Monday, August 18, 2014

Thank you and Goodbye

Five years ago I began writing about athletics, culture and ethics. At the time I served as the Faculty Athletic Representative for the University of Washington and found myself enmeshed in the lives and demands of the extraordinary men and women athletes at the UW. As I worked with them I begin to think hard about the nature of athletics as an endeavor and wondered about its worth and role in American culture.

I began writing to give myself a space to reflect on these issues. I wanted to write in the English essayist tradition. I loved writing about this world of passion and achievement. It offered so many windows into life and its demands and challenges. The world also revealed the undertows of cheating and moral failure that afflict all human achievement.

I loved writing about a wide array of topics that sports opened up. I appreciated the chance to reflect upon these issues in a dialogue with my friends and colleagues as well as the many thoughtful athletes and administrators whom I met through intercollegiate athletes.

I am not a sports writer or commentator but a management and ethics theorist who wrote out of love of what I was doing and thinking about. I was writing essays that tried to find new insight and awareness through reflection on athletic activity.

Athletics and sports manifest as a cyclical world starting anew each competitive season. Each season and each year provide Bach like theme and variations on what has gone before. The structure of many achievements as well as scandals often resemble each other. A good sports writer and commentator like Roger Angell and Frank DeFord finds ways to return and renew their discussions each year even when they have written about the similar points often.

I realized a couple months ago that I had pretty much written what I had to say. Whole new and interesting challenges face the world of competitive athletics as well as the seasonal variations and arc of stories of competitive struggle and achievement as well as tragedy.

Having had my fun and exercised my passion and judgment engaging these topics, I think it is time to say goodbye to folks who have read my essays over the years.

I deeply appreciate the individuals who read them. I deeply appreciate the folks who have contacted me to help further my own thinking on this world. I deeply appreciate the chance to have written about something I care deeply about. Most importantly I appreciate the men and women who participate in this world and lent me time in their lives to listen and learn.

Thanks and goodbye.

Pat Dobel

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sports Ethics: Why is Winning So Important? Part I & II

I believe almost all the moral ugliness that mars athletic competition arises from the obsession with winning at all costs. Elite athletes, however, proclaim that the challenge to win drives them to excel and improve. This paradox of the drive to win helps explain the complex motivation around winning that drives excellence but tips over into cheating and dirty play.

The sports world is full of stories and myths and legends for whom one motto dominates. Vince Lombardi said it best although out of context, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The immortal Ricky Bobby's dad really got it clear when he announced to his son, "if you ain't first, you're last."

The motivational drive to win is fascinating because the ideal of winning in athletics remains inherently artificial. Sport competition involves a “game.” The artifice of the game constructs the rules of how to play and defines the goal—what constitutes winning. The designation of winning generates metrics that permit the athletes, spectators and judges to understand transparently whom wins.

The power of the metrics lies in the shared assumption that they measure something valuable. This value shapes the skills, knowledge, training and commitment that athletes and coaches invest in trying to win. The metrics and logic of achieving them mold the behavior and excellences of athletes who commit to mastering and winning under these rubrics.

The etymology of win hints at the depths of the idea. The word’s ancient Germanic roots grow from the idea of laboring and toiling. The word emphasizes striving and contending against not just others but nature or challenges thrown by life. Win applied to all aspects of life but mainly property. Later it took on the wistful idea of “winning the heart” of another through effort. Winning came late to sports and was not applied in German or English until mid nineteenth century.

The Germanic concept of winning matches the Greek roots for athlete. Athletes contest each other. The contest requires striving and sacrificing to achieve a goal. Both emphasize achieving ends that require effort and often pain or suffering to achieve an end. Winning in both traditions converges upon the notion of work, sacrifice, struggle to achieve a success.
The ideal of winning focuses the motivation and training of individuals who pursue athletic goals. In this train of thought winning becomes the marker of success in an endeavor. It fits with the deeper meaning of effort and striving to gain an end. 

Winning creates a public and transparent way to test oneself against others in seeking a goal. Again as Lombardi said, "if winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?" These metrics of winning and proving one is the best at the competition can vary widely. The metrics can measure points scored against each other; they can measure sheer speed at a fixed task such as running or swimming. The distance in throwing or jumping might gauge the best. The crucial point to remember is all these metrics are artificial and linked to a ritualized game with rules—the definition of winning is ultimately arbitrary in sports.

Yet even with its arbitrary parameter and artificial aspects, winning engrosses fans and players alike because of its potential for clarity of outcome. People and competitors know who wins at the end of competition. Winning as striving ends with clarity and measuring across opponents and competitors.

Winning in sports competition has always enthralled competitors and spectators because it occurs in real time with uncertain outcomes. Unless rigged or cheated, athletic winning tests competitors in real unpredictable conditions. The testing challenges people in unique ways under uncertainty and calls forth maximum and smart effort to win. Upsets can occur, favorites can lose, people can get better over time and once lowly players can become masters. The risk resonates with life in the way a written show or other scripted entertainment cannot provide.

Testing oneself against others illustrates how the process of striving to win can bring out some of the best of athletics. Athletes who love their sport express excellence by pushing themselves to their mental, physical and emotional limits. Pushing to the limits and mastering higher levels of achievement engenders deep fulfillment and self-respect. This respect and fulfillment provide the deep intrinsic joy of integrated mental, emotional and physical achievement that they first knew as children expressing their physical qualities.

The athlete originally competes against baselines, against ideals of form and against themselves to stretch and extend their reach and competence. Athletes often work alone especially in the beginning as they discover their love and talent for a sport. This path does not necessarily require the need or desire to dominate or vanquish others.

Winning can then be a means and motivation to progress and grow in these domains. Individuals and teams test their expertise against others; winning or losing a competition identifies where their achievement stands relative to others at a similar level of stature. The press and test and drive to excel and demonstrate this in winning matches an intrinsic drive and appreciation with an extrinsic reward from the prize and approbation and stature of winning. A winning athlete can know the quiet satisfaction of being the best (if only for a moment).

The intrinsic satisfaction of expressive excellence can be joined by the joy of experiencing, as a fan or athlete, the beauty and delight in significant athletic excellence. Fans can appreciate the sheer beauty and technical virtuosity of athletes in competition. This involves not just technical appreciation but realizing the combination of strength, intensity and technique involved in physically tense competition where bodies and teams collide with each other. Players, coaches and spectators can all enjoy this. To the extent that desire and drive to win motivates perfecting this and giving one’s all during the competition it supports the aesthetic dimension experienced as intrinsic.

One of the ironies of winning as athletic obsession lies in the fact that the best athlete or athletes do not always win. Sometimes luck plays a part as the Greeks and Romans knew with Fortuna. Sometimes an injury limits one’s performance or someone becomes sick at the last minute. A referee can make a bad call or weather can undermine one’s strengths or play to the opponent’s strengths. Sometimes the coordination or plan of a team will permit the less talented athletes to win over a more talented but less unified team. While the best athlete and best team in a technical sense of consistent superb manifestation of the skills of the sport can converge with winning, this is not a necessary convergence. The best can lose and this is one aspect of the allure and often tragedy of sport. Many great athletes never end up winning championships because they compete on teams that fail. This accounts for the often criticized but perfectly understandable desire for great athletes on losing teams to use free agency or the market to end up with a winning team and have a chance to not only be great but win a championship.

This paradox that the best athlete does not always win creates a broader motivational opening for many athletes. It permits individuals and teams to deploy intelligence, collaboration and work ethic to overcome talent limits. It calls an individual to assess his or her own skills and improve or to assess an opponent’s skills and anticipate and prepare for them.

Winning, however, can take on a more ethically dangerous cast of motivation. Winning not only determines which person or team is better on a particular day and contest; it can metamorphose into exultation and domination. Again the roots of this can be deep. In the classical world the origins of play and athletic competition arose from their link to battle and war. In the contest of war, the outcomes are brutal and final. In classical times the losers were killed or sold into slavery. Their homes were conquered, their families taken as slaves or killed; their land taken or defiled. The game of war was played for mortal stakes. And the practice for war as exemplified in athletic competition reflected those brutal and naked stakes.

Winning wars and wining athletic competition become forms of domination. An athlete who carries over this mind set revels not just in their achievement but in the downfall of their opponents. They revel not just in their distinction but in the loss and humiliation of their opponent. The psychological matrix of winning becomes more extrinsic and mean spirited linked to its origins in war.

This relation to winning as validation for worth reduces to: I beat them therefore I am. If I lose, I am worthless. The driver here lies in the external vulnerability of the motivation and the ultimately limited or even hollow satisfaction. On this path, one's worth and excellence is not internalized and worn with dignity, but it is brittle, anxious, often hidden by bravado, and goaded by the need to prove oneself again and again and again. One can never enjoy the victory because one's worth is only a shell depending upon the next contest. The world and one’s relation to oneself resemble a king of the mountain game where any accomplishment depends upon external conquest and remains inherently unstable and endlessly challenged.

Seeking to win as domination is intensified in two ways. First many individuals or teams represent communities. Their team is linked to a city or country (as in the Olympics or World championships). This communal connection gives a patriotic gloss and increases the emotional stakes and investment for not just the team—often they may just be a collection of professionals gathered together for a season of competition—but to the fans who fanatically follow them. The followers invest their own identity and gain joy or sorrow at the wins and losses of the teams.

Fanatic followers may mark their life events by losses, wins and championships of their teams. Teams entwine with personal and communal histories. College sports in America along with deep local and national ties to professional teams all reflect this. This loyalty can blow up into violence or feigned even real dislike against other communities or teams. Some coaches thrive in demoniziong other teams; something most professionals resist since they may end up playing for those teams at some point in their career. This communal aspects links to cities, nations and colleges spreads an aura of emotional dynamism around team games and seasons and championships. 

Owners add another variable to obsession with winning in professional sports. The game at its highest levels in countries across the world has become a game of billionaires or corporations. These ultra-rich individuals do not buy teams just for fun; but there is an immense amount of ego satisfaction and celebrity to team ownership.

The owners, many of whom are very successful business people or corporations, expect a return. They want a profit in money but above all in psychic return. Both profits arise from winning. Winning fills the stands and gets media contracts and creates high-sustained revenue streams. Winning increases their profile in the community where the team lives. The owner becomes a celebrity and benefactor who can be lionized and is heroic; the downside is that the owners can be vilified if they sponsor a consistent loser. This vilification can drive owners to focus obsessively upon winning. This obsession can play out in high expectations, very short time lines for coaches and players, and this pushes coaches and players to search for edges to win and keep their jobs and keep their owners happy. This passion to win or dominate and share in the extrinsic glory can obsess owners and fixate fans around teams. It drives the fanaticism of fans and the insane hype and hyperventilated language as well as the fights and meaningless strutting of fans who glory in the wins of the technically superb squad of mercenary athletes who make of “their” team.

Here you can end up with coaches illegally filming practices or putting up bounties to players who injure other players. Here you find coaches condoning or looking the other way when players use illegal performance enhancing drugs to get an edge or keep their job a little longer. The range of cheating and abetting or collaborating in it is wide and exacerbated by owner’s manias. At a fundamental level to win at all costs ultimately denies the wider context that sports requires both respect for the game and for one's opponents. The game and the opponents remain essential to the very activity itself and the sole focus on winning misses this wide and critical aspect of athletic respect and success.

This fanatic concern to win spills over into civic life. It can motivate communities and owners to go so far as to subvert the justice system. Criminal behavior by local athletes will be ignored or treated with leniency to protect the ability of the local team to win. The disturbing corruption ranges far and wide in civic circles around the globe.

Winning as the ethical centerpiece of athletic competition possesses both a powerful influence on growth and achievement. It can also devolve into squalor and cheating. At its best, however, it can grow from contests where champions or winners emerge from testing and developing carefully developed athletics skills and stances.

The desire to win leads to testing oneself against others as a way to increase one's own development as a human and athlete. The outcome of these encounters can be not only personal growth but excellence in the form of the sport driven by encounters with other athletes who may be more proficient. These tests also generate innovation as each competitor seeks to develop better ways to compete and refine their skills. This test forces the athlete to develop or stop. In this justification winning marks growth and excellence not simply dominance.

At the end of the day athletes should always remember another aspect of winning. The Romans called it “being a god for a day.” The critical point is “for a day.” Being a winner or champion is a precarious business that remains profoundly mortal. Any day you can be dethroned. The next day in season offers another contest. At the end of a championship season the winner possesses the honor for a cycle, maybe a year or a four-year cycle as in the Olympics or World Cup. The winner and champion is challenged again and can lose or fail or not even make it to the championships again.

Winning is a gossamer achievement, real & powerful, but delicate, fragile and doomed to evanesce at the next cycle of contestation. The cycle of fighting for and winning in sports, as in most of mortal life, offers a chance to grow into excellence and joy or to breed into meanness and domination. So winning connects with all such mortal aspirations. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sports Ethics: Buying & Selling Human Beings

I love following the world of sports trades. As the baseball trade deadline looms I obsessively follow MLB Rumors 10-15 times a day. I do the same with waiver wires in my fantasy league and trades in football.  I desperately scan minor headlines or obscure blog sites about players traded or notice “monetary considerations” thrown in a trade.  Suddenly I stop for a moment and reread. The player was “sold” to a team. The player without any consultation is traded to another team. The Mariner’s just acquired a center fielder who had to jog off the field and discover unbeknownst to him, he had been traded to another team.

Now the world of ethics and history identifies selling people to other people or trading people for people with another name—slavery.

What do I mean by a form of slavery? I mean that a human being and his or her work can be sold to another human or organization for money or in kind trade without the consent of the human being.  It is the ultimate in treating the human as a commodity—buy, sell, trade without reference to the human’s consent.

If a person works as an engineer or teacher or mason for a company, that company cannot trade the engineer from say Microsoft to Google. As a Microsoft manager I can’t approach an Adobe manager and say, “I’ve got an up and coming code guy and want to trade him to you for one of your cloud guys.” We don’t allow trades across corporations and we don’t allow Google to come in and tell Microsoft, “I’ll pay you five mill for your number two security security person.”

Now in theory corporations can “loan” people to other units or nonprofits or government, but these loans require the consent of the person. I can be working for a company and that company can be bought and sold without my consent. I can find myself working for a new company overnight without anyone consulting me.

The key, however, lies in the reality that persons can leave the company. This ability to leave any time prevents them from being “slaves” or “indentured servants.” It also lies in the claim that most of them negotiated a contract to work. So the consent lies up front and the freedom lies in the ability to leave.

The slave aspect of most professional athletes extends everywhere—consider international soccer where players can be traded, loaned or rented all without their consent. The moral similarity might be less to slavery but to a related cousin indentured servitude—a person sells their work and freedom to an owner for an extended period of time at which end of time, the person is freed of obligations.

Professional athletes in most cases consent to play for a team. They negotiate a contract.  Even this simple reality is complicated by the fact that the teams often have a draft for players. Players are drafted and assigned to sign with the team that drafts them, again without the player’s consent.

The draft is almost all sports is designed to ensure some level of long term competitive balance among teams of different economic wealth. It enables teams with smart scouting and good player development to find gems and develop them and compete successfully against teams that are much richer and tend to cherry pick and buy up established talent.

So owners and teams argue that the good of the sport and competitive balance requires the draft that denies players initial consent of whom they play for. Yet if the draft works to keep competitive balance and more exciting games and a more attractive product, then the distribution of talent should lead to better gate receipts and television contracts. All this should rebound back to player’s long-term benefits with higher salaries especially in sports where the union contracts require players get a certain portion of the net income.

The justifications for this indentured servitude approach grows from the competitive balance logic and an investment return logic. Teams and owners argue that they need time to invest in players and cultivate player development. This is true of all sports but most true for baseball. In Europe such cultivation starts for soccer players in their early teens as it does in a different way for tennis and golf players all over the world. But team sports of high complexity and rare skill depend upon investment and culling. This is a high risk and low return strategy for most teams.

No players are guaranteed stars. Injuries and many aspects of sports and individual life ensure that many “drafted” players never make it to the professional level or never return to the team that cultivates them a strong investment. So teams argue they need some guaranteed time with players to both invest and get a return on their investment. Carried to its logical conclusion, baseball argued players should be signed for life and have no competitive opportunity to play for other teams. This guaranteed that players would give a return but also ensured that teams, not facing any competition for the player’s services, could always extract maximum profit from the players.  Curt Flood’s courage and the Supreme Court’s common sense ended the reserve clause and freed up baseball players and all professional athletes to enter into a market relation with teams after their initial time in a team’s fold expired. This lead to free agency and the rise of salaries but also to a much fairer allocation of wealth to players.

Free agency vitiates an immense amount of the long-term impact of indentured servitude. It creates a sort of pot of gold effect for many players who surrender their freedom for a period of time and at that end can reap of high bonus in the free market. But professional sports contracts both the initial time served contract and the later contracts still permit teams to sell or trade players without consulting the players. A few elite players can build in no trade provisions into their contracts, but the vast majority of professional athletes while under contract can be bought/sold/traded at the team’s whim.

The third logic for permitting limited and consent bound indentured servitude is again related to quality of competition considerations. The argument goes like this. Professional athletic talent and skill is extremely rare and often fragile. The vagaries of injuries or failure create endless and constant needs in teams.  Teams locked in competitive races seek results quickly. Some team sports have minor league clubs or back up squads where they cultivate players and bring them up. Teams need the right fit for the unpredictable need that arises.

One solution is a market where teams can trade players to each other and seek optimal in-time solutions. This ongoing market permits teams to fill needs and sometimes it helps players find better fits for their own skill set or careers. On one team they may be on the bench behind a starter on another they might get to start. On one team they may have developed a psychological block to performance and in another place, they have a chance to start over. So the teams rely upon a limited market place to permit them to fix needs through trades or purchases.

So the indentured servitude of professional athletes is bound by consent at the beginning and free agency at the end of the indentured time. Many leagues now have minimum salaries to compensate for exploitation of the draft. The indentured effect is most obvious in that a player cannot play for another team during that period and can be traded or sold at the owner/teams decision. Still unique and not something we see anywhere else but now more bound and limited.

Players have adapted. They have formed powerful unions to buffer many of the abuses inherent in indentured servitude. Psychologically they know they will not spend their entire careers at one place. They can use markets to extract the highest return possible for their time limited physical peak years. Players and athletes seldom live in the towns that draft them or the teams they play for. They return home during the off-season and may end up in a different city the next year. They understand the local deals are important but fleeting so players hire agents to protect their long term interests and seek maximum local endorsements for limited periods of time. Modern professional athletes develop a distant but professional loyalty to the sport and excellence but seldom invest it in teammates, owners, locations or managers.

Professional athletes can share the pure joy of winning and feel the affiliation of brothers and sisters competing together for a common purpose. But they invest in local identity and community the way many icons of the past did. Professional athletics is a world of mercenary players and owners and managers seeking to maximize their gains economically and not expecting the psychic or identity gains that used to exist with local icons who became imbedded in communities. It also elevates agents to an extremely high level of importance. The agent becomes the major reference of loyalty and reliance for salary and place, not any temporary team. These adaptations make sense and are no different from any talented professional in a capitalist system with geographic mobility.

In the mid twentieth century playing professional sports did resemble life long indentured servitude. This oligopoly of teams and owners exploited the rare and unique talents of athletes and extracted immense value for little economic return. The existence of free agency changed this in fundamental ways by giving athletes a real market for their talents and a window of time to maximize their worth during their very limited 18-32 age window of maximum physical skill.

The draft and controlled investment return time for teams and owners continue to exist but bound by limits of a market and minimum salaries and in most cases unions and agents who have immense power given the rarity of talent they represent. But we still permit the buying, selling and trading of human beings in a way unique and morally problematic.

The irony here is that the existence of a market in trading and buying players actually layers a level of excitement and interest in fans. It ratchets up pressure on owners and general managers because the trading market provides some chance of quick moves to address team needs.  Entire industries of blogs and sports news thrive on following and projecting possible trades. Teams can become buyers or sellers depending upon their possibility of making post season competition and where their needs lie. It ends up with more competitive and interesting and demanding sports and management and more fanatical fans; but it rests of a deeply troubling moral reality.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sports Logic: Parallel & Sequential Sports

Each sport possess its own competitor logic. This logic generates accompanying intellectual and physical virtues that connect to success given that logic of that competition. The logic of the sport then shapes the form of mental, emotional and physical characteristics needed to succeed. 

Parallel competition is one of those logics. It takes many variations but structures its competition around individual athletes competing alone unimpeded by others against other competitors. They may do this in lanes against each other or sequentially one after another. This parallel world differs fundamentally from direct physical competition such as soccer and football where physical interactions can impede actions. It also differs from competitions mediated by a net or any competitive world where the opposition can directly influence the competitors either physically or force applied direction on the competitive object. 

The parallel world isolates the competitor against other competitors but the other competitors cannot push back or fight via applied force. Instead each competitor pushes off and competes on the course. The archetypes of such competition lie in the sprints of running and swimming where each player sprints in their lane cannot cross the lane. The fastest person wins.

Different variations occur when the sport does not permit lanes but launches sequentially, but again does not usually permit contact based, competition. Golf, diving, shooting, rowing most snow boarding or skiing function the same way—they all often share same dynamics of “one shot” sports.

Taking sprints as an archetype the sports demand a particular focus upon practiced discipline and incredible focus upon minute but cumulative differences.  Angle of approach, starts, and finger placement, body discipline, and muscle deployment, wind resistance all adds up. Over even a short span of time and distance they matter. The longer the distance the more they matter.   Sometimes distance running vacillates between original parallel competition and mêlée competition and then back to parallel.

Several keys arise in performance and virtue:

1.   Athletes need to prepare meticulously. Because the opposition does not have the chance to contact or fake or use their power to displace or overwhelm a person, precision and practiced discipline or minute technical details matter. Preparation takes on immense importance.

2.  Focus in execution matters. As in one-shot sports, athletes have to be totally present and capable of pushing out all distraction. They must attend to the exact parameters of a situation. Often this might involve weather or natural conditions as in skiing or golf. But this capacity to narrow focus, attend to only what matters and execute takes on huge importance.

3.  The start matters immensely. In all these one shot and sequential or parallel activities, the launch or first movement has overwhelming importance. It takes immense and total concentration at the start since many competitors compete against the clock or the power of the launch determines the initial advantage or ability to complete the action as in golf, diving or skiing.

4.  Technique and adaptability to environmental conditions are supreme the vast majority of the time. The launch or precise technique must adapt to the conditions so that changes or even different techniques may be called upon depending upon conditions of the surface or weather.

5.  Tactics matter sometimes.  Because the sport is run in parallel or sequentially, people generally know exactly where others are in the standings or competition. Usually they compete in circuits so they know each other’s strengths and limitations as well as preferred styles. This puts great weight upon preparation for and anticipation of the other. Tactics are often set before hand. Only in true competitive running, swimming or relays where a competitor can see or glance at the competitor can they adapt on the fly.
a.    Managing energy and momentum depend upon situational awareness and timing. Here knowing when to go all out or when to conserve demands discipline, knowledge and self-awareness. The key to many of these races relies, again in the start where one can break away and create a commanding lead. Or knowing when to “kick.” This spurt of energy or kick can again break away and seal the race, or prematurely exhaust a competitor so that when opponents launch their kick, the competitor has “nothing left in the tank” and watches others pass by and win.
b.  On the other hand in sequential and highly formalistic sports such as diving or skating competitors may change their performance at the last minute in light of the successes or failures of their competitors. They may need more points or fewer points depending upon competitors and this can lead to different moves.
6.  Sometimes the moment demands everything. In the winter Olympics of 20014 a female US snowboarder had a sense of what the competitors were doing and what she needed. She literally changed her program in mid air because “it felt right.”

Parallel and sequential sport places immense pressure upon preparation. In more than a few of these sports iconoclast sheer talent folks will win for awhile, but not sustain it given their off course lack of discipline and focus.

The preparation demands serious discipline between competitions. It also requires knowing competitors very well. The capacity to adapt lies not just to the environment, but also to the positioning, lead and kicks or break-aways of opponents. It also demands a fearless view of what competitors are doing in way of meeting scoring requirements by judges and the ability to judge one’s own capacity and skills and whether to add or subtract from routines in light of what is going one.

Then, sometimes, as with young Olympian, a competitor must just go all the way and throw the dice.  Of course that all or nothing, that immense imaginative leap in the moment, depends upon the steeled discipline, practice and focus that lead up to the moment of execution.