The Real Riches and Virtues in Sport

The Real Riches and Virtues in Sport

Editor’s Note:  We’re happy to present “The Real Riches and Virtues in Sport,” an article written for Sports Feel Good Stories by Jack Bowen, philosophy teacher and author.


The Real Riches and Virtues in Sport

By Jack Bowen

Sport ethicists have a great time piecing together foundations of moral theory and applying it to the myriad grey areas of actions within the surprisingly abstract arena of sport.  It’s our raison d’être.  And the conclusions often come in the form of something more like a judge’s courtroom decision: guilty, not guilty—unethical, ethically allowable.  This pursuit is a necessary one for those who desire fairness and justice in the sporting realm.  Though, left on its own, this approach falls short.


I write a weekly blog for the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics, based out of Santa Clara University.  In this blog, I do much of what I describe above.  Some of the recent issues I have grappled with—and the conclusions reached—include unethical actions such as soccer’s flopping, a team intentionally losing to garner a better outcome, and fans yelling “Airball!” when a youth basketball player misses the rim.  Others, deemed ethically allowable, include such actions as baseball catchers framing pitches and a soccer goalie telling the penalty shooter he knows where he’ll shoot.

This process often generates insightful conversation and ends up not only adjudicating the moral status of a particular action, it also informs us more about the subtleties within sport.  But this endeavor also misses out on the real riches attainable yet often overshadowed within the sporting experience.

Morally Praiseworthy Sporting Behavior

Another classification of actions exists within the moral realm deemed as morally praiseworthy.  It’s these moments in which an athlete goes above and beyond the call of (moral) duty: those actions which can result in existential gratification—goose bumps, even—for those of us lucky enough to witness them.  They can come in the form of a grand gesture or, as is more often the case, a smaller token that may even go unnoticed.  But it would be a major disservice of one who writes on ethics and virtue in sport to overlook these victories of human spirit.

In our daily lives, such interactions include simple actions like going out of one’s way to help a stranger in need cross the street.  And, on the larger scale, someone’s making an anonymous donation to a charity.  They are actions not deemed morally required—such as the moral duty to return a dropped wallet to someone standing in line with you—thus garnering our praise, morally speaking.

In the sporting arena, additional factors are at play which make morally praiseworthy actions even more so.  For better or worse—and what follows is the “better”—entrenched in the culture of the sport are various undesirable ideals which provide the opportunity for exhibiting great moral courage.

One such ideal is sport’s prominent “win at all costs” mentality.  Part of this is created by the profound importance placed on winning, as highlighted in the popular aphorism championed by football coaching great, Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  In addition to this, sport seems to promote a culture of cheating as per such commonplace sayings as, “If you’re not cheating you’re not trying,” and the morally vacuous, “It’s not cheating unless you get caught.”  Lastly, the hypercompetitive meritocracy of sport’s culture encourages the stereotype of the “tough guy.”  Male athletes especially are expected to approach the game with a sense of bravado and machismo, toting the stereotypical male line concealing emotion and, certainly, not exhibiting care towards one’s opponent.

And so, with such personalities engaged in an event with “everything” at stake and an ethos which encourages bending and breaking rules, sport is ripe for actions which transcend all of this and thus worthy of moral praise.  High stakes make for even more profound goods.

World Cup Sportsmanship

Because of the heightened interest in soccer due to the world’s fixation on the World Cup, we need look no further than this arena.  On the small level, players repeatedly help fallen competitors off the ground, even after they were the cause for their being there.  And on various occasions in this World Cup tournament, a competitor has helped an opposing player suffering from a cramp to stretch and recover.  Admittedly, these are small actions, requiring very little from the agent offering help.  So why the proffering of moral praise?

These actions involve the interests of others yet go beyond any sort of moral duty.  In no way, for example, would we morally condemn a competitor for failing to stretch an opposing player.  Instead, these actions demonstrate a recognition of the humanity of one’s competitor.  They exemplify the striving together that the roots of “competition” maintain.  And they speak to the soccer community—and the world, as is the case of the World Cup—as if to say, “I care for you.”  It overcomes the bravado, the winning-is-everything, the competitor-as-enemy, and the culture of cheating all in one fell swoop.  More than just overcomes, it transcends.

The measure of moral praise increases dramatically, then, with more at stake then just a few joules of energy and an overcoming of one’s ego.  These are the profound instances: when acting ethically causes one to forfeit something in one’s own interest.  One such event occurred in a recent German professional league soccer match.  A player was awarded a penalty kick but immediately absolved the defender of any wrongdoing, informing the referee he was not actually tripped.

In a sport known for rampant referee deception—known as “flopping,” which is against the rules—this player forwent the opportunity for an exceptionally rare shot on goal for the sake of doing the right thing.  Interestingly, in the same game, a player on the opposing team did something similar.  Earlier in the match, the ball subtly glanced off his foot and out of bounds yet the referee awarded his team a corner kick; he admitted to the infraction thus changing the referee’s call and so forgoing the scoring opportunity provided by the corner kick.

There’s an interesting caveat worth exploring regarding these two instances.  In each case, one could argue each player did the morally required—i.e. not morally praiseworthy—action: don’t take something you don’t deserve.  And, given that flopping is against the rules, that action may be even more so required.  The fact that this is not commonly practiced only forces the ethical question: does it matter?

Many are familiar with the antithesis of this genre of actions.  Infamously know as the “Hand of God,” Diego Maradona cleverly and covertly used his hand to bat a ball into the goal of the in a 1996 World Cup semifinal game, helping Argentina to a 2-1 victory over England, then going on to win the World Cup.  Argentina celebrated the tactic with Maradona commenting that it was scored “a little with the hand of God.”  Despite this—or, maybe, because of it—he was awarded the World Cup’s “Golden Ball” designating him the tournament’s top player.  Compare that to another recent German professional game in which a player scored a goal in a 1-1 The Real Riches and Virtues in Sportmatch; though, in doing so, he inadvertently—and undetected by the referee—used his hand.  Following, he signaled to the referee what had transpired and the goal was rescinded.  Morally praiseworthy, indeed.

In each of these occasions deserving of moral praise, the opponents of the respective athletes can be seen embracing, reaching out to each other, connecting.  It’s what we want from sport.  And it’s what we want from humanity.  It’s especially profound when we do realize how much is on the line, be it intangible—such as the common “winning is the only thing” ethos—or tangible—such as the professional athlete’s career driven by performance (and, thus in part, by statistics).

As is often the case, it’s the sort of reflection we want from the sporting life of our common, everyday life.  We all have opportunities to enact the simple sorts of morally praiseworthy actions akin to sport’s helping a competitor off the ground or stretching him when he’s cramping.  And we should all be prepared to encounter those rare, big moments life gives us in the same way sport provides them: because they happen quickly, and if our moral compass isn’t properly set, we may be tempted to stray towards the tangible benefits, the common ethos, or any other number of factors that distract us.  But if we allow these morally praiseworthy examples to serve as exemplars, then we’ll be ready to react in our own arena.  We can then celebrate both the goals scored and the character exhibited, and praise them both equally, goose bumps and all.


Jack Bowen writes a weekly blog for The Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University.  A philosophy teacher and water polo coach at Menlo School, he has also published three books including If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers (Random House) and The Dream Weaver: One Boys Journey Through the Landscape of Reality.  A two-time All-American water polo player at Stanford, he was also an alternate goalie of the 1996 Olympic Team. You can reach him directly for speaking engagements at or via Twitter @1jackbowen.  He’s currently writing his next book, on sports ethics.





  1. Jack,

    Great post. I especially enjoyed the contrast between Maradona’s famous (and fraudulent) goal and the examples of sportsmanship recently demonstrated in the German league.

    • Thanks, Mike. Yes, it’s interesting on both an intellectual level–i.e. What is unethical in sport and, additionally, what is morally praiseworthy & why?–as wel as an emotional level: just being aware of the feelings that arise as we view each of the situations mentioned here.

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