Friday, 23 July 2010

Prodding Sportsmen's Consciences

I love ethics almost as much as I love sport, so events in the Tour de France this week have made an already compelling bike race all the more interesting. To summarise the facts: on Monday, race leader Andy Schleck lost his 30 second advantage over nearest competitor Alberto Contador when Contador capitalised on a broken chain to accelerate away from Schleck. Events on the road were fascinating enough, but it is the aftermath that is most notable. Contador was booed as he took to the podium to collect the leader’s yellow jersey; he was widely criticised in the media, and was shamefaced enough to offer a sheepish apology on youtube.

This is made all the more interesting in the context of Peter Singer’s criticism of Manuel Neuer during last month’s World Cup. While Neuer bore much of the blame from Singer, fans and the media were also castigated for their failure to condemn such blatant cheating. Unsurprisingly, Singer was accused of naivety – who could expect professional footballers, playing for the highest stakes in the game, to refrain from doing all they could get away with to win?

But such arguments merely perpetuate the notion that ethics has no place in sport, and in so doing reduce the incentive to act morally. Jeremy Bentham argued that humans are susceptible to four types of sanction which can motivate them to do right instead of wrong: legal (threat of punishment for contravening rules), religious (fear of divine vengeance), moral (conscience) and social (fear of criticism).

If the sporting public accept such unethical behaviour as inevitable, they relinquish the power of the social sanction. To put it another way, sportsmen will live up to our expectations of them: if we demand honest and fair conduct, they will be under more pressure to meet those standards; if we relax our demands, they will be less constrained by a need to (at least appear) ethical.

The line taken by cycling offers a clear counterpoint to the amorality of football. While Contador is likely to go on to win this year’s Tour de France, the opprobrium his actions have attracted may have tarnished his reputation forever. His 2010 victory will always have an ‘asterisk’ beside it. And the next time a cyclist is in a similar position, they will have to weigh the toll of public disgrace among the costs of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The next Neuer, by contrast, will be fairly secure in the knowledge that he will be answerable only to his conscience. I’m sure I’m not the only one not to lack complete faith in footballers’ consciences.

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