The Morally Questionable Lessons of Formal Sports

How athletes justify cheating, lying, and deliberately hurting a person.

Posted Dec 16, 2009

You are a big-league baseball pitcher. The opposing pitcher has been throwing some hard inside fastballs and has hit one of the batters on your team--maybe deliberately, maybe not. Should you retaliate by hitting their best batter with a high inside fastball? To do so is to deliberately risk injuring a fellow human being. To not do so is to let down your team, your coach, your fans (at least some of them)--who think that you must do this in order to even the score.

The next inning the opposing pitcher once again hits one of your batters. Some of your teammates leap off the bench and charge the mound, swinging fists at the pitcher and at the other players who have run in to "defend" their pitcher. Do you join them in this, despite your knowledge that you could seriously hurt someone and despite your inner sense that this is really infantile behavior, or do you remain on the bench and risk the scorn of your teammates for your cowardly refusal to fight?

You are a college basketball player. Your coach and everyone on your team knows that the star on the opposing team has just recovered from a serious ankle injury. Nobody says, "Let's try to make him injure that ankle again, to get him out of the game," but you know very well that that's what they mean when they say, "Let's run on him." Do you do it? Do you single him out and deliberately make him run more, jump more, and fall more than you would if he were not so vulnerable to injury? If you do, you are deliberately trying to hurt a fellow human being. If you don't, you may be letting down your teammates, your coach, and your whole dumb college, from the president on down, who believe that winning at sports is what makes their college look great.

Sadly, some athletes don't even seem to experience these "dilemmas" as dilemmas. Of course you must retaliate against the opposing pitcher. Of course you must join your team in the idiotic brawl. Of course you must drive against the opposing star in ways designed to get him out of the game. I've even heard sports announcers criticize pitchers for not throwing at a batter.

Situations like these don't happen in informal sports, where there are no coaches, no outside referees, no permanent teams (lasting from one game to the next), and no fans who give a hoot who wins. In the informal game you know that if you deliberately throw a fastball at someone, or swing fists at someone, or try to get someone to re-injure a recovering wound, you will get nothing but scorn from the other players, on your team as well as the other. The whole point of the informal game is to have fun. When you deliberately hurt someone else, you destroy their fun, so they quit and the game is over. In the informal game you would go easy on the kid whose ankle is vulnerable, not hard on him. Even little children know this.

Maria Kavussanu, at the University of Birmingham, in the UK, has for a number of years been studying sports morality. In one of her studies many college basketball, soccer, rugby, and field hockey players admitted (on anonymous questionnaires) to lying, cheating, and deliberately injuring others within the context of the game.[1] Interestingly, she also found that the longer a person had been playing formal sports, the more likely they were to say that such behaviors are justifiable. This relationship between time in sports and acceptance of transgressions applied to women as well as well as to men, though the former claimed less acceptance of such behaviors, overall, than did the latter.

Other researchers, studying youth football (soccer) in Norway, have found that the degree of acceptance of such behavioral transgressions depends on the "motivational climate" set by the coach.[2] If the coach emphasizes the importance of winning, then acceptance of morally questionable actions goes up; if the coach emphasizes the joys of the game, good sportsmanship, and the value of developing your own personal skills, then acceptance of such transgressions goes down.

In subsequent research, Kavussanu and her colleagues found that athletes used eight psychological means of moral disengagement to justify their transgressions, both to themselves and others.[3] Here they are, with my own examples to illustrate them:

Moral justification (describing the transgression as morally right, not wrong). "I had to do it to protect my team's honor. We're not patsies."

Euphemistic labeling (using language that disguises culpability). "I bent the rules a little," instead of "I broke the rules." Or, "I dusted him off," instead of, "I deliberately hit him with a pitched ball."

Advantageous comparison (comparing your actions to others' worse actions, which make yours look good). "I hit him, but I didn't throw at his head, like others would have in this situation."

Displacement of responsibility (claiming that your action was not your choice, but that of a higher authority). "It was the coach's decision; my job is to do what the coach asks."

Diffusion of responsibility (attributing the action to the whole group rather than yourself personally). "It wasn't just me; the whole team charged the pitcher."

Distortion of consequences (minimizing the damage done). "Hey, it's a small injury; he'll be back in no time."

Dehumanization (speaking of the opposition in ways that deny their humanity). "They're a bunch of animals. When you play them you have to treat them that way."

Attribution of blame (blaming the victim). "He started it with his trash talk." Or, "If he's got a weak ankle he shouldn't be playing."

Sports metaphors abound in our society. Businessmen all too often use them to justify ruthless tactics as "good for the team." The sports metaphor promotes an "us against them" attitude and invites people to believe that anything is fair as long as it's within the letter of the law (the literal rules of the game) or isn't detectable by law enforcers ("It's not a foul if the ref didn't see it"). But the really successful people that I see around me--who measure success in happiness and wealth in friendships--don't use those metaphors. To them, life is an informal sport, not a formal one. The goal is to have fun and to help others have fun, too, regardless of which "team" they are on.


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[1] M. Kavussanu & N. Ntoumanis (2003). Participation in sport and moral functioning: Does ego orientation mediate their relationship? Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25, 501-518.
[2] B. W. Miller, G. C. Roberts, & Y. Ommundsen (2005). Effect of perceived motivational climate on moral functioning, team moral atmosphere perceptions, and the legitimacy of intentionally injurious acts among competitive youth football players. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 6, 461-477.
[3] I. D. Boardley & M. Kavussanu (2007). Development and validation of the moral disengagement in sport scale. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, 608-628.