A couple weeks ago, I, and others, had the privilege of hearing current FOX NFL rules analyst and former head of NFL officiating Mike Pereira speak about a culture change taking place within professional football. After reminiscing about his experience as a student-athlete at Santa Clara, Mr. Pereira shared his thoughts on the growing concern about player health and safety in professional football, an issue that has become even more pressing in light of the Saints and their now infamous bounty system.
What happened in New Orleans was an indication to me that despite the NFL’s efforts to reign in the violence of football by instituting rules regulating the kinds of hits defensive players make on their defenseless opponents, the issue of player safety was not being taken seriously by teams inside their locker rooms. There seemed to be a disconnect between the rules, and the way in which players and coaches approach the game philosophically, and the rules were doing nothing to influence this larger culture of violence and a “win at all costs” mentality.
So, I was delighted when I heard the title of Mike’s talk, “Have the Rules Caught Up with the Game? Reflections on Football, Concussions, and Character.” I thought to myself, finally, an answer to my questions! And, his answer was one I was hoping for. From what he has seen, player’s on-field behavior has changed. Guys are not leading with their helmets as much; they are not tackling their opponents with quite as much force and violence as before, which are clear indications that football is moving in the right direction when it comes to matters of safety. The trouble I had was that it was all built on a system of financial deterrence through the imposition of fines. There was an economic deterrent to this violent behavior in professional football, but not an ethical one. Since this is a blog about ethics, this is a point that I thought needed to be addressed.
Ethics is not just a moral code that defines right and wrong. Ethical reasoning requires understanding why something is right or wrong by critically evaluating the impact our actions have on others. Ultimately, ethics is all about responsibility, and responsibility implies that actions have consequences, and since we don’t live in an isolated vacuum, those consequences affect other people. Ethics requires removing oneself from the foreground in order to see the bigger picture. This can be difficult in sports because as competitors, athletes are made to view the team or individual they are playing against as an enemy. As Gregg Williams did with the Saints, coaches often use war analogies to motivate and inspire their athletes. And it works, especially in sports that are physically combative like football. Where Williams went wrong was when he began naming specific players, and specific body parts to go after in order to hurt them severely. It may be an extreme example, but in a sport as violent as football, it’s not difficult to see this sort of behavior manifest itself within the culture of the sport.
With this sort of a mindset being instilled within athletes, it’s difficult to incorporate ethical reasoning into athletic competition. But, there is still tremendous opportunity to integrate levels of compassion and empathy into sports without sacrificing the intense competition, which is what makes SPORTS so attractive. It begins with changing our understanding of the nature competition.
Founder and Executive Director of the Positive Coaching Alliance Jim Thompson wrote an article addressing the SAINTS' situation and how it might makes us think about competition differently. He referred to a book written by David Shields with Brenda Bredemeir titled True Competition, and the book is critical of the competitive attitude surrounding contemporary athletics. The focus, they say, is too much on dominating your opponent with a win at all costs mentality, when really competition can be much richer, and thought of as more ethically meaningful.
Competition comes from the Latin word competere, meaning to strive together. That word, together, implies an inclusive element to sports that opens the door for the kind of ethical thinking that I’m trying to argue for. Thompson reminds us that an athlete depends on his or her opponent to be at their best in order to actualize their own potential. If it is easy to win, and an athlete really isn’t being challenged, there is no way of seeing how good that individual athlete seeking a challenge could be.
If sports teaches us anything, it’s that adversity makes you better. We like seeing Lebron James play Kobe Bryant because we know that in order to win, one of them is going to have to do something spectacular in order to beat the other. With this understanding of competition in mind, we begin to see that while the Saints’ rhetoric in their locker room appeared tough and hard, what they were saying was actually cowardly. By intentionally trying to sideline the best players on the opposing team, the Saints were admitting to being unable to beat them while their best players were on the field. Instead of meeting the challenge faithfully, and with integrity, they choose to lower the level of competition, thereby making it easier to win, which in the end is only doing harm to their development as athletes.
This idea of competition is built on a foundation of mutual respect between adversaries. That sense of respect includes a level of concern for the health and well being of the other, to ensure that they are capable of challenging you with their best effort. In a way, it’s a selfish altruism. I want you to do well, in order to help me do better. This is the defining paradox that a lot of professional sports, not just football, are dealing with. How do we preserve the competitive fire that makes our sport so exciting, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of our athletes? If we allow OUR understanding of the nature of competition to shift in the direction suggested by Jim Thompson, I think the solution to that problem becomes a bit more clear.