Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Your World Cup Ethical Questions, Answered

December 28, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post, “Your World Cup Ethical Questions, Answered.”

The column doesn’t have a new post today, so I guess the Times gives the writer a vacation, which seems odd for a once-a-week column with only a few paragraphs. Maybe it’s generous. Anyway, I’m getting a post from before I started commenting on it. This one is from July 1.

Was Luis Suárez’s bite of an opponent any more unethical than other forms of direct harm, such as a stomp or a professional foul in which the risk of serious injury is more likely? Or does the fact that biting is viewed as “uncivilized” make it uniquely worse? JACK HIGGINS, posted on Facebook

My Answer: Look at the results of his behavior. Probably over a billion people know what he did. I doubt more than a negligible fraction respected him more or considered him better for it by whatever measures they evaluate people. Wikipedia tells me the governing league banned him from play for a record time, likely into future tournaments. I suspect his peers reacted as most fans did. His team had to play without him. The media I saw about it made him the butt of jokes.

The costs seem to overwhelm the benefits, though he has his values and may feel otherwise.

Your question about the abstract concept of ethics seems irrelevant. Everyone has their opinion on whether it’s more or less ethical, but that’s just everyone’s opinions. You can see the measurable results from the world’s reaction.

You can form your own opinion on if it’s more ethical or not. Your opinion on the ethics of the interaction has no more or less validity than anyone else’s.

The New York Times Answer: I don’t know if biting someone is necessarily “more unethical” than stomping on someone’s face. It is, however, far weirder. It deviates further from standard human behavior, and society is justified in viewing certain acts as more troubling than others (a slap and a punch are both unethical infractions, but no rational person views them as identical). I suppose if Suárez had bitten only one person, we could debate how and why that happened. Perhaps a single episode could (somehow) be explained. But Suárez has bitten at least three opponents. There is no need to calibrate the relative level of violence. Any nonrabid adult who has bitten three different people is doing so consciously (and with premeditation). It’s not as if biting is not considered antisocial behavior in Uruguay.

The context of Suárez’s chomping must also be considered. In the 1983 N.B.A. playoffs, Wayne “Tree” Rollins of the Atlanta Hawks bit Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics on the hand. Somehow, Rollins was not ejected for doing so (it was a different era). But at least the biting occurred in the midst of a fight. The two players were already grabbling on the floor, engaged in an unsanctioned melee. The clock was not running. It was not part of the game itself. Conversely, Suárez tries to bite his opponents while the game is actively in progress. He is not only breaking the rules of society, but the rules of the sport.


Is it inherently more ethical to cheer for a team whose nation would receive greater utility — in other words, greater joy — from winning? ZACH SEGERMAN, posted on Facebook

My Answer: If you think so, then it is ethical for you. If not, then not. Others may have different opinions. If there were an absolute measure of ethics, you would have consulted it and gotten your answer. There isn’t so you didn’t. You’re just asking people’s opinions.

If you think your cheering will affect the outcome of a game and thereby create greater joy somewhere and that consideration dominates, you can base your opinion on the ethics of cheering on that reason as much as anyone can on any other reasons.

I doubt your cheering will change the outcome of a game, especially if you’re not even in the stadium, let alone continent. The players train for years, the coaches develop their skills over decades, fans in the stadium cheer as much as they can. If they thought your cheering would help, they probably would have sought you out a long time ago.

The New York Times Answer: The first group-stage opponent for the United States men’s national team was Ghana. In order to televise the game for its 25 million citizens, Ghana had to ration electricity and import 50 megawatts of power from neighboring countries. (That nations like Ghana can compete with a country like the United States on a level playing field remains an underrated Cup perversity. In fact, going into the contest, Ghana was justifiably viewed as a slight favorite. No one in the U.S. seemed to accept how crazy that was. This would be like the residents of Woodstock, N.Y., challenging the entire Houston metropolitan area to a game of softball, and every hard-core softball fan immediately assuming Woodstock would probably win.) In the end, the country with the most electricity prevailed, 2-1.

There was no objective reason to root for the U.S. in this particular match. The game of futbol means much, much more to the people of Ghana than it does to Americans (it is Ghana’s national sport and cultural obsession). Ghana is also a far poorer nation (in 2012, the average household yearly income was roughly $1,550), and almost one-fifth of its citizens do not have access to safe water. I was desperately rooting for Ghana to win this game. Yet — rationally — I know my misplaced desire was no less idiotic than the blind nationalism that prompts most people to robotically root for whichever team happens to represent their flag. To pull for teams based exclusively on the socioeconomic status of their home countries exaggerates the import of these games; it turns 11 guys kicking a polyurethane spheroid into avatars for entire nationalities and forces them to represent political histories that predate their literal existence. It’s a criterion we only seem to apply when international competitions make Americans feel especially guilty (I mean, debates over economic dissonance never seem to come up when Detroit plays San Francisco in pro football).

As stated earlier, there was no objective reason to root for the U.S. when it played Ghana. But there is no ethical responsibility to be objective about fandom. You can fabricate whatever flawed reason you want. These are not actual wars.


If (nearly) every player does it, is it wrong to flop? A New York Times article argued that the U.S. squad was much less likely to flop (and received far fewer free kicks because of it). If flopping is part of the game, as it obviously is, are you not putting your team at a disadvantage by refusing to flop? LAREN RICHARDSON, posted on Facebook

My answer: You asked two questions—if it was wrong and if it hurt your team not to do it.

The first question is opinion. The player doing it doesn’t think it’s wrong because they are doing it. The referee thinks flopping is wrong, but can’t tell in the moment because the player might be injured. Fans are in the same boat. Players do it enough to know they fake a lot with fans continuing to support the sport that their behavior shows they don’t think it’s too wrong. So the answer to the first question is that it’s a matter of opinion with an overwhelming majority believing it’s not. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, though. You don’t need to ask anyone else to know your opinion. What do you think?

Whether it hurts your team not to do it seems in principle measurable, but I expect any analysis would depend on assumptions. I expect the management of many teams would have analyzed the data. The players keep doing it, so the management hasn’t stopped them, which tells me they’ve concluded flopping helps, meaning not flopping hurts the chances of winning. I haven’t done the analysis myself, but it seems obvious it would help.

I’ve written my opinion on flopping in “Why football is better than soccer. Actually, why any sport is better than soccer” and “Why I don’t like watching soccer,” which I encourage you to read.

The New York Times answer: In the United States, flopping — what the rest of the planet refers to as “diving” — is widely perceived as soccer’s most embarrassing detail. This is partly because of the straightforward dishonesty of the practice, but is primarily because of the comical, over-the-top theatricality inherent to how certain players feign injury. Quite often, a player who merely brushes against an opponent will behave as if he has been shot by a sniper with an assault rifle. On the surface, this seems like uncomplicated cheating. But it’s not that simple, and for the very reason you note: It could be argued that diving is not a determent to soccer, but an integral component to how it is played at its highest level. And that changes the ethics entirely.

Within every sport, there is an undefined ethos dictating what degree of deception is acceptable. In pro basketball, the N.B.A fines players for flopping, but there are certain scenarios where the violation is never enforced — if a well-positioned defensive player attempts to draw a charge and reflexively falls on his rump, he’s typically rewarded for doing so (even if the impact is not enough to knock him down naturally). In 1988, multiple opponents of the N.F.L.’s Cincinnati Bengals were accused of faking injuries to slow down the Bengals’ no-huddle offense; this was viewed as unsporting, but was virtually impossible to sanction (because officials are never in a position to deem any potential injury as unreal). Baseball has its own byzantine code that is filled with contradictions: You can’t, for example, steal pitching signs without the risk of having an opposing pitcher throw at your head. You can, however, surreptitiously hide the ball in the glove of the first baseman in order to tag an opponent when he unknowingly leads off the bag (the “hidden-ball trick”).

Part of what draws people to any sport is the clarity of its conventions. The rules are supposed to be everything: Soccer (or any game) is simply a manifestation of the rules that were designed to govern its existence. Yet even in a constructed world, certain details are open to interpretation (particularly when a game is played by so many disparate cultures). There is, technically, a FIFA rule against diving; a player who attempts to “deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled” is supposed to be cautioned by the official. But this rule is (clearly) not enforced with any intensity or consistency. Diving is accepted. For whatever reason, there’s a theatrical aspect to soccer that is awkwardly embraced as an element of its richness. What we call “flopping” is part of what international soccer is; it’s not essential, but it’s also not aberrant.

The fact that the U.S. team does this (slightly) less often than its opponents reflects the biases and tastes of its fan base. This is more a stylistic decision than an ethical choice. Does that stylistic decision place the team at a competitive disadvantage? Perhaps negligibly. But the U.S. players should be commended for not taking advantage of a minor rule that isn’t properly enforced. They are, in effect, holding themselves to the verbatim standard and policing themselves.


In the last game of the group stage, both the U.S. and Germany could advance to the Round of 16 if their match ended in a tie. Would it be ethical for them to come to an agreement to play for a tie? If the goal is to make it as far as possible, why not agree to play lightly with reserve players, so that neither team risks an injured star? Do the U.S. and Germany “owe” it to Portugal and Ghana (and soccer fans in general) to play as hard as they can? MIKE ANDERSON

My Answer: Everyone involved agreed to play the sport by the rules. If they break the rules they’ll face consequences. If the rules require teams to play as hard as possible, they may be penalized or something like that. I expect there are rules against agreeing to an outcome, but I haven’t read soccer’s rules.

Consequences of actions have measurable results. Had you asked about them, you’d get a conclusive answer. You didn’t so you won’t.

You asked about ethics and owing. That’s a matter of opinion with no absolute answers. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s and you won’t get any more than an opinion from anyone else. What do you think? Do you not have confidence in your opinion? If not, why not?

The New York Times Answer: This answer is going to seem more complicated than necessary, but the distinction is important: It is sometimes ethically acceptable for one team to play for a tie, which can be an extension of strategy. It is never ethically acceptable for both teams to play for a tie, which is straight collusion.

Why do we play the World Cup? Some would say, “To see who wins.” Within the context of your own question, you suggest that the goal of this tournament is for any given team “to make it as far as possible.” These are both terrible answers. If the most important thing about sports is who ends up winning, there would be no reason to play them at all. The outcome of any game has no inherent merit; fundamentally, every sporting event is an exhibition where nothing authentic is at stake. Yet sports do matter. They matter a great deal. And this is a reflection of what they represent: The value of competition. The exultation of human physicality. The visceral entertainment of watching greatness. A structured simulation of primordial conflicts we no longer experience in day-to-day reality. The only meritocracy that actually works. An excuse to care about things outside of ourselves.

These are the qualities that make a game meaningful. And these qualities evaporate if neither team is trying to win.

If two teams only pretend to compete, they are engaged in a conspiracy. It doesn’t matter if the agreement is verbalized or wordlessly understood: If teams are colluding (regardless of purpose), the match is fixed. This essentially happened in 1982, when Austria allowed West Germany to win a game 1-0 to assure that both teams would advance and Algeria would be eliminated. Had Germany and the U.S. both consciously played for a tie last Thursday, the game would have had no entertainment value and no symbolic value. It would have had no value at all, for anyone. A fixed game does not deserve to exist. It is (at best) a training exercise.

There are, of course, certain situations where it’s acceptable for one team to play for a tie, assuming a tie is the best possible outcome that squad can realistically achieve. The aforementioned match against Germany was (almost) an example of this, at least from the perspective of the United States: When facing a rival that is clearly superior — and when a tie represents the highest level of success that can plausibly be achieved — playing for a stalemate is an acceptable tactic. Not losing is almost as difficult as winning, and futbol is well designed for pragmatists. But such circumstances are rare. In general, teams have an ethical obligation to try to beat whomever they face. The lifeblood of sport depends upon it.

“Winning isn’t everything,” Vince Lombardi once allegedly said. “It’s the only thing.” This aphorism is stupid for two reasons. The first is that the empty meaning of the sentiment remains unchanged if the words “everything” and “the only thing” are swapped. The second is that it entirely misses the deeper purpose of competition. Trying is what matters. Winning isn’t anything (or at least not anything important).

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