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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