Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sports Ethics: Lying & Deception in Athletic Competition

Juke  Feint   Misdirect   Fake     Disguise  Sneak   

We know all these words and expect them from good athletes. Everyone depends upon deception and lying in sports. How do we square this with the centrality of sportsmanship to defending the worth of athletics? And somehow by teaching deception and lying as a normal part of the game are we undermining the ethics of both players and fans?

Everyone defends sportsmanship. Ethically it is  fundamental to the moral worth of sports. We speak of how athletics teaches loyalty, self-discipline, sacrifice, overcoming odds and working with others to achieve excellence. At the core all these attributes depend upon integrity and the ability to make and keep commitments to oneself and to others. This argument lies at the center of aligning sports with schooling and making it a widespread adjunct to parenting in our society.

Yet at the center of  athletic competition lies practiced strategy of deception. Every competitive sport where athletes play against each other has built in imperatives to deceive the other side. The speed and power of modern elite athletics requires successful athletes to anticipate and act, not just react. If you react to a serve in tennis or volleyball or a feint in basketball or soccer you are too late. So the dynamic of success requires a trained ability to predict an opponent's response to a perceived action. If a player or team can feign or fake that action to get the opponent to commit and then act in a different way, they use deception and misdirection to achieve their goals. Athletic competitive success requires a mastery of deception.

Because success depends upon anticipation, much of sport relies upon disguising actions so that the other side anticipates incorrectly. If I want to succeed in an action, I need to convince my opponent that I am not going to do what they think I am. I try to disguise, deceive or intentionally lie about what I plan to do. If the opponent takes the bait of my fake, then they move out of position. They are not prepared for the action I actually take and  and are caught lunging for a volley or kick. They are out of position on a run or suddenly face a mismatch between one defender and offense player. We spend hours teaching athletes how to fake and feint and create mismatches. We teach athletes to project false intent in their interactions.

Elite athletes watch immense amounts of tape to understand their own tendencies, learn their weaknesses and practice to suppress them. Unless an athlete literally is one of the greatest, they cannot afford to have the other side anticipate and predict what they will be doing. Every athlete facing an opponent tries to avoid predictability and throw the opponent off track of what the athlete may do. The better an opponent can anticipate my action, the lower the probability of my succeeding.

Athletes also  watch tape to anticipate their opponent's best moves. Athletes watching tape seek out the quirks, tells, and ticks that give away an opponent's next move. If you are one move, one split second, one half step ahead, you can win. 

Both sides know they study each other and both sides prepare to deceive the other and project a lie for their actions. Deception and anticipation enable teams with superior game knowledge to overcome superior talent.

We worship sportsmanship but teach deception? We honor effort but play to win?

The only way to make sense of this is to remember sport competition involves a GAME. Games have closed rules. The rules define what constitutes winning and losing. They encompass the range of actions and skills needed to perform well. Athletes must master the physical, cognitive and emotional skills needed to excel within the games rule bound universe of behavior.

To excel good athletes must master pattern recognition of all the players around them. They learn to read other player's signals; they learn to control their own signals and read opponents. The skills of pattern recognition unfold during competition. Deception and feints occur within this world of recognition and competition and rules. The misdirection occurs within the bounded relation of competition. Misdirection, misreading, sneaks and feints, intentionally projected lies, become part of the game. Good athletes even learn to read the signs of feints and you get feints within feints within disguise.

The rule bound world of athletic competition thrives upon deception and anticipation. Any good negotiator or litigator or politician will practice the same strategies within the rules of their own professional practices. This is good competition and strong development of an athlete's cognitive and emotional capacities. But the real boundary world for deception in sports is CHEATING.

Athletes and coaches cheat when they consciously violate the rules of the game and try to disguise it. You see it in coaching when a coach moves beyond mastering the art of deceiving with feints, fakes and misdirection. Instead coaches or team cultures teach athletes to violate rules and get away with it. It falls apart when athletes use PEDs and hide and lie about it. It falls apart when coaches and athletes intentionally violate rules to win.  It falls apart when coaches teach and reward  athletes to intentionally injure opponents.

One is good athletic competition, the other is degradation of the person and sport.


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