Ethics in Baskeball

According to this Ask the Ethicist column, it’s unethical to follow a basketball coach’s order to strategically, intentionally foul?!

This is a neat, regular column written by Rock Ethics Fellows here at Penn State, and I normally find them instructive, but as a Rock Ethics Fellow myself I find this one to be totally wrong.

You can’t derive specific ethical rules purely from first principles, as this author tries to do. Ethics are normative, and the norms are set by the expectations of the community. That’s what “unwritten rules” are all about!  It is widely accepted in basketball that an intentional foul is a legitimate strategy in basketball. This analysis is otherwise good, but it comes to the wrong conclusion because it ignores this essential element of the problem.

Instead, the author here tries to draw a line between constitutive and regulatory rules to come to his conclusion, but this line is arbitrary and subjective, so it leads to a squishy answer. He argues that free-throws, for instance, are not intrinsic to the game of basketball, which would be news to most players! He also appeals to the NCAA’s stated core values (HA!) to argue that intentional fouls violate those values, because strategic fouling is only appropriate when “victory is regarded as the main goal”, but “victory is not mentioned as the main goal of college sports”.  That may be true for the endeavor as a whole (after all, there are just as many winners as losers!), but winning is certainly the main goal of an individual game. By definition! If that’s not in the NCAA rules, it may be because it’s so obvious, so fundamental to the definition of an athletic competition, that it doesn’t need stating.

This is not to say that following community expectations is a defense against immoral behavior—sometimes the community consensus is unethical. But there’s no great social ill in a sport having a too-lenient penalty for purely technical infractions like this (intentional fouls are almost always highly technical infractions, not attempts to injure or be unsportsmanlike).

And it’s true that cheating to win is unethical, especially in college sports where sportsmanship is supposed to be a core value.  But by this argument I could try to say that head fakes are unethical, because I am deceiving my opponent in an attempt to win the game. Of course, head fakes are obviously not unethical, and the reason isn’t that head fakes aren’t disallowed by the rules (lots of forms of cheating aren’t mentioned in the rules!), it’s because they are considered a legitimate strategy, just as intentional fouls are.  That is, the line is between what’s considered “fair play” and what’s not is set by community expectations, and we’re back to the unwritten rules that this author left out of his analysis.

Now, I happen to agree that the rules of basketball are broken, in that if it is regularly to your advantage to break the rules then the penalty for rules-breaking is too light. But that’s an aesthetic concern, not an ethical one.

I can think of lots of concerns that would make it ethical to not try your best to win a game. There are lots of heartwarming stories of athletes refusing victory in the name of good sportsmanship. But a quixotic devotion to avoiding fouls is not one of these higher values—your opponents will feel confused and robbed of a fair victory, not impressed by your ethics.

[Edit: John Gizis points out that the author could be referring not to end-of-game fouls to stop the clock, but to “Hack-a-Shaq” strategies.  In that case, the author is probably right. This strategy is not universally accepted, even in professional basketball, so in collegiate sports (with its higher emphasis on character building and sportsmanship) it is probably outside of community norms.

That said, it’s hard to really distinguish “Hack-a-Shaq” from the intentional walk in baseball.  I wonder if  Francisco Javier Lopez (the author of the ethicist column) would say that’s unethical too?  I presume so, although I think it’s fine (because collegiate baseball players expect it and they think it’s fine).

Second edit: Chris Palma points out that the intentional walk in baseball has a similar ethical ambiguity. A situationally strategic walk (to put someone on first to create a force-out situation when runners are already in scoring position, for instance, or pitching around the 8 spot to get to the pitcher with 2 outs) is, as far as I know, universally accepted strategy, and so (I would argue) not unethical.

But used as the baseball equivalent of “Hack-a-Shaq”—routinely pitching around dangerous hitters—was somewhat controversial when it happened to Bonds, Sosa, and McGuire. I could imagine that in collegiate sports a similar approach might be considered unsportsmanlike.

So it’s all a matter of degree.  For instance, is a defensive player with a “five fouls to give” mentality playing unethically? After all, anticipating that you’ll play so aggressively that you foul your opponents five times by the end of the game isn’t much different from Hack-a-Shaq in principle. Again, I think you’d have to ask the players and coaches, not try to deduce it from first principles.

Third edit: More here in part II.]

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