The name of the game; The rules that govern sport and how we apply them

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong (Photo credit: goat karma)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve witnessed some game-changing rulings in the sports world. Just within the 2012 Olympic games we’ve witnessed athletes get disqualified from competition for their tweets, entire teams sent home for “throwing” their matches and the doping debate, once again, cast its cloud over the competition.

Paterno’s statue removed from display.

Earlier this year, we watched the legacy of a college football legend, Joe Paterno, unravel as details came to light of his failure to protect the innocent. More recently, the cycling world was upended by an end to the Lance Armstrong doping saga. The fallout from both of these sanctions were perhaps more troubling than the Olympic controversies because they involved a re-writing of previous outcomes. In addition to the $60M fine and bowl game ban, Penn State was forced to vacate all victories since 1998. When Armstrong decided not to continue to make his case against the doping allegations of the USADA, the agency stripped him of his 7 Tour de France titles and placed a lifetime ban on the athlete.

The casual sports observer may first react positively to these outcomes, superficially applying their deep sense of justice mixed in with a little schadenfreude. I can’t help but feel a little uneasy with the re-writing of history when supposed rules are allegedly broken. (In the case of Penn State, we are pretty certain that the sexual assaults were indeed committed and the coaching staff is guilty, to a certain degree, of crimes of omission. My use of the term, “allegedly” is mostly directed at the Armstrong case although, there is a certain amount of uncertainty with regard to how the Penn State organization should be held accountable. Should the players and alumni of Penn State be punished for this scandal?)

The rules of any given sport can be classified as regulative and constitutive in nature. The regulative rules can be described as the regulations within the game setting that dictate how the game shall be played, i.e. infractions. The constitutive rules define the symbolism within the game, i.e. a “strike zone” in baseball. We know none of these athletes and coaches violated the regulative nor constitutive rules of their respective sport. If we confine our judgement of these actions to the athletic sphere, rather than the legal sphere, they seem to be innocent of any “cheating”.

The Sanctity of Sport

Why is it that these actions elicit such a strong reaction from us? These apparent violations of the rules appeal to our affinity for justice. When we hear of performance enhancing substances, or the “throwing” of games, there is something very deep within us that just doesn’t set right. We are all born with our own innate sense of “fairness” (not to be confused with morality). This sense of fairness is at work to help us interact with one and other in distributing our resources amongst each other. This conceptualization is not static. We start out as highly selfish beings so as to ensure that our survival needs are met. One can hardly imagine an infant who does not immediately cry out when their toys are played with by others. We all had to be taught to share. This lesson is the social conditioning of our natural inclination towards our perceived justice (dominion over our own possessions.) As we mature and become increasingly aware of the needs of others, our idea of justice evolves to account for factors in our society that may leave some at a disadvantage.

Brown states that sports are practices of “cooperative human behavior that seek certain kinds of goods and engender the development of certain personal qualities of virtues” (p. 70). The restrictions we place on such practices are in place so as to preserve the very aspects of the practice that encourage participation. How we construct and apply these restrictions is largely dependent on the aims we seek in participating in any given practice (in this case, sport). He offers a framework he calls the “prudential athletic life” (PAL) with which to interpret and apply the rules of the game. His idea of prudence is largely based on what Parfit (p. 313) calls “The Requirement of Equal Concern: A rational person should be equally concerned about all the parts of his future.”

The Long Game

So it would seem to me that by Brown’s definition of “fair play”, the participant is not cheating as long as they are conducting themselves in a responsible manner and not being destructive to themselves or society at large now or in the future. This framework resonates with the lessons of the nuns and priests who taught me about sin. Contrary to popular belief, the Christian concept of sin is not solely rooted in dogma nor scripture. These are only mechanisms for propagation of what is and what is not destructive. That is to say that my personal definition of sin is whether or not an act or behavior is destructive at present or in the future to myself, my neighbor or my society.

Surely, there can be a case made against the use of anabolic steroids in sport based on the concept of the PAL, right? You can’t contemplate steroid use and sports without remembering NFL star, Lyle Alzado. He died of inoperable brain cancer while he and the media railed against the abuse of anabolic steroids. Anybody remotely familiar with the biological mechanism of anabolic steroids knows that this claim is more than just a little bit of a stretch. But there was a lesson to be taught and right or wrong, Alzado and the media rolled with it. It may be a societal goal to discourage the use of anabolic steroids but it is quite another thing to ban their use in sport on the basis that they cause destruction to the athlete. Steroids are drugs like any other. They require proper administration and regulation in an appropriate venue. The dose makes the poison. Why then, would it be considered cheating if a qualified professional were to administer the substance and everybody had equal access to it?

Are the actions of any of the aforementioned athletes/coaches guilty of causing destruction to themselves, their neighbor or their society? Sure, Paterno’s failure to act hurt others as well as his organization but is it right to take away every win from every player to wear a Penn State uniform since 1998? This is the question we must ask in judging their behaviors. It is a multi-factorial question that must be debated within an appropriate context and with a clear understanding of the desired outcomes of their specific sport. We expect imperfection during the play of the game. There are well established rules and penalties within the game to deal with that imperfection. When sporting tactics and strategy are applied outside the confines of the game, in order to make a clear ethical judgment, we must have a fairly certain idea of what the means and ends of the sport are truly about.

There is such ambiguity in sport that only attention to detail and nuance is of utmost importance when considering right and wrong in sport. A football player who tackles another player can either earn a red card or a pat on the back from his teammates for his actions. The difference depends on which continent he’s playing.

Clean hit? The September 23rd, 2012 meeting of Pittsburg Stealers safety, Ryan Mundy and Oakland Raiders receiver, Darrius Heyward-Bey, left the Oakland receiver lying motionless in the end zone for minutes as trainers, team doctors and paramedics loaded him on to a body board and carted him off the field. The nature of a “legal hit” is the subject of heated debate throughout the NFL for the purpose of providing a safe yet sporting environment in today’s game.

Update: Heyward-Bey was released from the hospital on Monday, September, 24th and is expected to make a full recovery. 


  1. Brown, W.M. Practices and Prudence. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport XVII (1990): 71-84.
  2. Parfit, D. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1984)


6 thoughts on “The name of the game; The rules that govern sport and how we apply them

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