Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sports Ethics: Sportsmanship versus Taunting

A new NCAA rule this year continues the ongoing effort to assert the primacy of sportsmanship over moral ugliness of taunting that stains sport. The new rule makes taunting on a touchdown a live ball foul that will lead to the recall of the play and touchdown. It has ignited a firestorm of controversy over how it will lead to awful decisions and stolen losses, but the rule makes good sense and draws the line exactly where it should be.

As the football seasons start I think we should remember why sportsmanship matters and why taunting deserves this type of treatment.

Taunting is morally ugly. To taunt other human is in the same class of actions as sneering, jeering and tormenting them. All these actions demean and insult. They derive from a person asserting superiority and using strength to bully and inflict hurt on another. Taunting people deliberately seeks to provoke a fight. It focuses upon failure or weakness, real or imagined, and is the tool of bullies who taunt people weaker then they are.

The actions of taunting make it clear: simulating a fired gun, slashing a hand, pointing fingers, altering a stride all are designed to intimidate, demean and emphasize arrogant power. This is not about swagger or confidence, but insult and embarrassment. Taunting revels in weakness and assaulting the esteem and dignity of the other person.

Taunting grows from a fractured individual or collective ego that can only prove itself by dominating others in an oppressive and emotionally degrading manner. Sport teams can legitimately seek to break a team’ cohesion and focus, but this occurs through skilled success in play not emotionally dishonoring others. Taunting persons and teams take their pleasure not in achievement and victory but in putting down and subjection.

Sportsmanship is the sworn enemy of sportsmanship. Taunting defiles the game and opponents and sadly diminishes the players who must gain satisfaction by degrading others.

Sportsmanship begins with respect for oneself as a human being and as a player. It grows into respect for teammates and the game itself, for the excellence, rules and forms of the game. Finally, it plays out on the field as competition where players battle opponents, not enemies. Sportsmanship does not preclude dominating victory or asserting effective superiority, but it prohibits emotional flagellation of the person or teams that do not succeed on that day.

The essence of sportsmanship anchors one aspect of the moral defense of sport and games. It helps defend sports games as reflections of the many games of life and presents a way of being in competition that offers people a way to harness competition, drive, and skill in engagement with others. The collapse of sportsmanship not only lowers the quality of the game and people, but the quality of aspiration that athletic competition can convey to those who follow it.

The moral ugliness comes from both the harm and insult aimed at others but also the nasty sense of self that it carves out in the taunting players. Taunting is NOT CELEBRATION. More than a few commentators have complained that the rules against taunting get in the way of natural and high-spirited celebration. But taunting insults demeans and provokes the other side. It does not celebrate a success so much as celebrate an ego’s need for dominance. It transmutes success into humiliation and legitimate victory on the field into mean spirited denigration of the others.

Sportsmanship depends upon respect for the game, its rules and beauty and form and for the other team and players. Taunting disrespects the opponent and the game because it asserts a person’s need to shore up their own ego over respect for the game and the effort and skill of their opponents. Worse, taunting dares the other team to respond in kind. A culture of taunting and the inflated ego centric superiority it engenders slowly drives out the sportsmanship in the game and undermines teams that try to win right.

The new NCAA rules along with the NFL’s ongoing battle against taunting is the right thing. There will be controversies, but these are boundaries that need to be patrolled for the good of the game and the good of the players.