Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Shutting Down" Stephen Strasburg is Ethically Right

Why are sports commentators and players so upset over Stephen Strasburg? The Washington Nationals long ago decided to limit the total innings of their prized pitcher Steven Strasburg. Strasburg, who is one year out from a Tommy John surgery, will end his first year of pitching after180 pitches. Now he has ended it even earlier after a three inning stint where the psychological costs of being the center of a firestorm finally got to his concentration.

Even locked in a pennant race, the Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo decided to protect Strasbug’s healing and avoid arm fatigue that has derailed the career of many fine pitchers. The decision has unleashed a firestorm of criticism for “shutting down” Strasburg. The criticisms come from an old school mythical view of sports and ignores the science and economics of what the Nationals are doing. We should be proud of a team that is putting a player’s welfare before winning at all costs. In a world where coaches risk the health of players to eek out a win, we should celebrate the courage of this action, it is the right thing to do.

Baseball pitching is one of the most notoriously inhuman actions performed in sports. 50 percent of major league starters will end up on the long term disabled list in the normal course of their career. We have ample empirical evidence of the costs of over pitching. We know managers like Billy Martin who road pitchers to championships only to have them ruined for the rest of their careers.  Jason Stark who has been the most reasonable commentator on Strasburg from the beginning has it pretty much right on the pros and cons of the decision to limit pitches one year out from surgery.

The Nationals consulted with a large number of medical personnel and have gotten almost universal respect from the medical and training community for their brave decision. The medical community has been trying to introduce a much stronger emphasis upon pitch count and sophisticated accounting for years, and the Nationals’ decision represents the high water mark of this attempt. This becomes increasingly important given the unique inhuman nature of pitching and the size and strength of modern pitchers who easily average 94-98 miles per hour.

The decision resonates with me because managers, coaches and general managers have traditionally been willing to risk careers of individuals to win championships. Too many incidents exist of players pushed by peer pressure, coaches or collaborating trainers and doctors to play when they should not. I’ve talked to doctors who ultimately left professional service because of the pressures they felt upon their medical judgment. Yet Rizzo very flatly stated, “We want to do what’s best for Stephen in the long run.”

In a world where athletes are treated as disposable commodities deployed to win at all costs, we should celebrate this decision, not vilify it.

I want to emphasize the players want to take this risk too. Most of the pressure to play through pain and risk comes from the internal drive of players to compete as well as the powerful almost ecstatic feeling of dominating performance when you are on. Players also feel strong obligations not to let fellow teammates down. When Manteo Mitchell finished running the first leg of the Olympic 800 meter hurdles on a broken leg, he knew the leg broke but kept running. As he put it, “You don’t want to let anyone down.”

The senior leadership of the Nationals is trying to set aside this type of pressure and romanticizing of pain. They have two strong justifications:

1.     1)          The team wants to protect the pitcher’s health. They already know that he can be injured and oversaw a model rehab. The decision flows from the desire to protect his long-term ability and lower the risk of career ending injury. The team has no certainty but has done its best to think about the dangers and stresses to a young strong power pitcher in his first year of recovery from ulnar collateral damage.

2.    2)             Economically the Nationals have made one of the major investments in the history of pitching in signing Strasburg (Thank you Scott Boros). The team has built carefully for the long run as witnessed by how they carefully husbanded another injured star pitcher Jordan Zimmerman as well as picking up veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to work with them. The Nationals have every reason to want their economic investment to pay long-term dividends.

Strasburg is not 37 like Chris Carpenter for St. Louis last year. Carpenter went on a roll and and gladly risked what remained of his career to win a World Series. Nor is he Orel Hershiser in 1988 having one of the great seasons of modern baseball who showed no signs of stress or strain on the way to a World Series win and in the middle of 5 250 inning years. At 32 he blew out his arm and never had the same career. Strasberg is 23 and already severely injured. The Nationals do not have certainty but they know the heightened risk and have examples like the almost great career of Kerry Wood.

Ethics has a principle called the precautionary principle where individuals and institutions should prefer the outcome that generally avoids the maximum amount of damage. As the probabilities of the damage rises, the imperative of the principle rises. Yes the  Nationals are acting on probabilities. The have amassed and studied good information supported by an emerging science among doctors about how to protect and nurture the arms of modern power pitchers. They might be overly cautious but they are not wrong; they are much more humane, thoughtful and statistically sensitive. They are acting on the precautionary principle.  This is how teams should think of athletes, not as interchangeable parts.

Left to his own Strasberg would make the Achilles Choice I often write about. He is upset and angry about this decision. He would risk his long-term success to win all the glory of the World Series. We do not know he would win, but he would risk it. The Nationals will be competing for years, but this year looks special and he would do it. So would the Greek Chorus of fans and commentators and self styled old school players attacking the Nationals.

The attacks on Mike  Rizzo and the Nationals are many and varied but they all reduce to one narrative—athletes play to win. Athletes risk physical injury and that is their job. So let him take the risk and gain the glory.
Behind the critique lies the facile and wrong claim by the smaller, weaker, and slower ex-veterans that somehow this “shut down” (versus pitch control) indicts the coddled and pampered modern athletes compared to the tough guys of old. You see the same resentful logic among football veterans who attack efforts to minimize head trauma in football. To them, this decision defiles virtues of courage and overcoming adversity that gives sports narratives so much appeal in the USA.

These images evoke a bloodied Rams’ linebacker Jack Youngblood playing the Super Bowl on a broken leg. It conjures Kerri Strug with a torn ankle vaulting the US to Olympic gold in 1996. Strasburg’s “shut down” shatters this tale of courage and triumph.

I mean Strasburg is not even injured yet!!! They are taking him out before he is injured, and that makes no sense to the narrative of sport, to fans desperate for a victory or to players invested in their own self-image of warriors and gladiators.

The reality is different. Those unique heroic moments can occur because physiologically and psychologically athletes and humans can muster immense physical resources and surmount pain for short periods. High stakes, huge stress and strong loyalty amplify this power. We see acts of superhuman bravery and physicality during accidents, disasters and exceptional moments.

Most athletes and humans, however, do not achieve through pain. Their performance degrades, and the longer they stay in the worse they become and their teammates suffer for it. Injury and hurt degrades performance, and serious injuries can destroy careers in a nanosecond. Unless masked by painkillers or adrenaline, pain undermines performance quickly and radically. The realities in the broken lives and foreshortened careers-pitchers who lose their speed and delivery and end as journeyman because they were mismanaged and overused during their early careers.

The Nationals know the reality; they see through the myths we collectively embrace which are confirmed just often enough to reinforce its influence.

The average fan gets the moral and practical side of the decision to shut down Strasburg. They approved the decision by a 4-1 majority. They understand the fairness and risk with far more clarity about the issue than the commentators and ex-jocks. They know how teams usually exploit and toss off players to win.

The Nationals are right; this is ethical progress, not failure.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sports Ethics: Grind it Out

We all have bad days. I mean really bad days, you know, the ones where nothing goes right. Our normal smooth skills just do not seem to work; our reactions feel sluggish and the simplest actions we have done by rote for years take concentration and thought. It feels like forgetting how to ride a bike while careening down a hill.

Athletes have a term that all of us can draw upon—grind it out.

Athletes grind it out when their reliable skill sets flounder. Grinding it is the antithesis of being in the zone and requires a different kind of mental focus and discipline. Grinding it out draws upon experience and will power. Young athletes and professionals who are used to winning and performing at the highest level tend to freeze or panic when their reliable expertise set fails. Learning to grind it out requires learning how to keep calm and disciplined when facing adversity and really bad days.

It happens on those days when we are not at our best; we don’t have our A-game, heck we don’t even have our B—game. In life or sport, these are the days when we come to work and our reactions feel slow. We do not read the situation or the other people quickly or comfortably. We feel sluggish. Our dependable skills falter. When we deploy a skill, we execute it awkwardly or not well at all. These moments always arise, but when they happen in competition the player is exposed to the opponents who will jump on the struggling athlete and exploit their weakness.

On bad days a player loses flow or smooth efficiency on their skills. This can happen to doctors, lawyers, teachers, brick layers, carpenters. Our craft or profession does not matter, we all have really bad days.

A struggling baseball pitcher illustrates it clearly. The pitcher may lose their best pitch or maybe two pitchers. The pitch loses something, speed, movement, accuracy, maybe all threes. Batters know this and wait out the pitcher to sit on their troubles. The pitcher then loses close calls because the umpire will not give them the benefit on close calls. The pitcher then self consciously starts to aim the pitch and it best worse. Then they get frustrated by the bad pitches and bad calls and lose focus or turn on themselves in self-recrimination.

A good pitcher has to draw deep on his or her  experience and remember they can get through this. Don’t get angry at oneself or at one’s pitches. On the mound and with the catcher, the pitcher has to re-remember basic mechanics. Go through the motions and concentrate harder to get the pitch over. It takes conscious mental effort to recall and consciously pull up what is normally unconscious and flowing. You see it most in the pitcher because they are all alone out there and facing combat with each pitch and the slightest mistake the leads to hit. You can watch them struggle and overcome anger and doubt. But the pitcher like any of us cannot get in the habit of self-consciously aiming, it guarantees failure. So the pitcher has to balance just doing it, failing, letting go and then doing it again until some approximation of professional execution occurs.  Like a good professional, they simply concentrate on one pitch at a time and getting it done.

Good professionals and craftsman know how to grind it out.

When we grind we are must rely upon will and knowledge. Individuals re-envision in their minds the complex skills and mind-set called for and call them up. They have to force the right angles, the right words, the right attitude toward the fore. As important when we are struggling, panic and paralysis and giving up all tempt us and we have to hold them at bay. At the same if a person starts to overthink, their actions can stagger and lose smooth efficiency. 

The metaphor tells us a lot. Gears grind when they are slightly misaligned. The parts don’t integrate well or smoothly. Grinding increases friction and slows down reaction time. Each action takes more work and harder focus to get it right or offset the misalignment. The scraping surfaces not only increase friction and inefficiency, they produce unpredictability as actions stagger and lurch. The task at hand devolves into a grind, drudgery where any fun or joy leaks from the work. In another take on grinding, a person needs to grind in play and practice to recover the edge of their skill and focus.

Grinding takes away the fun and the smooth naturalness of flow. We have to work at everything, and I mean work hard. We have to recall and will what comes naturally on a good day. We have to force our mind to work and our perception to focus and remember the skills that seem to have abandoned us.

Like the struggling pitcher, athletes look at other pitches, other skills. They compensate and find replacements actions. They find other ways to stay contribute in the game and help the team. A team member passes better or a scorer steps up their defense or passing. They rely on other members to cover for their limits and use the team rather than fight themselves. They rely on teammates to support and encourage them as well as position better or play better defense or offense. Nothing brings out our interdependency then having to grind it out.

People and athletes who know how to grind it out never accept “it’s just one of those days.” It may not be fun. Everything comes hard. Your best skills abandon you. Nothing comes easy. Everything takes more effort and outcomes feel random.

Good athletes and professionals grind it out.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Perfection in Sports & Life: Felix Hernandez's Perfect Game

Perfect is very rare. Perfect is very hard. Perfect beckons us as a goal, elusive but challenging. Sports engages us because it always offers the possiblity of perfect. Yesterday Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners threw a perfect game--one of 21 in the history of the sport. If you looked at the scoreboard for hits, runs, walks, errors, all you saw were zeros, another perfect figure. Congratulations to Felix and thanks for providing a reminder of why sports can hold the attention of so many people by intensifying an experience so important to us all, finding moments of perfect.

Most of us don't find perfect in our daily live. Sometimes we have perfect moments. Moments where everything works, everything comes together. Moments when we get it right. We find it anywhere--at work, at home, even walking on the street when the light, sky, buildings and sounds carve out a pefect moment. Being perfect usually lies outside our reach, tantalizing as an ideal that can inspire us and serve as a way to assess our progress and limits.

Sports, however, has stronger rules than life and clearer outcomes than daily life. In a few moments and places, sports presents the opportunity for perfection. This latent possibility lies behind the endless fascination with live sports. A gymnast at the vault, a tennis server at the toss, a quarterback in the pocket reading progressions. Each moment opens the space for a perfect unrepeatable moment.

This is why sports can be so enticing, not just winning and losing, but achieving human excellence.Yesterday Felix Hernandez threw a "perfect" game for the Seattle Mariners. He faced twenty seven batters in nine innings, the absolute mathematical minimum. Not a single batter reached first base. Although a number of perfect games have erupted in the last six years; his remains only the 21st. in the long history of baseball. Like Mark Buehrle two years age Felix gave up no hits which is much rarer.


This is a masterful accomplishment of discipline, talent, focus and teamwork. Sports opens a daily window into the possibility of perfection. We can experience human beings achieving perfect excellence in their chosen field. We can identify with the quest and celebrate the accomplishment. Many fans of other teams and opponents rooted for him and congratulated him in recognition of the beauty of the achievement. They are fans of the game, not just their team.

Baseball's unique structure also enables teams and pitchers to measure perfection in very clear statistical manner and measure it against history. No other sport really provides a definition of perfection similar to baseball's. The graded ones always struggle with the unevenness of judges and the almost impossible task of getting unbiassed judging. Although one could see things like never letting the other person score a point in tennis or volleyball or never letting the other team gain a single yard in football. In many way baseball's perfect game represents a triumph of defense over offense. The perfection lies in the utter denial of the chance to win the game by making it impossible for the other team to score. Teams have won "no hitters" but no team can win with a perfect game pitched against them. Most sports like life rely upon perfect moments rather than what we would call perfect games which goes far beyond a moment to a perfect performance over time of an incredibly complex task.

Hernandez's perfect game reminds us that human perfection remains fragile and unpredictable. In the first inning newly acquired right fields Eric Thames made superb running catch moving from light to shadow. A great catch but who knew that nine innings later it would be the cornerstone or history? Later Brendan Ryan made dazzling stop of a ball that whizzed by Kyle Seager's diving arm and made an superb throw to get the batter out. Most perfect games rely upon one or two amazing defensive stops. Although none really match the ninth inning of Mark Buerhle's perfect game when  DeWayne Wise leaped over the wall and caught a sure home run taking it from the hands of a fan. The perfect game could have been lost in an instant when Wise fell and bobbled ball, but he held on. But Thames and Ryan like Wise demonstrate how reliant sports perfect is upon other players and luck.

A perfect game overcomes imperfections and relies upon the skill and effort of everyone.

Welcome to human perfection; we have it daily in our lives and often miss it, but sport provides us with a daily chance to witness it because it has rules and ideals that enable us to see it. If it can happen in baseball, it can happen in our lives.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Failure of Informed Consent and the Football Brain Trauma Debate

The new football season looms before us. Olympic memories linger, but the countdown to football dominates sports radio and ESPN. Fans and media cannot wait for the game and the carnage. But before we jump in to enjoy the sport, let’s remember the shadow that hangs over every football player and game as well as our support of it.

Football can kill the soul of players.

Junior Seau, a NFL icon, shot himself in the chest in May. He joins three former professional football players who committed suicide in the last two years. Several were diagnosed after the fact with mental illness caused by brain damage related from repetitive head trauma. Seau’s brain has also been diagnosed as suffering from CSE a progressive disease resulting from repeated head trauma. It contributed to his erratic behavior and suicide.

Football kills the soul by destroying brain functioning. The brain suffers from the generation of webs of plaque in the brain that destroy neural communication and processing. These plaque entanglements seem to be caused by repetitive head injuries, mainly traumatic concussions. Repetitive impact alone may also do as much damage in creating the nodes of tau proteins that anchor these tangles. The tangles lock up neurons and disrupt the brain’s neural ability to communicate and sustain a bioelectrical balance.

In July 2012 over 3000 former players consolidated their law suit claiming the NFL “deliberately and fraudulently” withheld and discouraged knowledge about the damage football was doing to the brains of football players. The law suit reflects accumulating knowledge about the cognitive impacts of injury as well as a widespread and belated recognition that while football is a violent and dangerous game, its damage lay far deeper and more sinister than destroyed knees, brutalized ACLs, wrecked shoulders and crippled players late middle age.

I have written about this often. I talked of Achilles Revenge where athletes choose to risk their health for glory and wealth in exchange for physical pain. The brain trauma goes beyond physical pain. The neural damage undermines judgment and manufactures erratic emotional responses. Players can suffer from dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE induces depression, loss of memory, unpredictable emotional swings and aberrant decision-making. Player’s emotional and judgmental resources erode. The more we know the more we understand the issues may be underreported.

This erosion of judgment, emotional stability and resilience combines with the normal physical pain and status loss retired players face. The loss of their locker room camaraderie and support compounds this isolation. Roman Oben a 12-year veteran puts it this way, “they spend the rest of their lives being shadows of who they were at 25.”

The result?

The rash of suicides by retired football players augments the compelling evidence that a significant percentage of football players may struggle with declining cognitive limits and depression in rates beyond the regular population. After Jay Easterling killed himself with a handgun, his wife Mary Ann commented, “He felt like his brain was falling off…He was losing control. He couldn’t remember things from five minutes ago.” Earlier Dave Duerson had shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for further study.

No other sport spawns this level of suicide. Sometimes suicide can be contagious as a way out of the emotional and spiritual pain of watching your personality slip away and losing control of all you value. No one knows how many ex-players struggle with mental illness induced by the brain trauma. No one knows the causal pathways. No one knows much about it because the NFL worked hard to discredit any research in this area.

The country will not outlaw football. Many present and former players resent efforts to mitigate the violence and long-term harm. They represent the classic commitment psychology of someone who has invested in the trauma and identity of the sport. They experience this as a form of initiation for them and the sport. If they did it, so should the young players. A number of players and commentators have already attacked the new NFL contract that places strict limits upon the level of contact in camp to protect the long-term welfare of players. They bitterly complain that drawing down the level of violence limits the ability of young players to demonstrate their toughness and beat out veterans. Others just say, “I’d do it all again.” So the players’ law suit focuses upon informing players and not regulating the game.

This solution flows from the  free choice defense. The players and league want to ensure that the new draftees have adequate information about the threats. The players can make “informed” choice.

Let’s look at what this informed consent might look like. We have to ask a person to make a decision to risk potential loss of their personality when they are 22 years old. We need to remember that human begins tend to overestimate catastrophic consequences but underestimate small losses. People also tend to be over optimistic in their own projections about how they will avoid statistical dangers to themselves. The informed negotiation leading to the brain trauma deal might look like this:

Drafted Player (DP)
“I have a chance to live my dream. I got drafted! This is incredible.”
Advisor/Agent (AA)
“Fantastic. Now we can negotiate with the teams to get you're a contract that matches your slot.”
RP    “How soon can we start?”
AA   “I meet with the team in two days, but before I begin we need to talk about something that a recent settlement with the league mandates.”
DP    “Got it. What’s up?”
AA   “Well, I need to alert you to the fact that football can be dangerous to your health. Here is a list of the dangers. I also have a video you can watch.”
DP    “Come on man. Of course I know that. I have three surgeries to prove it. This is news?  Football is a violent and dangerous game, I know that.”
AA   “Well I need you to read this disclaimer and check the part of about brain trauma, dementia and compromised judgment.”
DP    “Yeah, I’ll read it, but I know this stuff. I’m not afraid of this. My bonus will cover it all. Besides, this stuff is a hundred years in the future.”
AA   “Well actually, it’s about 20 to 30 years in the future, but you are right, most of these injuries start to impact you in your late forties. Sadly Chris Henry suffered it when he was 26. I also want to remind you that we may need to set aside some funds for this just in case from your signing bonus or your first year.”
DP    “Look, this is stupid. I am 23. I will be fine and besides I owe it to my mom and friends to take care of them. I promised my mom a new house, and I want her out of where she lives. Man, I suffered for this, and I want my return. She deserves this. I can take care of the stuff later. I’ve got a lot of money. Right now, just get the money so I can take care of my family.”
AA   “I just want to be clear. Football is dangerous and brutal and violent. We both know that.  Well, the court settlement does give you the option of talking to some guys, watching videos or going to a panel to talk about how to think about these injuries and prepare for it.”
DP   “I know what I’m getting into. I have the scars on my knee and shoulder to prove it. Besides I’m a lineman, and I’ve never had a concussion so I’m not that worried about it.”
AA   “Well some doctors think it’s not about concussions, but it about repetition. A number of players have had serious brain issues without any real concussions.”
DP   “Ok, OK. I’ll think about it. But I’ll take the risk. This is my one shot, my one chance. Football is what got me here. I owe it to myself and to my family. Besides I’ve read the interviews. Most of the guys say they’d do it all again even if they have sore knees.”
AA   “Well, OK. But remember you have been duly notified as required by the terms of the court settlement.”
DP    “By the way, what do the guys who have suffered brain damage say about how they are handling it.”
AA   “Well it’s kind of hard to figure out.”
DP    “What?”
AA  “Well. You know for some of the guys. Well, you know. Well, it’s like this.”
DP    “What are you getting to? Come on, spit it out.”
AA   “Well. A lot of them are not compos mentis.”
DP    “Come on. I’ve got a degree, but I did not take French.”
AA   “Well they aren’t really all the able to talk about how they are doing. You see, well. You see. Well a couple are living with tubes in their throats and respirators. Some of them are not all that stable or coherent all the time.”
DP    “This is getting a little weird.”
AA   “Look I’m trying to help. Think of it this way. You get wealth, privilege, fun and status for awhile.”
DP    “Yeah. I know. That’s the whole point of this.”
AA   “Well the other side is. You potentially give them your soul.”
DP    “This is a little metaphysical man, are you sure you are OK?”
AA   “I just want you to know. Their wives do most of the talking.”
DP    “Well I read about some other guys who were big names like Seau and Easterboork who were struggling with this. What did they say?”
AA   “Well, they can’t say much. They committed suicide.”
DRP   “Your’e shitten me, man. Look man, this is getting us nowhere. What do you expect me to do, go manage a car rental office?    ---         This won’t happen to me. Let’s make this happen.”

So much for informed consent changing decisions of players.

Every one of us entering a career embarks on a path that will change us. We seldom know what our future self will look like when we enter a job world. Sometimes we discover that our path is destroying what we value in ourselves, and we change jobs or change careers. Sometimes ten years down the road we look in the mirror and no longer recognize the person we have become. 

Throughout our life we negotiate over the person we are and the person we are becoming. None of us really knows how we will end up, but we do know that the person we become will be is shaped by the work we do. No different with football, but the impact can be  a little more severe.

No person easily or rationally risks his or her personality and capacity to be a human decision maker. The core of our humanity lies in our ability to feel, think and shape our life; it depends upon our brain working. The stealthy soul death brought on the brain trauma induced by impacts condemn players to a living death, far beyond their imagination.

Expecting informed individual choice option to address the brain damage threat is an illusion. It makes as much sense as the older argument that coal miners made a free choice to enter the mines and accept black lung disease compared to unemployment. The solutions remain similar. The sport and unions need to continue aggressive and continued research and interventions to minimize the long-term damage. The other path should involve joint contributions to a fund to support later life victims of the brain damage and soul loss that no one should have to bargain away.

The odds are that individual players will not build up a fund. Mary Ann Easterling, whose husband committed suicide, summed it up, "I'd also like to see the NFL take care of the players that do have symptoms or could possibly have symptoms."

The league and union need to do this. It is the least they can do for the sentence that some players will consign themselves to.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Ethical Wrong of Intentionally Losing: Olympic Badminton Scandal

I could imagine a lot of potential scandals in the 2012 Olympics. But if someone had told me it would involve a) badminton and b) intentionally losing a game, I would not have believed it. Now I find out in this red-hot sport in Asia that the Chinese tactic of intentionally losing to face weaker opponents or set up an all Chinese final might be the norm.It violates the moral foundation of being an athlete.

Four female teams representing South Korea, China and Indonesia with members who are the best in the world have been kicked out of the Olympics. The eight players were rightly exiled from the Olympics for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” They join the six other athletes kicked out for drug violations this game. This game throwing was not infected by the gambling that motivated the European soccer scandals. Intead, the women intentionally tried to lose probably ordered by coaches or government sports federations to create easier seeding for their teams. In an absurdist comedy two teams kept trying to lose to each other.

The players and some commentators tried to escape responsibility and blamed the new rules that permitted round robin play and not knock out play. At least eight other Olympic sports have similar formats, and no one talks about similar incentives. Any advantages gained by such powerful teams are minuscule. Before looking at the disgrace involved, I want to address one other claim that such cheating may be justified.

Life presents opportunities for “strategic losing.” For instance a lawyer might take on a case that he or she knows they will lose. The loss will help set a precedent or begin a public argument or mobilize individuals around an issue. Politicians pursue an issue they know they will lose to frame an agenda or begin a long-term discussion. These situations do not involve intentionally losing by not giving one’s best effort or skill. The loss occurs legitimately in real competition, but serves a broader long term purpose.

Many coaches schedule tougher teams who they know will probably beat their team but want their team to experience a high level of competition and see what excellences looks like. Teams might play younger players who they know will lose but get stronger over time, and the competition helps them grow. 

One variant seems closer to what the Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian teams attempted—to throw a match intentionally playing below your skill level  to gain a competitive advantage in seeding. It reminds me of the perennial arguments the NFL, MLB and NBA fans have over whether teams should tank the rest of their games to get the number one draft spot or be in the lottery picks.

Every year the fans argue but as near as I can make out, teams almost never succumb to this. Professional pride and reputation means coaches and players do not want to be tagged in this way. Players play for their own reputation and their statistics impact their own compensation.  Forcing players to try to lose exacts an immense psychological and moral cost upon the athletes who are fierce competitors, prideful individuals and driven by every aspects of their character to push as hard as they can to win each play and each game.

Throwing a game is wrong but the Olympics amplifies this. Olympic  teams take an oath to compete to the best of their ability and abide by sportsmanship. This is the Olympics where the best athletes from the world gather to prove their worth and worthiness once every four years. 

Athletic competition depends upon competition and uncertainty. The reality of the competition gives sports its meaning and dynamic. Competition provides the field upon which individuals prove themselves and develop. To take competition out of sport reduces it to nothing more than gambling fixed games or modern wrestling with ordained scripts. Throwing a game , intentionally losing, violates the core integrity of athletic competition.

The moral algorithm of integrity in sports might look something like this:


With this in mind, here are the ethical failures involved in intentionally losing:

1)            The player must rein in or distort their skill. An athlete must hit the ball out when it could easily go in or hit a bad serve when they easily could get the serve in. They make deliberate mistakes of omission and commission.
2)            The athlete lets down their effort and gives less then what is required. A true athlete exists totally present to the situation and commits his or her mind, perception and body to what is called for. Holding back effort might be as simple as a player does not extend far enough to return a serve or react as quickly as they would to return a slam. Either way, the player pulls back from what they are capable of and is required in effort.
3)            A player must subvert their judgment to make bad decisions. This is actually harder than it seems because it assumes the player knows what to do, and all their training, pattern recognition and primed behavior push them in that direction. The player must instead make a bad decision, knowing what a good one is.

The moral wrongs of intentionally losing and throwing a game add up quickly.

1)            A player betrays him or herself and violates their relation to their identity as an athlete. The athlete chooses to not play up to their highest skill during a competition. The athlete chooses to sacrifice her or his exquisite judgment and decide badly, knowing it is a bad decision--this is not a mistake, it is moral sabotage.
2)            Not only do they betray their skill but sacrifice the effort they have inculcated in him or herself to achieve elite status. Even if skilled and judging well, they mar their actions with less effort bringing down their level of expected excellence.
3)            The athlete violates their promises to their teammates to give all their energy and focus to achieve a common goal.
4)            Intentionally losing also violates an athlete’s relation to the integrity of the game to which they have devoted their lives. The athlete degrades the very practice through which they gain that gives them identity and worth.
5)           Intentionally losing disregards faith with the spectators and fans who invest money, time and emotional loyalty in following the team. These persons commit to the team and follow its members and stake emotional and intellectual energy on them. The disgusted booing and anger of the Olympic fans who came expecting excellence and competition and got farce reflect this.

I cannot believe the athletes who did this believed in their actions. Their entire body and being must have screamed out against this betrayal of the Olympic ideals and their years of training. Yet in the end, they did and deserved their fate.

After their ethical failure and moral insult to the sport, such athletes are no longer the same persons they were before they intentionally lose. They cheat their personhood.