Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sporting Morality

I was listening recently, as I often do, to a sports call in show.  The sport in question was football, or soccer as it is known in my current abode.  Callers were discussing professional fouls – e.g., deliberately sticking out a leg out to trip an opponent who has beaten you. A professional foul makes no legitimate attempt to win the ball.  Everyone can excuse a tackle intended to win the ball back that was either not properly executed or a tackle that fails because the other player successfully avoided it.  A professional foul contains an element of intention.

One of the presenters of the show, a former pro, complained that a particular player should have professionally fouled an opponent who went on to score.  The rationale being that a deliberate breaking of the rules was permitted if it stopped the other team scoring.  Indeed, the former pro opined that, the referee would punish the professional foul with a free kick or a yellow or red card.

For those who don’t know, a yellow card is a caution, a red card sends a player off for the remainder of the game.  Two yellow cards automatically mean a red card.

But, I was struck by a caller who said that he coached kids and who stated that he would voluntarily punish his own underage players by substituting them if they committed a professional foul.  That is, the coach would punish them beyond any punishment handed out by the referee. 

One of the presenters raised the question whether adult amateur players abided by the same standards.  Would an adult player be admonished or commended for a professional foul by their teammates?  While there was no definitive answer to this rhetorical question, there was no sense of outrage among callers about amateur adult players committing professional fouls.

It’s only a game, right?  But why do we care to hold kids up to an impeccable level of fairness? Do we teach kids to play fair, that there is more to life than winning, lessons they can completely disregard as soon as they are eighteen?  Does this mean that these lessons are not worth learning, or that adults are remiss in not continuing to heed childhood lessons?

Maybe a sense of fair play is something foreign to us.  Something we are forced to adhere to as kids by an authority figure that has power over us.  When we become adults we like to think that no authority figure has power to control us.  But that’s not really true.   It may be true that there is no coach to answer to when we play amateur sports with our friends, but as adults in most areas of our lives there are those we have to answer to.  Those that have power over us.

This sense of fair play, “doing the right thing”, is not something purely relegated to the domain of children.  We kick against it as adults when we can.

We complain about professional athletes no longer being role models.   But when professional athletes do things we would condemn children for doing, we call it professional.  You see kids learn to play fair, but grown-up life is a little more complicated that that – is that the message we want to send our kids?

Maybe the kids could teach them a thing or two.  Maybe we are wasting our kids’ time with talk of fair play and winning not being everything.  But that seems to be alien to us.

There is a fault-line that runs between how we are taught to act as children and how we act when faced with pressures of success and money come in.  This is why we absolve professionals from obedience to childhood lessons to enable them to reach their goals.  And, this doesn’t only apply to professional athletes.

It seems that we think there is a way that we should act.  Indeed, a way that everyone should act.  We want our kids to do things the right way.  We want to take shortcuts when it suits us.  But, isn’t that the human condition, we feel bound to do the right thing, except when we don’t?  But, we know somehow, somewhere that the urge to do the wrong thing should be ignored by our better selves.  And that’s what we try to teach our kids.

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