Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sweep the Leg, Johnny

By Robert H.

Today Brandon Meriweather furthered  his scheme to become American football's first hockey thug, vowing to tackle more players low in an attempt to injure their ACLs.  This means it's time for me to endorse one of my least popular opinions: it is moral for players in contact sports to intentionally injure each other, provided they don't break the rules (ie, targeting a runner's knee instead of his thigh in the hopes of badly hurting him is moral).  Here's why (throughout I assume it's legal to tackle someone by the knees, but if I missed a rule change and it is not then I don't think that undermines the basic logic):

1. Hitting people in contact sports is legal because athletes impliedly consent to a certain level of violence when they play the sport.  You can argue about what kind of illegal hits players have consented to, but it seems pretty clear that they have consented to anything legal.  You can't be shocked and outraged when the other guys play by the rules.

While the above deals with the law, I think this legal reasoning has moral weight: if someone consents to be hit then A. you aren't just using them as a means, you are engaging in a fair contest, and B. The consensual relationship is very likely utility maximizing.

2. These aren't the kinds of harms we want to forbid even if people consent.  You can fairly say "no one can consent to be murdered," but "no one can consent to a hit that tears a ligament or breaks a bone?"  Those hits happen all the time in contact sports, even when players aren't trying to injure each other.    If I can't consent to someone hitting my knee because ACL tears are so bad, *hitting knees* is unethical, not intentional injuries.  You should get just as mad as players who do it without the intent to injure and should promptly make the tackle illegal (see 4).

3.  It is not mere sadism: injuring a player takes them out of the game and weakens their team.  It isn't just viscousness for the sake of viscousness, it's an attempt to win the athletic contest within the rules of the contest.

4. "Don't intentionally injure" is a norm that breeds bad rules.  Again, if intentionally targeting kneecaps is terrible I want that to be illegal.  I don't want to rely on some impossible to enforce catch-all rule that says it is illegal to intentionally hit kneecaps with the intent to injure.

5. It doesn't change my calculus that injuries can cost pros millions.  The greater possibility of financial loss is counterbalanced by the greater possibility of financial gain for players  and teams who help win games by causing injuries.  Meanwhile, pros are guaranteed good medical care, which to me makes the injured *less* sympathetic.

6. The risks are semi-reciprocal.  If the other team legally can and possibly is trying to injure you (and it often isn't clear if they are or aren't), a decent regard for self defense and for the fairness of the contest demands that you be able to do the same.

7. To the extent it is sadistic, I am not sure that is wrong or unnatural.  I think most contact sports athletes enjoy hitting and hurting people in the context of an athletic event, despite the possibility of seriously injuring them.  If you change "despite" to "because of," I don't get why you are suddenly a moral monster.  Both positions are sadistic, it's a matter of degrees.


A. I am pretty sympathetic to the view that American football and many combat sports are unethically violent full stop, for reasons hinted at in point 2.  Again, if violence in sports causes too many injuries it makes more sense to forbid the violence than to permit the violence but forbid the intent to cause injuries.

B.  I acknowledge that it might be *more* ethical to refrain from intentionally causing injuries.

C. I acknowledge that, ethics aside, intentionally causing injuries might make people squeamish and be something they don't want to do.  I, for example, never had a problem trying to knock people out and possibly concuss them, but aiming for the planted knee of a helpless runner always struck me as something I wanted no part of.  Other people will fall other places on this spectrum.  My point isn't that intentionally injuring other players should sit right with you, it's that you shouldn't judge other people for doing it.  Eating spiders doesn't sit right with me, but it's ethical.

Edit: More here.


  1. It seems almost all of your arguments also apply to just going around and being an a-hole all the time in any way that isn't illegal. Perhaps, the only difference is in the consent. I don't think that it should be illegal to be an a-hole all the time, but it isn't right. In many environments this is enforced by being an a-hole back to the offender (buffaloing Buffalo buffalo).

    I think that is basically the enforcement in football. If you get a reputation for being a player that tries to cause injury, expect to have a target on your back. Others exist in a different equilibrium enforced by norms. Mike Munger had an econtalk about this in (http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2013/07/munger_on_sport.html). I certainly think you can judge people being an a-hole, and considering that being an a-hole can disrupt the equilibrium and have negative externalities on your teammates (put a target on their backs), there are some incentives to enforce good equilibriums.

  2. I am totally willing to carry this argument into the real world and apply it to assholes. The insight there would be that *your intent to harm* isn't what makes assholey acts assholey. If it is wrong for white folks to drop n bombs then it is wrong to drop n bombs regardless of whether you are trying to hurt anyone's feelings. Just like intending to strike a knee should be legal or illegal, regardless of what kind of harm you are hoping for, acts should be courteous or discourteous based on the harm they do, not the actor's feelings about the harm.

    To put it in legal terms, most moral rules should be general intent (you intended to do the harmful act) rather than specific intent (you intended the harmful result). I could maybe buy enhancing the punishment for guys specifically trying to hurt people, but I don't get drawing the "licit vs illicit" line there. Whether Roy Williams was horse collaring because it was an effective way to tackle or because it hurt people, it doesn't change the fact that 1. It probably should have been against the rules, 2. I think it was moral to do it before it was against the rules.

    And I remember that podcast and have a lot of issues with its treatment of custom and customary law (issue one: it doesn't distinguish between the two), but that's probably a different blog post. Suffice it to say that I don't think vigilantism is a good way to police contact sports.