Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Put him in a body bag!

By Robert H.

Charlie points out that I didn't address reputational issues in my last post.  It was a big oversight, so I'll do that here:

First, it is clearly true that violating norms in sports can be unethical.  If there is a norm rather than a rule against punching, you still shouldn't punch.  But that doesn't actually tell us anything about whether intentionally injuring a player is unethical -- the punch is unethical regardless of your intent.  We are in the same place as my last post, only now I am saying "it's ethical to try to injure other players within the rules *and norms*."

So, Imagine a league has a norm against trying to injure other players with legal hits.  Point one: this is a bad norm!   Sports aren't a court room with a lot of time to dig into motives, they're fast affairs full of thousands of decisions and actions.  Norms should stick to policing obvious actions.  Stuff like "don't hit a boxer who wants to touch gloves at the start of a fight."  To the extent intent is looked at, it should be intent clearly discernible from the action.   An intentional late hit looks different from a guy who simply can't avoid the runner after the whistle is blown.  But when you go beyond "was that action intentional" and get to "what was the intent of that action," that is some hazy stuff.  Did Roy Williams horse collar that guy because it is an effective tackle and he wanted to take him down?  Or because it is a dangerous tackle  and he wanted to hurt him?  Maybe courtrooms could get to the bottom of that, but I'm not sure refs, players, and spectators can.  Again, better to police people intentionally going for the knees to injure players with a rule (or norm) against intentionally going for the knees than a rule (or norm) against intentionally injuring players.  It's just too hard to discern motive.

That said, a way out is to use reputation.  Maybe over the course of his career someone who tries to injure other players will injure more guys, people will notice, he will get a bad reputation and other players will retaliate.  My thoughts about this:

1. This rarely happens.  When I think of players with bad reputations it's normally because they routinely engaged in acts that clearly violated the rules and norms -- they cheat.  If a guy twists ankles in the pile a lot the ref may not notice, but the players do.

It's more rare for a guy to get a reputation simply because bad things seem to happen around him more than usual (ie, he has injured more people over his career).  The only thing I can think of is pitchers: if you "accidentally" beam a lot if batters, pretty soon people will decide it isn't an accident.

2. The norm is clearly a good *strategic* reason not to try to injure.   That said

3.  When the norm is enforced with cheating, it's clearly not ethically binding.  "Don't try to hurt other players because if you do people will cheat against you in retaliation"?  That's a ridiculous norm and using the threat of cheating to constrain your opponents play is as bad as cheating itself.  At best, cheating can be a strategic decision -- we will give up the penalty yardage and cheat in order to get the outcome we want.  But while it might be good strategy, I have trouble seeing it as an ethically binding norm on the other guys.  "If we try to eat up the clock they will foul us, so we have an ethical norm to not eat up the clock" is crazy thinking.

4. At last the hardest question, what to say when the norm is enforced with threats of licit retaliation.  Imagine the norm is enforced with a sort of mutually assured destruction: if you try to legally injure players people will notice the greater number of injuries and try to injure you right back.  Has that created an ethically binding norm?  This puts tension on some of my claims (it seems more workable than other options, it removes any "I have to do it because I don't want the other guy to get an advantage" rational, and it multiplies the harm of intentionally injuring, since it will push the whole sport in a more violent direction).  I am going to tentatively say that I don't think so.  Remember point two of my last post: the outcome of blowing up the norm is that it will lead to injuries society neither abhors nor thinks people should not be able to consent to.  This isn't really mutually assured destruction, where breaking the norm means nuclear annihilation.  It's a sport, and breaking the agreement means some marginally greater number of injuries everyone has already consented to risk.  They knew these types of injuries happen and they knew a breakdown in this unofficial norm could happen when they took the field, marginally increasing the incidence of this type of injury.

To me, the consent issue clinches it.  It could be strategically very dumb to start legally injuring a greater number of players than usual, but I don't think it is unethical.  If it's within the rules, if everyone has consented to that possibility, then whether to do it or not is as much a strategic question as whether to tackle high or low.

And again, in practiced I think this norm enforced this way  is rare.  People don't dislike Meriweather because he has violated a norm against intentionally injuring people, they dislike him because he repeatedly employs dangerous, illegal hits.  Bad reputations are normally about repeated cheating, not dark motives revealed by statistically aberrant outcomes over years of play.

Well that was rambley.


  1. If someone accidentally destroys a glass table at a friend's New Year's party, should they be treated the same as if they had intentionally destroyed the glass table?

    A) Yes, always
    B) Yes, if they intended to do the behavior that lead to the destruction of the table
    C) Yes, if they were negligent
    D) No
    E) Robert's Answer

  2. Again, I think the consent is what matters most here. If a guy says "go nuts, man. Feel free to just trash my coffee table" then it doesn't really matter if the subsequent trashing is intentional or not.

  3. What if he consents to your putting your feet on the coffee table, but not destroying it? The analogy being the WR consents to you hitting him very hard, but not to doing it with intent injure.


  4. I think there you run up to the limits of implied consent. I can rationalize a moral requirement to abide by an explicit agreement that says "you can hit me, but only if you are pure of heart." But when consent isn't explicit, it's only implied by the nature of the game, I think it's ridiculous to claim your consent has complex mens rea exceptions.

    More specifically, when the rules don't forbid hitting with the intent to injure then it is obviously not the case that your implied consent had a mens rea stipulation: what you are consenting to is and should be first and foremost defined by the rules. To the extent the rules do explicitly forbid hitting with the intent to injure, my critique shifts (and I haven't been clear enough about this). There I think you probably do have a moral duty to abide by the rule, I just think the rule is stupid in that it is hard to enforce and, more importantly, a second best solution to actually forbidding dangerous actions. "Don't put your feet on the coffee table" is a better rule than "don't put your feet on the coffee table with intent to harm the coffee table." In the actual coffee table incident, for example, I've always thought I *was* morally culpable, at least because I was negligent and possibly because there should simply be a strict liability rule that you don't put your feet on other people's furniture.

    1. Yes, but I would have judged you much harsher if I thought you had intentionally tried to break the table or punch a hole in the wall. If I thought that you weren't just a clumsy guy with a pure heart, I would have judged you quite harshly. Aren't you arguing on a moral grounds that my response is wrong?

    2. No, I am fine with saying "intentionally creating a bad is more immoral than doing it negligently." What I am arguing is 1. That sports injuries created by legal hits are not a bad. Normally hitting people is bad, but in sports it is ok because athletes consent to being hit as part of having a fun athletic contest. Being hit isn't pleasant, but the rules make it part of the game, and the game would lose enjoyment value without it.

      The same goes for sports injuries. The consent, combined with injuring opponents being a legal move with strategic repercussions for the contest, transforms something that is normally bad -- injuries -- into something that, while not exactly good, is not to be avoided any more than the normally bad act of hitting is.

      Now to the extent a player wants to disadvantage his play by hitting less or not hitting to injure, that is arguably praiseworthy, just like it might be praiseworthy to throw the game and give your opponent the joy of victory. But hitting, hitting to injure, and playing to win are all, in my mind, acceptable. Again, consent and being a necessary part of the contest (as defined by the rules) make them so.

      2. All that said, illegal hits are normally bad, since they are normally not consented to and since they aren't a legal move that is thought of as a necessary part of the contest (the norms of a sport can create exceptions where a type of foul is so universal that you can say it is a core part of the game players consent to by stepping onto the field, like hockey fights or mild fouls to send players to the free throw line). If "fouls with the intent to injure" are made illegal by a rule or a VERY strong norm, I have to accept that players should follow through on that. But there I think the rule is dumb, not because all prohibitions that look at motive are bad but because, in this specific case, 1. motive is near impossible to prove, so 2. Specific bans on specific actions (maybe with a general intent type mens rea requirement) should be preferred.