Monday, December 16, 2013

Sport, Rules and Values

One of the values which we see in sports is consistency -- the idea that the rules should be applied the same independent of context. A home run in Chicago should mean the same thing as a home run in Denver. it is not simply the distance traveled that defines a home run, but the fact that it leaves the ballpark in fair play, even though balls travel a lot farther in the rarefied air of the Mile-High City.

Even in situations which require judgement we have an expectation of consistency. A red card offense in one soccer match should be a comparable violation to a red card in another match. While different referees have different styles, the awarding of red cards is in many leagues subject to post-match appeal and review. All of this in the name of consistency in the application of the rules.

Where we get into some intellectual trouble is when we start thinking that such consistency in rules and their application should have some standing across different sporting contexts. This came to mind over the weekend as I read an entertaining exchange between ESPN's Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell over doping.

Gladwell writes:
[T]ake the so-called "treatment/enhancement" distinction. The idea here is that there is a big difference between the drug that "treats" some kind of illness or medical disorder and one, on the other hand, that "enhances" some preexisting trait. There is a huge amount of literature on treatment/enhancement among scholars, and with good reason. Your health insurance company relies on this distinction, for example, when it decides what to cover. Open heart surgery is treatment. A nose job, which you pay for yourself, is enhancement. This principle is also at the heart of most anti-doping policies. Treatment is OK. Enhancement is illegal. That's why Tommy John surgery is supposed to be OK. It's treatment: You blow out your ulnar collateral ligament so you get it fixed.

But wait a minute! The tendons we import into a pitcher's elbow through Tommy John surgery are way stronger than the ligaments that were there originally. There's no way Tommy John pitches so well into his early forties without his bionic elbow. Isn't that enhancement?
Gladwell continues exploring the "treatment/enhancement" distinction:
It turns out that beta blockers are really good at reducing performance anxiety. Classical musicians and people with a fear of public speaking take them all the time. So should a golfer be allowed to take beta blockers before a major competition? Should a basketball player who gets really nervous at the line be allowed to take beta blockers before a championship game? Are beta blockers treatment or enhancement? Elliott makes the case that they are treatment. He says that they don't improve a performer's skills, but rather they prevent anxiety from "interfering" with their skills. A beta blocker won't turn a bad putter into a great putter. Rather, it will prevent nerves from getting in the way of a golfer performing according to his true ability. Elliott thinks of anxiety like asthma. And we wouldn't prevent a runner from taking asthma medicine, would we?

I find that argument pretty convincing. But once I've conceded that beta blockers are OK, how can I say no to an aging Alex Rodriguez who wants to take testosterone in order to extend his career a few more years? Every day there are commercials on television telling middle-aged men that their falling testosterone is a condition that requires treatment. So why don't we consider A-Rod's desire for more testosterone in the same light as we consider treatment for nerves or asthma, as an attempt to correct a deficiency that interferes with the expression of his talent?

I don't have a good answer to any of those questions.
The answer is that there is no answer. Or perhaps more accurately, they answer is that Alex Rodriguez can't take testosterone or beta blockers because are against the rules. Tommy John surgery is allowed because it is not against the rules.

This sort of relativism in rules and their application comes up all the time in my policy courses in discussion of decision making, and it is often deeply unsatisfactory to my students. It is seductive to think that there are universal principles, perhaps written on stone tablets, that define concepts which we need merely apply in a consistent manner.

Of course, in the context of sport there are such universal principles -- a home run is a home run is a home run. When there are cases where some event in a game falls outside the rules, like a player reaching over the outfield wall to catch a ball, only to have a fan knock it away, we look to the rules to clarify how to judge that circumstance.

In the event that we find a "rules hole" exists (more common than you might think), the solution is to close it. Consequently, there are rules which govern fan interference in baseball fielding.

For issues like doping, match fixing and even player safety, there should be no expectation of consistency across sport for the application of rules which govern the game. This is very different than saying that we should expect consistency of application of rules within a game.

A game is a pure social construction. While people argue about the fundamental standing of values like truth, fairness and justice independent of our individual preferences (as you might guess, I'm with the pragmatists, but I digress), I've yet to find anyone who argues that the touchdown, the offsides rule or the tennis tie-breaker has some metaphysical standing. Rules which govern sport exist because we make them up and agree they exist inside of the games that we construct.

But when those games run into the messiness of the world outside sport, we should expect that the norms of the outside world are the ones which matter, not the norms found inside competition. Gladwell's search for "an answer" is thus misguided and will always be a fruitless search. Rules governing doping will necessarily reflect the broader values found across sport, and there should be no expectation of consistency across drugs, treatments, sports, time or place.

Consider player safety. Major League Baseball has just put forward a plan to eliminate collisions at home plate to make the game safer for players.

Pete Rose, seen above in a famous plate collision, was not too happy with the decision:
Pete Rose said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “You’re not allowed to pitch inside. The hitters wear more armor than the Humvees in Afghanistan. Now you’re not allowed to be safe at home plate? What’s the game coming to? Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball.”

Rose, banned for life in 1989 following a gambling investigation, famously bowled over catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game. Rose insists Fosse was blocking the plate without the ball, which is against the rules.

“Since 1869, baseball has been doing pretty well,” Rose said. “The only rules they ever changed was the mound (height) and the DH. I thought baseball was doing pretty good. Maybe I’m wrong about the attendance figures and the number of people going to ballgames.”
Here Rose is appealing explicitly to the idea of consistency in the rules over time. But the rules are what we say they are, and a subject of politics like any other form of decision making. So long as the politics of the day are aligned against Rose, appeals to universal principles won't matter a bit.

Now consider American football, where the equivalent violence to a plate collision can be found several times in every play. Would anyone expect football to provide the same degree of protection to players from collisions as being implemented in baseball? Of course not. The NFL is taking steps to improve safety, but the sport by its nature is violent and dangerous. There is no consistency here in the rules of the different games with respect to "safety" and nor should we expect there to be.

It turns out that "safety" is a value much like that of "enhancement"-- what it means depends on the context and what is decided by those with responsibility for establishing and enforcing the rules which govern sport.


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