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The Moral Dilemma of Sport

Morality in sport has been a hot topic of discussion in my classes lately. It’s something that draws me in full heartedly. The consensus is, that our sports culture is currently developing characters, instead of developing character within our athletes. We are consumed with a sport culture that is obsessed with winning, implying that winning at all costs is desirable. This can even mean injuring another player, or cheating when striving to be the best. In fact, those who have been socialized through competitive sport don’t even analyze most negative sport behaviors as moral dilemmas. hockeyfightFor instance, most would say that inflicting pain on another human being is morally wrong, however, within a sport contest, hitting an opponent with a “wild” pitch is seen as part of the game. We, as athletes, don’t always register these scenarios as moral decisions, and this is because of how we have been socialized in the sports culture. Researchers call it “game reasoning”, a bracketed reality that elicits different moral reasoning. (Shields & Bredemeir)

My question is: is this “game reasoning” mentality acceptable? When you see the abundance of research done on aggression, and realize that it a learned behavior that is influenced by social factors, you start to wonder if it should be tolerated. As humans, we develop characteristics by emulating those around us. We also conform to the norms of our environments, which are heavy influences on the way we choose to behave. (Bandura) As children we see our favorite star athlete picking a fight on the field and we suddenly see this behavior as acceptable, and desirable. Especially because it is condoned by the media, being replayed hundreds of times. In society we conform to what is “normal”, so in different situations we follow the majority of the group. If everyone in basketball fouls at the end of a tight game to get possession of the ball, you will most likely conform to that way of doing things also. hitbypitch

Realizing that this behavior is socialized, where do we draw the line? Studies have shown that this “game reasoning” isn’t such a bracketed reality. The lines are becoming blurred and those behaviors seen as acceptable in sport are now carrying over into real life situations. This is concerning, especially if we consider the world of youth sport. How are we influencing our youth as moral beings? Are the sport programs we employ socializing them to be dishonest, lying, cheating individuals because winning is of the upmost importance?

In some scenarios, yes, sport is creating characters rather than developing character. However, it has also been proven that because these characteristics are socialized, we can socialize our youth into highly moral people. We can create team climates that focus on effort, teamwork, encouragement, and fair play. We can define success as trying one’s best, rather than defeating an opponent. We can employ coaches who model desirable behaviors for our youth to emulate.goodpractice

I would consider myself a pretty moral person, however I’ll admit, those lines get blurry when right vs. wrong is put into a sport context. It’s hard to draw that line of how far is too far within game reasoning. Some sport rules and cultures make it feel like it’s okay to injure another person. Is cross-checking an opponent in hockey morally wrong, or just part of the game? Should we draw the line at physically taking out the opposing teams best player to gain an advantage? These questions are easy to answer for those who haven’t been socialized in sport, any kind of aggression that inflicts pain is wrong. For those of us who have been socialized through sport, where is the line drawn?

I just found this video of a softball pitcher intentionally hitting the umpire in the face with a “wild” pitch. It looks as if the coach calls a team huddle and plans this brutal retaliation against a bad call. The catcher bails out as soon as the pitch is delivered and leaves the umpire wide open. Click here to check it out: What are your thoughts?

Quote of the day:

 “The only disability is a bad attitude.”

About smarcia12

I am a special education teacher who also holds a MA in Sport Psychology.

2 responses »

  1. Really like this article- thanks for posting! I don’t believe necessarily that sports develops character- it’s more that sports reveals character. Cannot remember who originally said this but I have found it to be so true! I work as a sports psych, and it is easy for me to tell a lot about an individual by watching how they play, how they deal with pressure, how they win and how they lose. What the coach needs to do is similar to the work of a parent, I believe: teach by example, not so much through rules; observe your players and offer lots of honest feedback, and finally, set some clear boundaries and act when they are crossed. This last one seems to be challenging, even for the most well-motivated coaches because it may mean that you are taking action that prevents your team from winning as easily by removing athletes temporarily who are not pulling the weight….

  2. Do you think there is any kind of “unspoken agreement” in the sports that do require low level violence such as hockey and football, and, do you think this will always carry over into real life?

    For example, there are some very friendly hockey, football, etc. players off the field but who are aggressive when they play. Is this really a reflection of their true character? I don’t believe they associate the “field right vs. wrong” as the same as their “off the field right vs. wrong.” Sure there are instances where people do, but it is not always necessarily the case. Just because someone is aggressive in sport does not mean they believe it’s okay to injure an innocent person in their “off the field” life.

    One could argue that by playing those sports, you are entering an unspoken agreement where you adjust to new environmental norms.

    You are also assuming that it is always wrong to hurt another person. I tend to agree but not in 100% of cases…such as if the person is intentionally ready to cause harm to other innocent people.

    So the question is, is it really “wrong” to play aggressively or even violent in the context of the sports that require so, with their norms? Norms and rules are established in sports, so if the rule says violence is allowed, how can we say those who participate are in the wrong? Especially when it doesn’t carry over into their “normal” life.

    Coaches can, and should, teach morality. I have known several great football coaches who do, but also who encourage aggressive (not dirty) play on the field. It is when you have coaches who don’t teach morality and players who get out of hand and associate the context of sport with their “off the field” life, that we can run into the problems you’ve presented.

    I think claiming it’s the aggressive athlete or aggressive sport is missing the mark.


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