking stunts or underdog wins, but an issue that has been pervasive in the Olympics throughout the past decade: doping. The issue has become a major topic of conversation every Olympics, especially after the 2014 Winter games in Sochi, Russia, where a state-run doping scandal was taking place and only discovered a year later. While Russia is still technically banned from the Olympics, individual athletes from Russia have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2014. Now, Russia’s history with doping has once again become a focus, as have the lenient reactions of governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after it was revealed that a top figure skater, Kamila Valieva, tested positive.

What made this news so controversial were two things: the timing and the consequences. Valieva’s sample was taken on December 25th, after she won the free skate in the Russian National Championships. However, the lab responsible for testing her sample had not reported the results until February 8th, after Valieva helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win gold in the team skate and was the first female skater to land two quadruple jumps in the Olympics. The drug she tested positive for, Trimetazidine, is a heart medication that has helps athletes with their endurance, which would give her a significant advantage in figure skating competition. She was suspended and then quickly cleared by a Russian anti-doping organization. But the most shocking decision was the Court of Arbitration in Sports allowing her to compete in the individual free skate, an event that she was favored to win.

The decision to let Valieva compete has created just as much controversy as the original positive test. Former Olympic figure skater and now coach, Adam Rippon, has suggested that Russia’s original ban by the IOC was clearly not strict enough as their best athletes are continuing to test positive. Further, Rippon has also pointed out that Valieva is only fifteen, and her status as a minor means that it is her coach and guardians that bear the greatest responsibility. Given this, Valieva has generally been met with sympathetic responses as no one knows the extent to which she might be complicit. Would-be Olympian Shi’Carri Richardson, however, has pointed out the double standard at play – as she was banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for testing positive for marijuana after she found out her mother died. Like Valieva, Richardson was expected to be a heavy favorite (in the 100-meter dash), but marijuana – while listed as a banned substance – is not a performance-enhancing drug. (Another difference, of course, is that Valieva is white, whereas Richardson is Black.)

While Valieva may deserve sympathy as a child, athletes expect that competitors will be held to the same standard when it comes to positive tests for banned substances – perhaps especially when competing at something as grand as the Olympics. The decision to allow Valieva to compete – even if disqualified from the medal ceremony – illustrates a certain acceptance among the top sports governing bodies of doping at the world’s largest stage for athletic performances. Skaters in the individual event must perform knowing that their biggest competition has a leg-up. And if Valieva is met with understanding and shown leniency, what would stop other athletes (or coaches) from expecting that their rule-breaking behavior might be similarly excused? The basis for athletic competition is the expectation of a level playing field, but complacency about doping threatens to undermine the integrity of athletic contests.

Valieva’s case is related to another controversy brewing in the sports world: transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. While public response to Valieva’s situation has been largely sympathetic and respectful, the same cannot quite be said of the treatment of Lia Thomas. In a somewhat similar case, a governing sports body – this time the NCAA – needed to determine quickly whether a University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) swimmer, Lia Thomas, would be able to compete at the conference championships in March. Recently, the NCAA had decided to no longer have a uniform policy for transgender athletes across all sports, but instead to allow individual sports governing bodies to have their own requirements. For Lia Thomas, this meant she would be disqualified from competing because the USA Swimming policy required trans athletes to undergo 36 months of hormone therapy and prove they do not have an unfair advantage from their sex assigned at birth. By the time of the conference championships Thomas would’ve been at 33 months of hormone therapy. Thomas’ absence would completely change the championships as she holds two of the top times in the nation.

What added to the controversy and sparked debate amongst women’s athletic communities was the reaction from sixteen of her teammates. The teammates, referring to themselves as biological women, released an anonymous letter pleading that UPenn or the Ivy League accept Thomas’s ban and not sue the NCAA. They justified their position by explaining how Thomas had taken away their chance to compete at the conference meet, in which only about half of the team makes the roster. In response, over 300 current and former competitive swimmers voiced their support for Thomas, as well as other trans and non-binary athletes in their sport. Crucially, they also highlighted the true issue of this situation, which is that while real problems that have been ongoing for decades in women’s sports, such as sexual abuse, unequal treatment between men’s and women’s athletics, and unfair pay, opponents have mistakenly decided to blame a transwoman for the downfall of fairness in women’s sports.

There has been a marked difference in the ways the sports world, particularly the women’s sports world, has reacted to these situations. Valieva clearly cheated; she tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug – whether she knowingly took the drug or was coerced by adults. Her continued competition in the Olympics has now taken away from every skater who worked their entire life in the hopes of one day making it there. It calls into question the integrity of not only the team and free skate competitions, but also the Games as a whole. Fellow competitors, commentators, and the general public seem upset, but also believe sympathy and respect are called for. Lia Thomas, meanwhile, was castigated by her own teammates and has faced a wave of backlash (often transphobic) over her supposed “biological” advantage.

The woman who helped to publish the letter by Thomas’s sixteen teammates is former Olympian, civil rights lawyer, and women’s rights advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar who published an editorial defending their position. In the editorial, Hogshead-Makar compares Thomas not only to her old rivals, the doping East German athletes from the 1980s, but also to Michael Phelps, a male swimmer, who ironically has his own biological advantages, yet is celebrated as a sports phenom. While Hogshead-Makar insists that her ultimate aim is to break down the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports, she can’t see that her own argument is inherently sexist – accepting a biologically advantaged male as exceptional, but a transwoman with over a year of hormone therapy as threatening.

Additionally, Hogshead-Makar demonstrates remarkable indifference in suggesting Thomas either compete in men’s swimming, something that would most likely cause some level of trauma from having to be defined under the wrong gender, or forfeit participation in official competition and simply swim in exhibition races. Indeed, Hogshead-Maker is adamant that women should not give up the gains they have fought for against men “no matter how real the harms suffered by transgender athletes.” While purporting to be a supporter of women’s sports and of Lia Thomas’s gender identity, Hogshead-Makar simply refuses to recognize Thomas as a woman. If she did, she would be embracing Thomas with open arms and recognizing a great athlete for what they are – someone who overcame unique and difficult barriers to fully realize themselves.

Welcoming transgender athletes into women’s sports – obviously with certain guidelines to ensure fairness – should be the goal of all women in women’s sports, as it is true they have fought hard (and continue to fight) for equal recognition with men’s sports. Welcoming more women and greater competition can only help further women’s sports in its mission of equality. In the end, the true threat to the integrity of sports lies not in the inclusion or exclusion of gender identities, but in complacency about doping.

Can We Heckle Unvaccinated Athletes?

photograph of Bryson DeChambeau at event with crowd in background

A lot of the pleasure I take in watching sports comes not only from seeing the teams and people I like succeed, but also from seeing those I dislike fail. For instance, I will gladly watch the Blue Jays players hit an impressive string of dingers, but will equally enjoy seeing Ben Roethlisberger get sacked. Being a sports fan means feeling both pride and schadenfreude, and it comes with the territory of being a professional athlete that some people are going to love you, and some just aren’t.

While there are a lot of reasons one might have for disliking an athlete, the pandemic has brought about a new one: being unvaccinated. There have been a number of professional athletes who have come out as having not yet been vaccinated, for whatever reason. In particular, Bryson DeChambeau, an American professional golfer, stirred up controversy recently when he was unable to participate in the 2021 Olympics due to testing positive for COVID-19, and then did not get vaccinated when he returned. He raised the ire of many golf fans even more when he said that he did not regret failing to get vaccinated, stating that he thought that since he was “young and healthy” that he didn’t need it, and that he was waiting for the vaccine to become “really mainstream.”

The result was a serious increase in heckling during his most recent tour, which resulted in an altercation with a fan during which DeChambeau sought the assistance of the police (despite the incident only involving name-calling). Some reporting on the issue have referred to the incident and others like it as “bullying.”

Others, however, have taken the opposite stance. For instance, sports commentator Drew Magary has called for increased booing of unvaccinated athletes, and singles out additional players like NFL stars Sam Darnold, Adam Thielen, and MLB star Jason Heyward, among others. “Has coddling them worked?” asks Magary. “No. And do you know why? Because these athletes SUCK. They don’t want more information. They have it. Everyone does.”

So, what’s the right thing to do in this situation? As we saw above, certainly some amount of heckling of your least favorite athlete is okay: while I would never openly insult someone on the street, the context of being a fan is such that if I got the chance to attend a Pittsburgh Steelers game I would without hesitation tell Ben Roethlisberger that he’s the worst and not feel bad about it in the least. Clearly there is a limit to sports fandom: you can’t throw stuff or kick your least favorite player as they walk past you, and it would probably be too much to shout a string of obscenities in the vicinity of young and impressionable fans. So where’s the line? And has it moved at all when it comes to heckling on the basis of being unvaccinated?

On the one hand, there is a concern that heckling players for failing to be vaccinated goes too far, in that it attacks someone’s personal convictions. For instance, ESPN notes how some of DeChambeau’s fellow golfers have been sympathetic, feeling that it’s unfair for fans to heckle someone based off a personal choice. It does seem that it might be violating some norm of sports fandom to attack someone’s personal beliefs: yelling at someone that they’re washed up is within the realm of sports, but maybe it shouldn’t extend outside of that realm. If the heckling is not only personal but also incessant, then we can see how someone might interpret it as a kind of bullying.

On the other hand, one might think that unvaccinated professional athletes deserve some degree of derision, not only because they are putting their teammates and opponents – with whom, in the case of NFL players, they are very much in close personal contact – at risk, but also because as professional athletes they are, to some extent, role models, and thus face additional obligations to set a good example for their fans. They also do not seem to have any kind of excuse: on the assumption that they do not have legitimate medical reason not to get vaccinated, they have access to information about the safety of the vaccine, as well as ready access to the vaccine itself. Perhaps, then, heckling could help encourage them to change their mind.

But wait, isn’t it just mean to heckle someone excessively, regardless of the reason? If it makes someone feel bad, isn’t that sufficient reason not to do it?

Maybe not. For instance, consider Magary’s justification for increasing heckling:

“So boo them. Call them names. Get personal from the bleachers. Hold up a giant copy of your vaccination card to taunt them with. Let them understand that there are earned consequences for being so negligent. For endangering everyone around you and then having the naked gall to act like it’s some sacred private decision you just made.”

While Magary thus conceives of additional heckling as a kind of deserved punishment, perhaps we could think about it in a slightly different way: heckling unvaccinated athletes is not a mere expression of disliking someone because they play for a rival team, but as a kind of protest. As we saw above, there do seem to be legitimate reasons to be displeased with both the unvaccinated athletes themselves as well as the professional leagues that allow them to continue to play – i.e., that they are endangering their teammates and setting a bad example. Given that there’s more at stake than just the outcome of a golf tournament (or a football or baseball game) it may very well be warranted to make your opposition to them known.

On the Obligations of Sports Fandom

image of lined field under bright lights

This season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s been welcomed back to Manchester United (twelve years after leaving them), while Ben Roethlisberger turned out for a seventeenth campaign for the Pittsburgh Steelers. What unites these two players? Both Ronaldo and Roethlisberger (twice) have been accused of rape. Both men have escaped criminal prosecution due to prosecutors being unable to prove the allegations beyond reasonable doubt. There are important questions concerning how teams, sponsors, and governing bodies should treat these players, but I want to explore a question that is more pressing for many of us: how should fans respond to these players?

There are a bunch of complicating factors that are worth mentioning. Firstly, these allegations are prominent: any fan should know about them (whereas sometimes allegations are swept under the carpet). Sure, other players do bad things, but my focus will be on allegations we know about.

Secondly, fans might say that because they haven’t been convicted, we can assume they have done nothing wrong: innocent until proven guilty. But a lack of conviction does not mean that someone did not commit a crime, it means that prosecutors (or, in other cases, a jury) did not find it likely beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed a crime. They may well have committed a crime, we just might lack overwhelming legal proof. Yet other people may be accused and be entirely innocent. The law does not exhaust our moral judgment – if a friend were accused of a crime but not charged, we might have to evaluate whether we believe them, and I suggest we need to do the same when it comes to sports stars. (Sometimes we should conclude “Maybe they did it, maybe not,” but even that attitude should affect how we treat somebody.)

Thirdly, some sports stars have been convicted of crimes. Michael Vick spent nearly two years in prison for participating in a dog-fighting ring. After his release, he continued his career as an NFL player. There is little doubt that he committed the crime. But, as well as doing the crime, he did the time. Again, that seems too easy a moral escape for sports fans. Just because someone has suffered legal punishment, it does not mean that they receive carte blanche to receive the adulation of hundreds of thousands of fans. (On the other hand, Vick later worked with charities to help fight for animal rights. Perhaps taking his crime seriously means that he should be accepted back onto the field.)

Moving on, what matters is that, like ordinary people, sports stars sometimes do evil things, though it can be hard for us to know with certainty when they have committed evil, and it can be difficult to work out exactly how we should respond to them on a purely moral front. Complications aside, how should we respond to sports stars who have been credibly accused (if not convicted) of wrongdoing?

One might draw a useful comparison with artists who have done wrong. Noel Carrol has argued that sometimes a piece of art “invite[s] us to endorse the wrondgoing in question.” To take his example, if an artwork portrays paedophilia, and the author endorses paedophilia, we might have good reason to eschew that work, since appreciating it involves appreciating this endorsement of wrongdoing. But, to take another of his examples, we have no reason to avoid W.B. Yeats’s “The Fiddler of Dooney” because, although Yeats was a eugenicist, appreciating that poem doesn’t require us to endorse repugnant racist views. We can still enjoy artworks if they are unrelated to the artist’s wrongdoing.

This depends on the idea that artworks have content that we can judge morally. Perhaps a player who is violent in their domestic life should not be cheered for violence on the field. But Carroll’s principle will not get us very far, since the wrongdoing of sports players will rarely be represented in any clear way on the field. Most sporting actions have no real relationship to the immoral acts of everyday life, so appreciating them will rarely actively endorse a player’s wrongdoing in the way that we might do with artworks.

But there is clearly something troubling about cheering for sportspeople who have done wrong. What explains this? Alfred Archer worries fans signal that supporting this player is more important than blaming them for their moral wrongdoing. This is a bit like hanging out with somebody who is quite funny but is horribly xenophobic: you show that you think their sense of humor is enough to outweigh the fact that they willfully discriminate against foreign people.

The idea is that fans condone the behavior and do not think it is bad enough to disavow the player, (I’ve discussed a similar issue, concerning sportswashing and the 2022 World Cup). Not only is this troubling in terms of expressing fans’ moral views, it also signals something to victims: the fans don’t care enough about what happened to victims, they care more about supporting their hero.

This is compounded by another feature of fandom. Fans do cheer for sporting achievements, but they also valorize players. Ronaldo’s manager says things like “Ronaldo is a special man and a special player for us in the history of the club.” Commentators talk about tales of personal redemption. Fans are likewise apt to laud players. And it is clearly a morally troubling aspect of fandom: because fans are liable to valorize players, they respect the player as a person rather than just their best striker.

This is troubling because it explicitly involves ignoring or outweighing the player’s moral wrongdoing. Either the fan valorizes the player as a person due to their sporting actions (because they do good things for my team, they are good) or they think that the player is a good person despite their moral wrongdoing (the fact they do good things for my team outweighs the fact the player is, say, a rapist).

Now, this valorization is not an essential part of fandom. Archer suggests that fans might adopt “a form of critical fandom,” which might involve recognizing the wrongdoing of players, refusing to valorize them as people, whilst appreciating their sporting talent and their contribution to a team’s victory. That said, Archer notes this might not be a difficult position to take up. I worry it has the same inherent instability as “hate the sin, not the sinner.” There’s something about fandom that makes it tempting to love the person, not just the athlete.

ROC and the Ethics of Guilt by Association

image of Russian Olympic Committee Flag 2021

Doping has been a persistent theme of conversation around sports these past few months. During the Olympics, athletes have gone so far as alleging that they were not able to compete in a clean competition, and much of this was directed at one team: “ROC”, which stands for the Russian Olympic Committee. Due to a state-sponsored system of doping, Russia is banned from competing, and Russian athletes who were not implicated in the doping system are instead allowed to represent ROC at the Olympics.

Ryan Murphy’s allegation that swimming is haunted by doping was barbed precisely because he lost to a Russian athlete, Evgaeny Rylov. Fellow American swimmer Lilly King made similar allegations, with a direct jab at Russian athletes. (This isn’t exactly the first Olympics to see tensions flare between Russia and America.) But is it fair to be skeptical about athletes who are associated with countries – or, broadening away from this particular case, coaches – that engage in mass doping schemes? Further, is it fair to be skeptical about entire sports? Murphy later seemed to modify his comments, claiming that he wasn’t voicing skepticism about Rylov but was concerned that swimming, as a sport, wasn’t clean. Not that this is limited just to swimming — after all, many of us view cycling with great suspicion.

One problem is basing these allegations on guilt by association. The evil deeds of others don’t make you guilty. For instance, to allege that Mumford and Sons are a far-right band because of (now-former) member Winston Marshall’s recent behavior is a logical error; the fact that Marshall sides with reactionary views doesn’t mean his fellow bandmates do. In our case, to insinuate that Rylov is guilty of doping because he’s a Russian athlete is to claim he is guilty because of his association to guilty athletes and a corrupt sporting system.

To emphasize why guilt by association is problematic, it’s useful to look at the contrast between shame and guilt. We can focus on two points: Firstly, something can shame you even though it isn’t wrongful. You can feel ashamed for having a long nose or not being very funny. But you aren’t guilty (you can’t feel guilty, and no one can impugn you over it) for having a long nose. Secondly, you can be shamed by your associations to other people. You can feel ashamed that your friend acted in such a way, or you can feel ashamed that your child made such a choice.

So, shame by association is perfectly appropriate: a Russian athlete might feel ashamed that their compatriots doped. But because guilt requires wrongdoing, you can’t be guilty simply because of what someone else has done. So, hinting that a ROC athlete is guilty because they are Russian is inappropriate: to be guilty you have to do something wrong, you aren’t guilty because of who you are affiliated with. And it is worth noting how these Russian athletes are made worse off by the fact they have to compete for ROC. The media often enough referred to “Russia” winning a medal at the games. Had they just been competing as (genuinely) neutral athletes, clean athletes would at least be able to hold Russian doping at arm’s length.

But maybe there is another way of looking at guilt by association that does justify these allegations of cheating: some associations are evidentiary. If you hang around Bada Bing!, the strip bar on The Sopranos, there’s a reasonable chance you’re involved in organized crime. To suggest this based on a mere association between you and Tony Soprano would be dodgy guilt by association. To suggest this based on the statistical evidence that, say, 68% of people who hang out there in fact are gangsters is not dodgy. Or to suggest that if you go there you are likely a gangster because people go there to discuss crime is not dodgy. These latter suggestions turn on something more than insinuation and gossip and find a credible grounding: they are evidence based on factual elements (for discussion, see Marshall Bierson’s “Stereotyping and Statistical Generalization”).

For such an allegation based on association to stick in the ROC case, we need to find grounds to suggest that being Russian is good evidence that ROC athletes have cheated. And one can start to make such a case: after all, if elite athletes in a country are engaging in state-sponsored doping then other athletes will be under pressure to also dope in order to keep up with the other elite athletes. (Likewise, we might run the same arguments for sports like cycling: to even be competitive, you are under pressure dope, which is why it might be reasonable to be suspicious of the entire sport.)

This is a plausible starting point. But it faces three hurdles. Firstly, it is mere speculation and needs to be filled in with something evidentiary (say, if a bunch of ROC athletes confessed to doping, or if there were evidence that other athletes were under pressure to dope). Secondly, it’s at best probabilistic. It only helps to justify the claim that ROC athletes are to some degree more likely (than, say, a neutral athlete) to dope. Even if stereotypes or statistical claims sometimes enable us to make quick judgments (and this can sometimes be useful), the problem with the allegations from Murphy and King was that they were interpreted by any reasonable listener as an attack on a particular athlete: Evgeny Rylov. Thirdly, this line of argument starts with a handicap: the athletes who compete for ROC had to demonstrate that they were not involved in doping. Given this, there should be a presumption that they are competing fairly.

Of course, I am no Olympic swimmer, and a further factor is that these athletes surely have a better insight on the behavior of some of their competitors than I do. Perhaps there is genuine evidence that Rylov doped, evidence that King and Murphy are party to but we have not yet seen. But, unless that is the case, they should be more cautious about making allegations. Guilt by association, unless that association is evidentiary, is no ground for a serious allegation.

Arguments about Doping Are Difficult

photograph from diving board of Olympic pool lane

American Swimmer Ryan Murphy recently alleged that he was “swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,” having just lost to Russian athlete Evgeny Rylov. Murphy later claimed this was not an allegation, but it is hard not to hear his comment as a dig at Rylov, and Russian athletes more generally, given Russia’s recent ban for operating a state-backed doping regime, where athletes were given a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs, and had their tainted drugs tests replaced by clean ones. (Russia cannot compete at the games, athletes who were not implicated in the scheme can compete for “ROC” – the Russian Olympic Committee.)

We commonly condemn the practice of athletes doping – taking banned substances (often a drug, but sometimes their own recycled blood) to improve sporting performance. This might make them quicker, increase their reaction times, or help them recover from training or an injury.

Now, there are those that think we should just embrace doping. Some argue that it lets those who are naturally less talented to catch up to those who are naturally more talented. Others think that the point of athletics is to go faster, higher, and stronger, so we should be able to use whatever means to do that.

But many of us find doping abhorrent, and we can at least get a hold on why doping might be wrong by thinking about the nature of sport. An enduring analysis of the nature of sport is Bernard Suits’s idea that sports involve reaching a goal while overcoming “unnecessary obstacles.” For instance, in golf you have to get the ball in the hole, but you must use a certain stick to propel the ball 300+ yards; you can’t put the ball in through easier means. When we add in that sports involve physical skill, we can start to see the problem with doping: if someone dopes, they lessen some of the obstacles they face. This strikes at the spirit of sport: dopers remove the obstacles they should be facing, and facing obstacles is part of the point of playing sports.

Still, this leaves lots of scope for debate: what restrictions are important obstacles in competing in a sport? Athletes are allowed to improve their physical skills, such as through training, so why does doping strike against the nature of sport in a way that eating 12-egg-omlettes and training eight hours a day does not?

They’re questions for another day. My focus is on a neater question: how should we balance the need for athletes to live their lives with the need to test for, and prevent, doping? On the one hand, doping pervades our sports and we (fans, as well as athletes like Murphy) want competitors to be clean. Doping is not, of course, restricted to Russia. Lance Armstrong achieved seven consecutive Tour de France wins, all while doping, and he received help from the sport’s governing body to cover up his violations. The cover-ups can be extreme, too: former Armstrong team-mate Tyler Hamilton claimed that he had not been doping, rather there was somebody else’s blood mixed in with his sample because he had absorbed a twin in the womb. He later admitted to massive doping. Why go to such lengths to get away with doping? Well, the incentives are huge. Success brings cash, or sponsorship opportunities. And then there’s the sheer glory of being the best in the world.

On the other hand, anti-doping measures involve severe impositions on athletes’ private lives. For one, even in-competition testing is onerous for athletes. Petr Cech missed some of the celebrations of Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League victory because he had to go for a drugs test. Athletes also have to face significant intrusions into their private lives so that they can undergo regular testing. There are different programs in place, but these can be very strenuous: some athletes have to let USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) know their overnight location for every day of the next calendar quarter and provide a 60-minute window where they will be available for testing (they can, of course, update this information, but it must be submitted quarterly and updates made along the way).

So, there is a tension: there is the fact that athletes are human beings who deserve to live their lives, and there is the fact that athletes dope to win, which threatens the integrity of sports. This tension might help us recognize that although the burdens of the system seem demanding, they make more sense when we appreciate the lengths that some athletes go to in order to dope. And this sheds some light on some controversial recent cases.

Last month, 100-m Hurdler Brianna McNeal was banned for five years. Nobody has accused her of doping; she merely failed to answer the door when drug testers came to her house. (McNeal had previously been banned for a year for failing to update her whereabouts and missing three tests.) This time, her ban came after missing one test. She missed the test because she had an abortion and was recovering in bed when the drugs testers called. She submitted documentation to support this, but altered the documentation provided by the clinic. Her ban was not for taking drugs, nor for missing a test (you have to miss three in a year), but for altering the documents. McNeal had to reveal (to strangers) something that is deeply personal. But, add in the fact that some people go to such lengths to dope, we can understand the need for regular tests, and also the move to punish tampering with doping documents.

In a similar manner, middle-distance runner Shelby Houlihan was suspended for four years because she tested positive for nandrolone (a common doping steroid). Houlihan claimed that she accidentally came into contact with the drug through a tainted pork burrito. Is it really fair that athletes can’t eat a tasty burrito? Well, there are plenty of things ordinary folk do all the time that athletes can’t do. For instance, athletes have to stick to strict training regimes that often take over their whole lives. Further, it’s not all that clear that this was an intrusion into Houlian being able to live a normal life — the scientists who researched the possibility of pork-based nandrolone contamination hold that the chances of it affecting a drug test are “slim.” Houlihan’s excuse, then, runs the risk of being as unbelievable as Tyler Hamilton’s.

The tension between an athlete’s personal life and anti-doping regulations also bears on perhaps the toughest recent case. Sha’Carri Richardson was banned for a month for testing positive for marijuana, ruling her out of the Olympics. It takes a heart of stone not to feel sorry for her, given she took the drug when she was grieving the loss of her mother. Further, in many parts of America, marijuana use is legal – so why should marijuana be prohibited?

For one, there are other legal drugs that are banned for athletes. But we also need to recognize that many of these competitions are international. A recent statement by WADA noted some governments had requested they distinguish between in-competition and out-of competition use of marijuana. Cannabinoids are only banned when athletes are competing. So – where legal – athletes can enjoy marijuana, if they wish, much of the time. Perhaps WADA is right that this strikes a balance between respecting athlete’s “civil liberties” and respecting the fact marijuana is illegal in some places.

Together, these cases tell us at least one thing: there is no easy conclusion here. If we want to stop doping – to give athletes like Ryan Murphy assurance that he’s swimming in a “clean pool” – we have to test athletes for drugs, and this will inevitably involve encroachment on their private lives. Perhaps these measures sometimes go too far, but if we want to ban doping, we have to be willing to bear some of these costs.

Should College Football Be Canceled?

photograph of footbal next to the 50 yard line

On August 11, the Big Ten conference announced it would be postponing its fall sports season to Spring 2021. This decision shocked many, as it was the first Division I college football conference to cancel its fall season.  After the announcement, Vice President Mike Pence took to twitter to voice his disapproval and to declare that, “America needs college football” and President Donald Trump simply tweeted, “Play College Football!” Trump and Pence weren’t the only politicians to express this belief, though they are certainly the highest-ranking members of government to express a moral position in favor of continuing the college sports season amidst the pandemic.

Questions surrounding America’s 2020 college football season make up a few of the many ethical dilemmas surrounding higher education during the pandemic. Canceling this season means further economic loss and the potential suppression of a labor movement, while playing ball could have dire consequences for the safety of players and associated colleges. Navigating this dilemma requires asking several questions about both the economic importance and cultural significance of college football.

Do schools have an ethical duty to cancel their football season? What values do athletic programs hold in college education? And what is at stake for the players, the schools, and Americans at large?

Is a sports season, in and of itself, dangerous to attempt during the pandemic? The official CDC guidance on playing sports advises that participants should wear masks, keep a 6-feet distance, and bring their own equipment. They also rank sports activities from low to high risk, with the lowest risk being skill-building drills at home and the highest being competition with those from different areas. While the CDC does not necessarily advocate against the continuation of athletic programs during the pandemic, can the same be said for other medical professionals? After VP Mike Pence’s tweet, several prominent health professionals “clapped back” on Twitter, pushing back against the need for football, and even suggesting that continuing fall sports is of least priority during the pandemic. Some medical professionals have even ranked football as one of the most dangerous sports for COVID-19 transmission.

Despite the physical dangers, cancelling football season has serious economic consequences for colleges. It is estimated that there is at least $4 billion at stake if college football is cancelled. While losing one year’s worth of revenue on sports might not seem like a big deal, many colleges rely on athletic revenue to cover the costs of student scholarships and coaching contracts. In fact, a 2018 study by the NCAA found that overall, Division I athletic programs were operating at a deficit, and their revenues were helping them scrape by. Without revenues this season thousands of professors and staff members could face the risk of job loss, due to colleges’ lack of money to cover athletic investments. Small businesses that see large profits from the influx of fans during football season face a huge decrease in revenue. Even sports bars and restaurants, which draw in customers by airing current games, face significant economic losses.

Additionally, college sports serve as a primary form of entertainment for millions of people. In 2019 alone, over 47 million spectators attended college football games and an average of over 7 million people watched games on TV. College football clearly holds large cultural value in American society. During a time which is already financially, emotionally, and mentally troubling, losing one’s hobby, or ties to a community of like-minded people, might worsen the growing mental health crisis spurred by the pandemic.

The question of whether or not college football season should continue is also further complicated by the existing ethical debates within the sport itself. NCAA football teams have had a wide-ranging history of corruption, from academic violations to embezzlement schemes. Even more disturbing are the several sexual abuse scandals that have rocked major college football teams in recent years, both involving athletes and athletic officials. The clear racial divides in the makeup of players and athletic officials, has stirred debates about the haunting similarities between college football and slavery.

Over the past decade, there has been a growing movement in favor of instituting labor rights for college athletes. Several lawsuits against the NCAA, primarily on behalf of football players, have argued that widespread lack of compensation violates labor laws. Movements to unionize college football have become even more common during COVID, with some arguing that recent league debates about canceling the football season are more about controlling players’ ability to organize than it is about players’ health and safety. In an op-ed in The Guardian, Johanna Mellis, Derak Silva, and Nathan Kalman-Lamb argue that the decision to cancel the college football season was motivated by fear of the growing movement demanding widespread reform in the NCAA. They assert that if colleges really cared about the health and safety of their players, they would not have “compelled thousands of players back on to campus for workouts over the spring and summer, exposing them to the threat of Covid-19.” The argument is especially strong when one considers the fact that a growing movement of athletes, using the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay, have been threatening to refuse to play without the ability to unionize.

Despite potentially ulterior motives for cancelling the college football season, it still might arguably be the most ethical decision. Nearly a dozen college football players have already suffered life-threatening conditions as a result of the spread of COVID. The continuation of a fall sports season will endanger athletes, athletic officials, spectators, and also non-athlete students. Even if in-person spectators are prohibited, the continuation of fall sports requires cross-state team competition, which is ranked as the highest risk sports activity by the CDC. Several outbreaks have already occurred during fall training at colleges across the nation. Outbreaks on teams have not only the potential to harm athletes, but also students at the universities which they attend.

While two Division I conferences across the country have canceled their season, others appear unwavering in their desire to play football. Fortunately, the NCAA has developed a set of regulations aimed to protect players from retaliation if they choose not to play. With human lives, the economic survival of colleges, and a labor organization movement at stake, America’s 2020 college football season is set to be the most ethically confuddling in history.

Power, Pollution, and Golf

Photograph of a golf course showing a pond in the foreground, a distant person with a bag of clubs, and trees in the background

Despite the closure of over 800 golf courses in the last decade and the fact that young people have virtually no interest in the sport, golf may be the emblematic pastime of the 21st century. So many of the key issues our society must grapple with in the next hundred years or so, from environmental change to the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of an elite few, are borne witness to on the vast stretches of meticulously maintained green. Given the ethical ramifications of those issues, it’s pertinent to ask whether or not the continuation of the sport of golf itself is ethical, and what the prevalence of this sport might say about our future.

The first and most pressing objection to golf is its environmental impact. Apart from impact of pesticides, environmental scholars note that “Golf course maintenance can also deplete fresh water resources [… and] require an enormous amount of water every day,” which can lead to water scarcity. A golf course can take up nearly 150 acres of land and can displace the area’s native flora and fauna in favor of an artificial and homogenized landscape. Furthermore, the impact of a golf course can be felt beyond the land it physically occupies. From 2017 to 2019, a teenage diver found over 50,000 golf balls underwater off the coast of California, the byproduct of five nearby golf courses. This is especially concerning to environmentalists, because, as the NPR reporter who covered the story noted, “golf balls are coated with a thin polyurethane shell that degrades over time. They also contain zinc compounds that are toxic.” They eventually break down into microplastics, an especially insidious form of pollution.

However, some argue that golf courses enclose and protect rather than damage fragile ecosystems. One such often-referenced paper, “The Role of Golf Courses in Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management,” was written by Johan Colding and Carl Folke and published in 2009. After examining the effect of golf courses on local insect and bird populations, Colding and Folke concluded that “golf courses had higher ecological value relative to other green-area habitats,” and “play essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.” They argue that golf courses can be a refuge for wildlife that’s been pushed out from other areas, and that golf courses can foster biodiversity by working hand-in-hand with conservationists. However, this paper was published by Springer Science+Business Media, a global publishing company of peer-reviewed scientific literature that had to retract 64 scientific papers in 2015 after it was discovered that the articles hadn’t actually been peer reviewed at all. Seen in that light, this research (and the conclusion it draws) becomes questionable. Another study, “Do Ponds on Golf Courses Provide Suitable Habitat for Wetland-Dependent Animals in Suburban Areas? An Assessment of Turtle Abundances, published in The Journal of Herpetology in 2013, examined the potential for golf courses to contain turtle habitats with mixed results. The researchers noted that turtle habitats within golf courses did have the potential to foster wildlife, but were negatively impacted by residential development projects, which many golf courses today contain. To summarize, there is no clear consensus on this issue, though researchers uniformly note the very act of building a golf course in the first place does disrupt wildlife, whether or not conservation efforts are made after the fact.

Golf may have an ultimately negative impact on the environment, but its continuance has ethical implications for our social and political landscape as well. Golf has long been considered an elite pastime, and President Trump’s fondness for the sport is often used to demonstrate his insufficiencies as a leader. Rick Reilly, a contributing writer for ESPN’s SportsCenter and ABC Sports, released a book in early April of this year entitled Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. In an article for The Atlantic explaining how Trump has sullied the reputation of golf through his propensity to cheat and tasteless displays of wealth, Reilly laments,

“[The situation] stinks because we were finally getting somewhere with golf. It used to be an elitist game, until the 1960s, when a public-school hunk named Arnold Palmer brought it to the mailmen and the manicurists. Then an Army vet’s kid named Tiger Woods brought it to people of color all over the world. We had ultracool golfers like Woods, Rickie Fowler, and Rory McIlroy, and pants that don’t look like somebody shot your couch, and we’d gotten the average round of golf down to $35, according to the National Golf Foundation.”

However, it’s difficult to stand by Reilly’s assertion that golf has entirely outgrown its elitist roots. In an interview with Golf Digest, Trump remarked,

“First of all, golf should be an aspirational game. And I think that bringing golf down to the lowest common denominator by trying to make courses ugly because they want to save water, in a state that has more water […]

I would make golf aspirational, instead of trying to bring everybody into golf, people that are never gonna be able to be there anyway. You know, they’re working so hard to make golf, as they say, a game of the people. And I think golf should be a game that the people want to aspire to through success.”

Replace the word “golf” with “power,” and you’ve got an almost eerily succinct and transparent summary of capitalist conservative dogma (in which the playing field is never intended to be even, the environment is devalued in favor of aesthetics, and the American dream is only illusory for the masses). But furthermore, Trump’s comment encapsulates many of the elitist attitudes and expectations that still attend golf today, regardless of the price for a single round at a public course. The resorts and country clubs frequented by Trump and his ilk are beautifully manicured arenas of power, places where politicians and businessmen can solidify ties and network over club sodas. When he was attacked for misogynistic remarks about women, Trump’s defense was that he’d heard Bill Clinton say worse things about women on the golf course, going so far as to call Mar-a-Lago, the resort attached to a golf course owned and frequented by Trump, the “The Southern White House.” The words “golf course” have become shorthand for private spaces of leisure for powerful men, a place for unethical behavior sheltered from the public eye and more traditional structures of power by miles of dense greenery.

Unlike sports that are not as white or monolithic, like basketball and football, contemporary golf is not fertile ground for political or cultural resistance. Golfers are notably non-vocal about politics. As golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan points out, many famous pro-golfers are pressured to play golf with the president, and show almost uniform deference to him out of fear of losing corporate sponsorships. This deferential attitude is taken up by most elites who play golf. Donegan says,

“The acquiescence of golf’s leading figures and governing bodies [to the Trump administration] is amplified […] down the sport’s hierarchy, especially in the (sometimes literally) gilded country clubs of states such as Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, which depend on a narrow, and narrow-minded, membership of wealthy, white couples who pay their subscriptions as much for the social cachet as for the sport. Within the confines of the club, they are free to rail against minorities, free to declare Trump the greatest president since Lincoln, free to act like the genteel segregationists they prefer to be.”

The fact is that golfers tend to be wealthy, and that the golf course is a place where hierarchy and prestige are not only respected but built into the very foundation of the culture.

Many agree that golf is both a waste of resources and a symbol for the mechanisms of capitalism, but these two issues have become intertwined in recent years. Golf, some have argued, has been yoked in the service of capitalism and corporate “greenwashing.” Rob Millington explores this idea in his paper “Ecological Modernization and the Olympics: The Case of Golf and Rio’s ‘Green’ Games,” published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2018. He defines ecological modernization as “the idea that capitalist-driven scientific and technological advancements can not only attend to the world’s pending environmental crises, but even lead to ecological improvement, thus allowing sustainability and consumption to continue in concert.” This idea is promoted by corporations who want to greenwash themselves, or to appear green to consumers without changing their essential business models. It is very similar to the conclusion drawn by Colding and Folke, who argue that environmental destruction in the name of leisure and consumerism can take place alongside conservationist efforts without contradiction.

Millington notes that “In response to the growing tide of environmental opposition since the 1960s, the golf industry took up an ecological modernist approach to promote golf as a natural, green, and environmentally friendly sport that allows people to connect with nature.” According to Millington, this is precisely what happened in 2016 Olympic games at Rio De Janeiro, for which a golf course was built on environmentally protected land in the spirit of ecological modernization. The design of the course was presented as enhancing rather than fighting the natural landscape, despite the fact that any incursion into a natural space can disrupt the ecosystem. In this sense, the continuing relevance of golf can be employed for neoliberal ends, under the guise of environmentalism or unity between nations.

In “Is Golf Unethical?”, a 2009 article published in The New York Times, writer Randy Cohen covers the basic environmental impact and bourgeois ethos of golf. On the question of whether or not the sport itself is ethical, he concludes that “perhaps the only moments of grace and beauty and virtue in any game occur during actual play, and we should not look too closely at its broader culture and implicit ethics without expecting to be dismayed.” This is just one defense of the sport, that the skill that goes into mastering it outweighs any moral scruples we should have. Another thing often said in defense of golf is that it, like any sport, builds bridges and creates a sense of fellowship across the world, that it gives us a common language in which to communicate our values and abilities across international lines. But does it actually build bridges between nations or just import elite bourgeois culture and sources of pollution to other parts of the world? The act of swinging a golf club has no objective moral value attached to it, but the trappings of golf, the privilege and waste and unnecessary consumption of resources, certainly do.  

The Gray Area at the Intersection of Gender, Biology, and Identity in Sport

Runner Caster Semenya running across a finish line on a track in a stadium

There is a case currently before the at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland in which South African runner Caster Semenya is contesting a new rule proposed by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) that aims to restrict the levels of testosterone in female runners.

Semenya’s challenge is being closely watched, as the ruling will have important implications for the category of women’s sport and the rights of intersex and transgender athletes to participate in it.

Caster Semenya is not a transgender athlete, she was born female and has always identified as female; she does, however, have naturally much higher testosterone levels than most women by virtue of a DSD condition. DSD conditions are congenital, and they cover a range of cases in which development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical sex is atypical.

DSD can stand for “disorder of sexual development,” which is essentially a medical term that takes intersex traits and other variant or atypical sex development as medical abnormalities. But, at least in the literature outside professional medicine, the terminology of ‘disorder’ is adjusted so that DSD stands for “difference in sexual development” to reflect dissatisfaction with classing intersex conditions as disorders that require correction, treatment or surgical intervention in favour of accepting these as natural variations in human anatomy and physiology.

The range of DSD conditions includes the presence of internal testes in females, which results in much higher than usual testosterone levels. Typical testosterone levels in women and in over 99 percent of  female athletes ranges from 1.12 to 1.79 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre), while the normal adult male range is 7.7-29.4 nmol/L. The IAAF wants a limit of 5nmol/L – which would exclude Semenya from the competing.

The IAAF argues that:

“If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.”

The rule, if upheld, would necessitate athletes like Semenya take testosterone suppression drugs for 6 months prior to competing.

Semenya contends that the rule is discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable and a “violation of the rules of sport and universally-recognised human rights.” She says: “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”

A central question here is why her physical competitive advantage should be treated differently from any other competitive advantage gained by a natural physiological trait –when natural physical strengths are the essence of elite athleticism.

It isn’t easy in this case to make a definitive judgement because of the fuzziness of operative concepts like female and male at the intersection of sex, gender, biology/physiology and identity. It goes to the heart of feminist and LGTBQI challenges to the notion that sex, gender and sexuality are correlated binaries.

The IAAF claims that it is not trying to cast doubt on Semenya’s gender, but just to preserve the categories of female and male sport so that the competition is fair for all, yet these seem like contradictory claims. At the very least the IAAF are making a determination on what counts as female in the sense that it is determining the parameters in principle of that category, physiologically, in a way that in effect qualifies or disqualifies someone from competition.

That a ruling must be made on something that is essentially not determinate makes it very difficult to balance rights of DSD athletes against those of women in sport, and points up the inherent tensions between fairness and inclusivity.

Until quite recently it has been usual practice for medical professionals to assign a gender at birth to intersex babies followed by socialization, and sometimes further or ongoing medical interventions. Intersex traits, and other DSDs do not of themselves cause medical problems, but have long been considered as abnormalities which necessitated the assignment of a male or female gender as a treatment or correction.

Intersex activists have been campaigning against medical jurisdiction over the intersex/DSD body as well as for non-interventionist policies including cessation of gender assignment surgeries and other medical interventions, on the basis that bodies that are gender diverse, or display differences of sexual development, are normal, healthy bodies which simply represent instances of atypical variations on the statistically average male/female body.

In light of these types of consideration, many, including the South African government, consider any rule requiring Semenya to take testosterone suppressant drugs to be a gross violation of human rights. By taking such measures, the IAAF would be implicitly treating her as having a deviant physiology which could be corrected to normalize her.

If the ruling holds, Semenya can compete only if she changes her own body’s natural process to bring it into line with typical physiology. Semenya’s high testosterone gives her a significant advantage – she is, as it stands, unbeatable in her running events by a typical female athlete. Yet it is difficult to escape the sense in which her ‘femaleness’ is implicitly put into question, since the IAAF rule is aimed at preserving the category of women’s competition.

Her supporters argue that she simply has a natural physical advantage – like long legs or extra muscle mass, and that there is no difference in kind between these sorts of physiological advantages, and that of elevated testosterone.  

The ‘categories’ of men’s and women’s sport exist because, in general, men have significant competitive athletic physical advantages over women. Testosterone increases in males at puberty and is thought to be responsible for increases in muscle mass, strength and haemoglobin carrying capacity of the blood, all of which increases strength and endurance, and which ultimately bestows  competitive advantages.

There are, however, some dissenting opinions on that. The available research to date on the question of whether testosterone plays a definitive role in the general advantage male athletes have over female athletes does not provide a definitive answer. (A paper published by Bermon in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017, which claimed that elite women runners with high testosterone levels performed as much as 3% better than those with lower levels, has been heavily criticized by three academics – Roger Pielke, Erik Boye and Ross Tucker – who say that 17-32% of the data was erroneous. That looks immensely damaging to the IAAF’s case.)

It might be tempting for some to think that science could, in principle, provide an answer in the above-mentioned way. But that would be to ignore the vast wealth of feminist and queer theory, which questions the very idea that sex and gender can be made to adhere to a strictly binary classification.

Those arguing with the IAAF for testosterone limits are usually citing problems of competitive fairness in women’s sport which is, after all, a protected category. On the other hand, there is no reason to suppose that the category of women’s sport need be definitive for broader questions about gender binaries.

In a sense it is a practical problem of maintaining the categories of women’s and men’s sport, when some individuals do not neatly slot into those categories. Because of this practical problem, there does seem to be a significant clash between fairness in sport, women’s sport, and inclusivity.

Martina Navratilova recently drew strong criticism for weighing in. She argued that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sporting tournaments was “insane and cheating.” Navratilova’s comments were called “disturbing, upsetting, and deeply transphobic.”

Semenya is not transgender, but it seems reasonable to segue from one discussion to the other; indeed it has already been noted that transgender activists are closely watching the case for the implications it will have for transgender athletes. As such, a question here that needs teasing out is whether there are any salient differences between born females and transgender females, relevant to the question of preserving fairness in the category of women’s sport.

Navratilova was expressing a view that it is not fair for (non-trans) female athletes to have to compete against male-to-female transgender women who may retain the significant competitive advantage of the male over the female athletic physiology. Does such a view make her transphobic? She denies that she is prejudiced. But the criticism she received highlights the issue of whether questioning trans women’s inclusion in the category of women’s sport is necessarily, of itself transphobic. Can the question of trans women competing against other women in athletics be discussed free from the assumption that a contrary opinion is necessarily a hateful one?

To sum up, the case of Semenya’s testosterone levels currently before the IAAF, and the segue made to trans athletes, raises questions which are not insurmountable, but may never be final or definitively settled. One is the question of the categories of men’s and women’s sport: how to understand them, and to make sure they do what they are there to do, which is to provide the opportunity for fair competition. Another is how those categories do and should relate to intersex and transgender identity and rights, and to medical views of transgender and intersex; and the difficulty of conducting rational and respectful debate about these issues. The IAAF has promised a ruling at the end of March.  

“This Crazy Anxious World”: Racism or Political Correctness?

Photograph of tennis athlete Serena Williams with a crowd behind her

Last week a cartoon of Serena Williams appeared in the Herald Sun, a tabloid newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia. The subject was Williams’ dispute with the referee during the women’s US Open tennis championship final. The way cartoonist Mark Knight drew Williams has been compared to caricatures and illustrations of African Americans from the US during the Jim Crow era. The cartoon was picked up and shared widely on Twitter in the US where it dominated the media and was resoundingly criticised as racist, and it provoked widespread anger and condemnation internationally. In the wake of the response to his cartoon, Knight was subject to a torrent of vitriol and abuse on Twitter, and his account was suspended after threats were made against him and his family.

Knight is a Walkley Award winning, highly respected cartoonist and he reacted with surprise and trepidation to the response. Defending the cartoon he claimed that it was about Williams’ actions on the court and not about race or gender. He said: “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behaviour on the day, not about race. The world has gone crazy.”

Meanwhile, in response to the controversy, the Herald Sun doubled down, republishing the drawing of Williams on its front page accompanied by other of Knight’s satirical depictions of public figures, with the ‘headline’ “Welcome to PC World.” In several editorials the paper defended Knight’s claim that his cartoon merely depicts Williams ‘having a tantrum’ (in Knight’s words). Many a pundit complained bitterly that political correctness is effectively censoring satire, and that there is a general overzealousness for finding grave offence where it is not intended. The outrage provoked by Knight’s cartoon was dismissed ass hypersensitivity. Cartoonist Paul Zanetti wrote: “that’s a default position of a lot of people to be triggered into being offended… it’s PC madness.”

Michael Leunig, another Australian veteran award-winning cartoonist wrote, in Knight’s defense:

It’s getting harder to be a cartoonist in this crazy anxious world – in this fragile angry humourless environment where leniency and understanding are in dangerous decline, and where psychic infections spread chaotically on social media with terrible consequences.

If a bit overwrought, nevertheless he strikes a chord. Knight’s defenders take him at his word that his drawing contains no allusions to the racist caricatures to which it is likened. We will return to the question of whether this defense can stand. Leaving aside Knight’s cartoon for a moment, whatever else it may be, this argument is a flashpoint for the political correctness versus free speech dispute that is becoming increasingly vexed in contemporary political and social discourse.

A certain disaffection with political correctness is breaking out on many sides of the political spectrum. From the left Slavoj Žižek complains, “there is something… fake about political correctness.” He thinks that “without a tiny exchange of friendly obscenities you don’t have real contact with another, it remains cold respect… we need this to establish real contact. This is what is lacking, for me, in political correctness.” He has in mind the kind of humorous exchange where people can make fun of each other – something that might be thought of as respectful disrespect. And he implies that such exchanges add colour and depth to our interactions with others.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the conservative right, political correctness is construed as a danger to freedom of speech – because it acts as an injunction on certain sorts of opinions being aired in public. This view was epitomised by George Brandis, erstwhile Attorney General of Australia, who famously proclaimed that “people have a right to be bigots”, reflecting a growing sense in some quarters that political correctness is a form of censorship threatening other rights.

Free speech isn’t absolutely free because it doesn’t licence hate-speech or speech inciting violence. Yet free speech inevitably leaves some possibility for giving offense. (The reason for this is rather more practical than ethical – in a pluralistic society people have different beliefs and values and also different customs of expression and idiom.) The question is where and how the line ought to be drawn. That is why, in terms of the importance of free speech for a free and open democratic society, the distinction between free speech and hate speech is so important.

Cartoons of the ilk of Mark Knight’s can be penetrating and revealing, and are almost always barbed. Knight has depicted Pauline Hansen, a populist Australian politician as a cane toad, Harvey Weinstein as Jabba the Hut and Donald Trump as a white-cat-stroking super villain with ‘stupid hair’. None of which is pretty. Satire as a medium walks the line between humour and ridicule, and it is usually offensive in some sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines political correctness as: “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, usually characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language… considered discriminatory or offensive.”

Given that, as the definition indicates, PC has usually stemmed from a socially progressive agenda, it has often been a source of irritation, sometimes outrage, for social conservatives.

Yet the core value of political correctness is about rejecting discriminatory and offensive language. Though the term has become somewhat pejorative of late, it is, at its core, about not causing others hurt and offense by not using words, idioms, images, etc. with intrinsically pernicious meanings – meanings that are often tied to historical iterations of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Political correctness is concerned with rooting out casually degrading language from everyday discourse and in this it has been important to the social progress made in raising awareness of forms of degradation embedded in our social and cultural milieu.   

So, back to the Serena Williams cartoon: Knight claims that he was not drawing on the kinds of racist depictions of black Americans his cartoon has been criticised for resembling; he says that they were not on his mind as he satirised William’s ‘tantrum’.  But should they have been? It seems genuinely true that the cartoon was not drawn with malicious intent, yet looking at the drawing it is difficult to miss its likeness to those racist images, and difficult to escape the conclusion that Knight’s depiction of Williams is indeed connected with that imagery – consciously or not.

The salient point is that the images of black Americans from the Jim Crow era were produced and used as a way to humiliate and dehumanize an already deeply wronged people. They were used to enculturate and justify enforced racial segregation by perpetrating hateful stereotypes and so were part of the apparatus of oppression. Contemporary depictions of African Americans that resemble them are culturally loaded because of that history in a way that Knight was insensitive to.

Even if Knight doesn’t know it, his depiction of Williams is recalls the portrayals of black people that participated in their oppression. His cartoon is not divorced from that history. That is to say, racism is not only an actively pursued ideology; racism isn’t always manifested from a fully formed prejudice or conscious hatred (though, of course, in some quarters it is). It can also be manifest in a passive acceptance of a status quo which harbors stereotypes that are harmful. Part of the legacy of racism that we are still dealing with is the ways in which it is so embedded that sometimes it is simply not seen.

States’ Rights, Sports, and the Harm of Gambling

Image of gamblers in a sports betting hall.

The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law prohibiting sports betting. In 1992, a federal law prohibited states from authorizing sports gambling. This week, Justice Alito provided his reasoning in favor of protecting states’ rights, wanting to avoid the federal government interfering with state legislatures making their own rulings regarding the issue of wagering on professional and amateur sports, which is indeed legal in Nevada. Many states anticipated the Supreme Court ruling and have been mobilizing to profit on their newfound avenue for revenue. Citizens will be able to start wagering on sports in New Jersey, for instance, in the next two weeks or so.

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Should the NFL’s Players Have to Pay to Protest?

Photo of San Francisco 49ers players kneeling during the National Anthem.

This May, the NFL announced a new policy—any team with a member who kneels during the National Anthem will have to pay a fine. The policy was decided by a vote of the team owners.  Union representatives for the players were not aware of the decision until it was announced. This new policy is a change in tone from the attitudes the league expressed last year and is a further development in an ongoing controversy sparked by players’ decision to protest by taking a knee during the National Anthem.  In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick made headlines for kneeling during the anthem in protest of violence perpetrated by police officers against people of color. Kaepernick no longer plays for the 49ers or any NFL team.  Amnesty International recently honored him with the 2017 Ambassador of Conscience Award.

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For Testosterone Testing in Sports

Image of numbers on the lanes of a running track.

In my last post, I explained that the IAAF has a new policy on testosterone testing for female athletes. See that post for the details. I presented an argument against testosterone testing in sport and now I’ll present an argument for it. Which is the better argument? You decide. (Full disclosure: I don’t know.)

The first thing we need to consider is why sports are gender-segregated. It’s not because there’s a need to segregate people with different gender identities (why would we do that?). Sports are gender-segregated for reasons having entirely to do with bodies. The crux of the matter is that people with female bodies would be at a tremendous disadvantage if they competed against people with male bodies. Averaging over different sports and different individual people, male bodies have a 10 percent advantage. With gender mixing, the female-bodied wouldn’t as often qualify for and win events. To enjoy all the goods associated with sport, people with female bodies have to compete amongst themselves.

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Against Testosterone Testing in Sports

Image of hurdles on a track.

The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) has returned to the policy that female competitors must have circulating testosterone under a certain level. The policy had been suspended as a result of a judgment by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, after a complaint was filed by Dutee Chand, an Indian runner with DSD (differences of sexual development, also known as being intersex). For now, the new policy will apply only to mid-distance events—400 meters to a mile—and to people legally recognized as either female or intersex (which presumably includes trans women). More details on how the policy will be implemented are here.

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NFL to Cheerleaders: Down Girl!

Photo of cheerleaders performing at the 2006 Pro Bowl

I’ve always thought there was a problem with cheerleading. However great they are as athletes and dancers, cheerleaders give the impression that a woman’s place on an athletic field is to cheer on the men. But now we’re learning that there are also problems for cheerleaders. NFL cheerleaders are subject to a truly bizarre list of conduct requirements, as well as regular sexual harassment.

The story has been told in a series of New York Times articles (April 4, April 10, April 17, April 17, and April 24), but perhaps most compellingly in this interview of Bailey Davis, a former New Orleans Saints cheerleader, on the New York Times podcast, “The Daily.”

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What’s so Wrong with Doping in Sports?

An abstract image of a running track.

When prestige, status, and money are on the line, it seems inevitable that someone will endeavor to skirt the rules to gain a competitive advantage. The payoff is too great for some to pass up. This is what we have seen time and again in international sports competitions with the use of illegal substances to enhance athletic performance. Doping is not something new and is unlikely to go away.

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The Social Norms Behind Fighting in Hockey

Two hockey players fighting on the ice rink.

Hockey season has started, and with it the annual debate about the role of fighting. Watching sports is a vicarious and visceral experience, and many fans love the fights and the fighters. Players with marginal skills but big fists are folk heroes. Some fans worry that fighting detracts from the skill and grace of the sport, and drives away new or casual fans. Almost everyone is concerned about player safety.

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More Than Just a Game? Using Sports as a Political Tool

A photo of Colin Kaepernick playing in Super Bowl XLVII

As the NFL heads into its second week of the regular season, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, remains a free agent. With six years of professional experience and a Super Bowl ring, it is unusual that Kaepernick has yet to be signed by a team. Many suspect that teams are hesitant to sign Kaepernick because he is perceived as a potential PR concern. During the 2016 NFL preseason, Kaepernick began opting to sit or kneel rather than stand during the national anthem at games as protest against racial injustice and police violence. He was quoted saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

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Sacrifice in the Name of Sport

On July 25, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on the correlation between a distinctive brain damage (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) and playing football professionally. The study included 202 brains of individuals who played football at some point in life, 111 of which were of former NFL players. They found that only one of the professional football players didn’t have CTE.

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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.

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