Fair Play

The  purpose  of  fair  play  is  to  ensure  that  every competitor has an equal chance of being successful in any given competition. Fair play is supported by a  philosophic  belief  that  every  player,  team,  official,  and  fan  respects  and  honors  (1)  the  rules  of the game (constitutive, regulatory, and sportsmanship),  (2)  those  who  play  the  game  (opponents), and  (3)  those  who  call  the  game  (officials).  This notion of fair play also transcends the actual playing to include all off-field preparation for the game as well as postgame activities for how opponents are treated.

The  principle  of  fair  play  is  ingrained  in  the Western  tradition—fleshed  out  on  the  playing fields of English preparatory schools from the late 1700s  through  the  1800s.  In  Victorian  England specifically,  it  was  argued  that  young  men  could learn  the  important  virtues  of  honesty,  fair  play, justice,  propriety,  and  decency  through  the  playing  of  games.  Children  of  the  upper  classes  who attended the elite private schools were taught that sport, played through the virtues of fair play, was a means unto itself. The goal was not about winning but about taking part and being a member of a  team.  One  learned  self-control,  discipline,  and virtue,  such  as  being  honest,  being  fair,  and  acting properly and decently on the field of play and off the field of play. More importantly, the stated goal  was  not  about  victory  but  about  the  honorable  journey  of  playing  and  working  together. This was a worthy cause where boys learned to be gentlemen  by  following  rules  and  being  respectful  to  opponents.  This  notion  of  fair  play  was seen as imperative to the education of gentlemen. Most of the aristocrats from the ages of 13 to 18 attended the elite boarding schools including Eton or  Harrow.  Students  who  attended  these  schools believed  deeply  in  the  importance  of  learning  to play fairly, and they noted it as such in their writings.  For  example,  the  end  of  Napoleon’s  reign occurred  following  the  Battle  of  Waterloo  when the  combined  armies  of  Europe  under  the  command  of  the  Duke  of  Wellington  defeated  him. Wellington—a  graduate  of  Eton—is  often  quoted as having said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. His implication was that the officers at the battle, most of whom had attended  Eton,  worked  together,  followed  rules, and  had  a  strong  sense  of  fair  play  and  decency, which helped England win the battle.

This   concept   of   learning   to   be   gentlemen through  sport  was  transported  to  the  British colonies  that  became  the  United  States—and  the philosophy  was  instituted  in  the  elite  schools  of the  time,  including  Harvard  and  Yale.  This  institutional  belief  in  the  importance  of  developing men,  and  later  women,  of  character  blossomed throughout the United States and became part of a  mystical  belief  that  sport  builds  character—the actual  virtues  of  being  honest,  trustworthy,  and fair.  This  notion  continues  today  in  the  five  U.S. military  service  academies.  The  philosophy  guiding  the  programs  stems  from  General  Douglas MacArthur,  superintendent  of  the  U.S.  Military Academy  in  1920,  who  believed  that  every  cadet should play and compete in athletics at their highest level. McArthur said, “On the fields of friendly strife  are  sown  the  seeds  that  on  other  days  and other  fields  will  bear  the  fruits  of  victory.”  This same  belief  in  discipline  and  athletics  sits  as  the ideal philosophy that sports builds character, and hence a heightened sense of being honest, fair, and respectful,  which  serves  as  evidence  to  include sports  and  athletics  as  both  curricular  and  extracurricular activities in U.S. education.

The same fair play philosophy was incorporated by Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, into the overarching purpose of  the  Olympic  Games.  Coubertin,  classically educated,  was  highly  influenced  by  Englishman Thomas  Arnold  (headmaster  of  Rugby  School) that  sport  was  necessary  for  the  balanced  education of a person. A balanced education was about developing people of character who knew how to play  a  game  well  and  fairly.  Coubertin  spent  his life lecturing, writing, and championing the character  components  of  sport.  Hence,  the  Olympic movement  worldwide  is  based  in  the  philosophy of fair play.

The mythical ideal, however, is not always the reality.  The  institutional  and  social  practices  of today support a distorted form of competition—an objectification of the opponents, the game, and the rules in which the one true product valued is the win. One would be hard-pressed to find a fair play standard as noted earlier in most competitive athletic programs in the United States or for that matter in the world today. Instead, sports and athletics are  played  through  a  different  ethos  of  competition  called  gamesmanship—getting  an  advantage using whatever dubious ploys and tactics without getting caught in order to win. Today, it is not the journey that is important, generally, it is the result. “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” is a motto today, and often is found pinned to a locker room bulletin board.

In  the  last  year  alone,  sad  unethical  practices have  occurred  at  all  levels  of  athletic  competition, including youth sport (parents fighting with parents  at  youth  sport  events),  collegiate  sport (famous  coaches  being  fired  or  censured  for  not reporting  unethical  behavior  of  their  players  or criminal  behavior  of  their  own  coaches),  professional  sport  (players  placing  a  bounty  on  injuring  a  player),  and  Olympic  sport  (athletes  being expelled  from  the  games  for  using  illegal  performance  substances  or  cheating  in  relation  to  the rules).  Few  media  stories  of  true  fair  play  exist, and  when  a  story  is  highlighted  that  focuses  on fair  play,  it  becomes  viral  through  social  media because it is so unusual. For example, two softball players carried an injured opposing player around the bases so she could touch the bases and score a run. The opposing player had hit a home run but was  injured  on  rounding  first  base.  She  crawled back  to  first  base  and  asked  for  a  time  out.  She could not continue, and the rule supposedly stated that she must touch all of the bases. None of her team  could  aid  her  to  run  the  bases  or  take  her place.  As  such,  the  player  would  be  awarded  a one-base hit, and not the home run that she actually  earned.  Two  of  her  opponents  at  this  point performed  an  exceedingly  unselfish  act.  They asked if it was legal if they carried her around the bases so she could touch the bases, and thus score the run. It was legal to do so, and so they did. The team of the players who carried the athlete lost the game that day by two runs. They might have won it had they not carried the injured player around the bases.

As  noted,  fair  play  does  exist,  but  it  can  be difficult  to  find  it  in  the  social  fabric  as  defined by  the  Victorian  age.  Perhaps  a  better  question is:  Can  fair  play  exist  and  flourish  in  the  highly competitive,   gamesmanship   world   of   today? Many observers believe it can, if those individuals who administer and coach athletic programs truly believe in the moral value of fair play. If they do, then  missions  should  be  written  to  support  fair play  and  ethical  programs  and  educational  programs  should  exist  for  administrators,  coaches, athletes,  and,  in  youth  sport,  parents  to  support the philosophy of fair play.

In  fact,  such  programs  do  exist,  but  they  are costly in both resources and time. The World AntiDoping Agency and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency are presently supporting research to develop fair play intervention  programs.  Educational  programs  to recapture the notion of fair play are not a simple process  of  making  rules  and  expecting  people  to follow  them.  Such  programs  demand  reading, writing, and reflection to inspire cognitive change about  how  we  teach,  coach,  and  administer  athletic and sport programs. Unless those who are in charge of athletic and sport programs are willing to  make  the  effort,  unethical  practices  are  likely to  continue  while  fair  play  continues  to  suffer. The  problems  described  here  are  not  unique  to the  United  States.  Fair  play  as  a  social  construct may  be  expected  in  sport  and  competition  but  is often violated. At the 2012 Olympic Games, two badminton  teams  from  China  were  disqualified because  they  violated  the  Olympic  Oath.  They conspired to play poorly in early rounds of competition  in  order  to  lose.  If  they  lost,  they  would be placed in a less competitive bracket and would then  have  a  greater  chance  of  making  the  finals. Officials  realized  what  they  were  doing,  and  disqualified the teams from further competition.

Notwithstanding,  the  belief  that  sports  build character can be found today at all levels of sport, even in the absence of scientific research to support that notion. There may well be reason to suppose that the philosophy of fair play could again become the overarching purpose of sport and athletics—if those  who  teach,  coach,  and  administer  athletics are willing to make it happen.


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