From the sidelines

Katherine DeClerq | Fulcrum Staff

EVERY THURSDAY NIGHT I grab a coffee and head to my 7–10 p.m. international ethics class. In the midst of our discussions on human rights violations, cosmopolitanism, and global environmentalism, our professor takes the time to talk with each of us about our interests. He noticed my name in the Fulcrum, so our conversations generally centre on that.

One day, this professor said to me, “You know, sports is just ethics.” My immediate thought was, “Yeah, OK, everything is just ethics to you. You’re an ethics professor,” but after he explained it further it began to make a lot of sense.

Let’s take the NHL Penguins vs. Islanders hockey game on Nov. 20 with Sidney Crosby’s return to the ice after his concussion. If you listened to the commentary, both during and after the game, everyone was talking about whether the team won because the opposition was afraid of hitting someone who had just recovered from an injury. A radio commentator said he didn’t think the team was slamming him as hard as usual, while someone else was saying the team hit them just as hard—but should the team have held back?

One can argue if you agree to play a sport such as hockey, then you also agree to the potential consequences and injuries. With that in mind, there shouldn’t be an ethical issue surrounding the treatment of Crosby on the ice.

Of course, the entire idea of violence within sports is highly contested ethically, and can’t be resolved by a single statement such as that.

Just last week I read an article on the Canadian University Press news wire about whether there is a place for fighting in Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey. The article argues that for many fans, fighting is just part of the game. In fact, certain leagues have team members whose only job is to protect teammates and start a fight if necessary.

Now that doesn’t sound very ethical.

The question we should ask is: When do we sacrifice ethics for simple sport conduct?  Is violence so integrated into sport culture that without it games can’t be interesting?

For example, the commentary during the Grey Cup this Sunday used phrases such as, “This team is trying very hard to get the receiver out of the game.” While the goal of a sports game will always be to win, it involves strategic thinking that may result in unethical play—let’s work to make the other team foul so that we can get a free throw. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (I’ve seen it work on numerous occasions), but maybe it’s an issue that should be given a second thought.

The ethical dilemmas in sports don’t stop there. When a referee makes a questionable call, the commentary reflects it. Was he in the line? Is the referee biased? Have his calls been fair? What are the pros and cons of instant replay?

I have no answers to these questions. If you are a student in that international ethics class, you know we can speak about an issue for three hours straight and not come to any conclusion.

The purpose of ethical questions—and ethical sport commentary, for that matter—is to make you think. It gives athletics a little bit of depth. As my professor said, sports aren’t just about running, scoring, winning, or losing, but rather about how you play the game.