Sports and Competition in Higher Education: A Search for Values and Ethics

By Sciarabba, Davide | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Sports and Competition in Higher Education: A Search for Values and Ethics


Sciarabba, Davide, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

The goal of this paper is to analyze the main ethical issues raised by sports and competition in higher education and to deduce some basic principles for transmitting values through the practice of sports and competition. This paper is primarily intended for educators dealing with recreational and sportive activities in colleges and universities. (2)

This paper was written from the humanistic perspective of holistic anthropology, (3) and is therefore committed to a comprehensive understanding of the physical, mental, spiritual, and social human manifestations. Grounded in this first presupposition, this study assumes that the practice of sport and competition is compatible with all aspects of the human nature. (4) A second assumption in this paper, shared with most of the cultures and religions, is that a balanced education includes the development of a respectful view of oneself, other human beings, and nature, and belief in a supreme or divine authority. (5) We share with Peter Arnold the conviction that moral values in sport are universal, and that everyone belonging to the sports community and agreeing to the rights and obligations of sports "is expected to commit and live out the values, including moral ones, that are intrinsic to the practice." (6) Adopting a different perspective than Arnold, I assume that these values are universal, and not culturally determined.

The ethics of many sports is a controversial issue (7) that depends on the place given to competition in one's philosophy of education. In their analysis of extremely opposite views on competition, Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell observe that there is "confusion about the balance of playfulness and seriousness in sport." On one extreme, some educators view competition as inherently bad because it produces losers and winners, which seems ethically wrong. For the defenders of this view, "only non-competitive play is acceptable," and the goal of every sport should be just to have fun. On the other extreme, some perceive competition as a war in which victory is the only thing that counts. "The opponent is the enemy and the goal is to destroy the enemy." (8)

Arnold observes that these two extreme ideologies of competition, both positive (9) and negative, and even if they appear intrinsically immoral, deserve our attention: (10)

"The positivist view is one that holds that competition is a precondition of personal development and social progress and that it provides a framework from which benefits and burdens can be distributed fairly and freely. Such a framework, it is argued, is necessary if such qualities as initiatives, resources, and independence are to be fostered and preserved. The negativist view, on the other hand, maintains that a competitive situation threatens cooperative ventures and helps undermine worthwhile personal and social relationships and forms a vicious distinction between winners and losers. Competition, it is said, is often the source of envy, despair, selfishness, pride, and callousness." (11)

This ethical discussion is a permanent fixture in higher education, and especially in religious institutions. Some consider that competition in sports is a serious problem because it often turns to rivalry, selfishness, violence, cheating, intemperance, and arrogance, and because the love for pleasure distracts many young people from other responsibilities. (12) In the most conservative universities, competition has been perceived as riding roughshod over the great ethical principles common to all cultures. For example, some evangelicals affirm that college sports have become cancer to spiritual life, and that the principles of competition encouraged by sports have eroded Christian culture. For example, "Professional football is a heady mixture of toughness, violence, and piety-vicious collisions coupled with post-touchdown genuflections, trash talk mixed with heaven-directed index fingers, anger and aggression interrupted by prayers. …

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