Ask an Ethicist: Can a basketball coach ask players to intentionally foul?

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In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: Given 'rules' are used to ensure fair play in sport. Is it ethical for a coach in basketball to tell his or her player to intentionally foul (break a rule) the other team in order to attempt to get a competitive advantage?

An Ethicist Responds: My response to your question would depend on the level of competition in which players are involved. For this article, let’s assume that your question is directed toward the kind of competition that is part of the Penn State Community: Intercollegiate Sports.

In your question, rules are intrinsically linked to fair play. There is no doubt that rules play an indispensable role and sports cannot occur without the limits set by the rules, nor without the actions prescribed by them. One cannot play basketball without using their hands to throw the ball, or play soccer without using their feet. Rules prescribe the use of certain means and skills to achieve the goal of the game. If two individuals decide to play basketball but one of them uses his feet to shoot the ball, then he is not playing the game. The rules that govern what constitutes the game must be agreed upon.

Rules that determine the skills needed to participate in sports are called constitutive rules. Constitutive rules make sports actions (goals, touchdowns, hoops…) possible. However, most rules are of a different kind. They regulate secondary aspects of the game and are less fundamental because they dictate how to play the game. The free-throw rule in basketball is not as essential to the sport as the rule that prohibits kicking the ball. The free-throw is not a constitutive element of basketball, but a way to resume the game. In basketball, play can be resumed without free-throws, for example, with a throw-in or a jump ball and the game of basketball would still be the same. In fact, many pick-up basketball matches are played without free-throws.

Rules are necessary but not sufficient to regulate the game. Rules are created, implemented and applied based on a given interpretation of the game. For example, although basketball is said to be a non-contact game, contact occurs all the time. Sports authorities and referees have to decide on when contact occurs beyond what is deemed to be reasonable. How do they decide what being beyond reasonable is? Social conventions regarding the nature of sports and ethical values are generally used as normative principles for this purpose.

In terms of intercollegiate sports, as stated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the core values to be embodied by college sports are: pursuit of athletic and academic excellence, enhancing the sense of community, ethical leadership, and respect for the others. Sports are thus viewed as a means to build students’ character and to promote excellence through the use of rule-governed contests to test their physical and moral skills. Sports, using Robert L. Simon’s terms, is "a cooperative search for human excellence." Anything that is detrimental to the search for excellence through the exercise of physical and moral skills should be prohibited from the game.

Coming back to the example of basketball, the physical skills to be tested through the contest are dribbling, shooting, passing, rebounding, jumping, and bouncing the ball. As for the moral values to be embodied by engaging in the contest, teamwork, respect for the opponent, and ethical integrity seem to be constitutive of college sports. In sum, the moral principles involved in practicing sports are related to the idea that we engage in sports to flourish as human beings and to become good citizens by acquiring excellence through the exercise of physical skills.

Fouling seems to be contrary to both the constitutive skills and the constitutive moral values in the game. From the perspective of the constitutive skills, fouling has nothing to do with the skill of using your hands to throw the ball, nor with the goal of putting the ball into the hoop. Fouling is not a proper way to face the challenges presented by the game, rather is a way around them. Players often foul because they do not have the skills required to face the challenge presented by the opponent. The need to foul comes from not being able to run faster, jump higher, or be stronger than the opponent. As for the moral values in the game, integrity and respect for the game are hindered by fouling because the player who fouls is not committed to the shared search for excellence that sports is. A player that fouls an opponent that out-skills him hinders the opponent’s opportunity to exercise his excellence to its fullest extent. When this happens, the sports competition is not a cooperative search for excellence anymore.

As a caveat, it might be argued that fouling is a strategy, and that strategic thinking is intrinsic to the game. This might be right in competitions where victory is regarded as the main goal, and the strategic use of means to achieve ends is a valuable skill. However, victory is not mentioned as the main goal of college sports. Rather, human flourishing through excellence is the goal. From this perspective, the sport contest is seen as a mutual contest of excellence. If sports are understood in this way, then opponents should not be seen as obstacles to overcome, but as facilitators, or companions, in a mutual quest for excellence. Fouling has no place in a sports contest understood in this way, as its main purpose is not to help opponents develop the skills involved in the game. Thus, strategic fouls hinder the display of excellent skills.

All things considered, here is my advice: if you are a student-athlete committed to the goals and spirit that animate college sports, you should not obey your coach. Being motivated by the will to victory or simply "caught in the moment," he may try any strategy to get a competitive advantage. Competitive advantage must only be pursued through the physical and moral excellences that are constitutive of the game. That is how virtuous communities of practitioners and citizens are formed.

If you’d like to learn more about Sports Ethics, the newly created Center for the Study of Sports in Society is holding its inaugural conference on April 6-7.

Francisco Javier López Frías is an assistant professor of kinesiology and a research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute. He researches sports ethics and human enhancement, but is also interested in political philosophy, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

Francisco Javier López Frías, Penn State assistant professor of kinesiology and a research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated May 18, 2017