Sunday, August 16, 2009

On the Amorality of Games

A response to George Dohrmann regarding Michael Vick, after reading this and this column.

A “game” is a fairly amoral activity. A game operates according to its own internal rules, and it may even have its own internal values. However, “ethics” as they exist in the world outside the game have no bearing on the game itself.

My wife almost always beats me at Bananagrams; she’s very good at it. Now let’s imagine my wife’s favorite hobby is to walk down the street kicking strangers in the shins. It’s an immoral and illegal activity, but she does it anyway. In this hypothetical world where my wife is a monster, let’s say she still beats me at Bananagrams. Does her shin-kicking hobby have any relevance during the game? Of course not. Her only goal is to win the game. When she beats me, should I shout “Ah, you may have beat me at this game, but it’s tainted, because you go around kicking strangers in the shins!” I could, but that would be silly: I just got beat at a game with its own internal rules that have nothing at all to do with shin-kicking. She may be a bad person because of her predilection for shin-kicking, but that in no way would taint her dominance at Bananagrams. Perhaps my wife’s imaginary shin-kicking behavior would make me decide I don’t want to play this game with her anymore. I suppose I could allow external ethics into my decision-making about whom I’m willing to play a game with. But if she’s an outstanding Bananagrams player, then within the arbitrary rules of the game itself, she's going to win.

And I think the same thing about the Eagles signing Michael Vick. The Philadelphia Eagles football team has as its primary goal winning as many football games as it can, including the Super Bowl (this is slightly different from the primary goal of the Philadelphia Eagles organization, which has as its primary goal making money). To achieve that goal, the Eagles should do whatever they can to win games. One major part of winning games is to acquire the best players you possibly can. External ethics have little or nothing to do with winning football games.

Frankly, I’d be upset if my favorite team said “We think signing Player X would help us in our goal of winning the Super Bowl, but we’re not going to sign Player X because his off-the-field behavior over two years ago is just too appalling. He doesn’t deserve the opportunity to play football.” A football team’s job isn’t to be a moral arbiter; a football team’s job is to win football games. I don't cheer for a sports team for it to reinforce my values. I cheer for a sports team to see it win games, and if it isn't doing everything it can within the internal rules of the game and league to win games, I should be angry. It is not that as a “celebrity” Vick is being given “preferential treatment;” it is that as an athlete with special talents, Vick has an ability that a team wants to use, regardless of his off-the-field behavior of two years ago.

(Though I can admit there is a limit; I can imagine behaviors that, if players on a team engaged in them, I would find it impossible to root for that team. Perhaps as a vegetarian animal rights advocate, I'm just a little too cynical on this issue: because in our society countless animals are killed for all sorts of human pleasure and entertainment, I'm less appalled by this particular abuse of animals than some are. Perhaps my argument that players' morality shouldn't matter to a team or its fans is flawed; perhaps I'm really continuing to question whether the degree of outrage over Vick's dog fighting activities is disproportionate in a society where killing animals for the pleasure of eating them is taken for granted as morally acceptable. But that's just the sort of neurotic, self-doubting metawriter I am, willing to insert a paragraph long parenthetical that undermines the thrust of my argument with an entirely different line of thought. C'est la blog).

Let’s spin it around. If a team has an obligation not to sign a player because of his bad external ethics, does it have an obligation to sign a player because of his good external ethics? Let’s look at a player by the name of Jim-Bob Suckass. Jim-Bob Suckass is practically a saint. He gets up early in the morning to work at a soup kitchen. He leaves the soup kitchen and on his way to his job working for a non-profit environmental protection organization, he stops to donate blood. He donates 10% of his annual salary to cancer research, and uses his two weeks of vacation a year to visit developing nations for missionary work. But as a football player, Jim-Bob Suckass, well, sucks ass. He is terrible at every possible position; the team would actually be better off playing 10 against 11 than having Jim-Bob on the field. He’s no good at all. As the Eagles attempt to build their best roster possible to win football games, how much consideration should they give to Jim-Bob’s sterling behavior and pristine ethical existence? I would say absolutely zero.

Now, if you want to say that ethics external to a game are far more important than winning the game itself, I would agree with you. Of course how people behave toward their fellow creatures is far, far more important than whether they can succeed at an amoral game with its own internal rules. But a football team is neither a philosopher or, frankly, a moral agent. A football team is one competitor within a game, playing according to its defined rules, using its physical and mental abilities to beat an opponent.

I do not take cruelty to animals lightly. In fact, I am a vegetarian and a member of PETA; I even have a cruelty-free bug catcher because I wish to avoid killing even insects. I would say that my ethical values of pacifism and vegetarianism play a strong daily role in my life and behavior (perhaps Mr. Dohrmann is a fellow animal rights activist? He writes that he owns dogs, but all that tells me is that he has an emotional attachment to dogs in particular, not that he believes it is wrong for human beings to kill animals for our own pleasure). But when I watch a football game, I’m not overly concerned about whether the players on the field share my ethical values. It doesn’t even matter terribly to me whether the players on the field are good people or not. I’m watching a spectacle to see great athletes compete hard in a game. I’m rooting for my favorite team to outperform an opponent on the field to win the game.

The desire for a human being’s redemption may be secondary, but it does not mean it is insincere. Certainly the Eagles care more about whether Michael Vick can help them on the football field than whether he redeems himself (as I’ve suggested throughout this post, they should). But that doesn’t mean the chance of redemption isn’t real, or that any desire to see Vick make his life positive is phony (alas, perhaps my religious and literary sensibilities draw me too strongly to the hope of an individual’s redemptive transformation. I’d recommend Dostoevsky and Hugo on the subject). While the Eagles signed Vick to win football games, I don’t suspect them of being insincere in hoping for the best for Vick personally. But Dohrmann, who writes of Vick “I wish him all the best in life”? After everything else in Dohrmann’s columns, that certainly sounds insincere to me.


  1. Good commentary.

  2. Bismuth1:09 PM

    I like the point about the goals of the team vs the goals of the organization. In this case, it's clear that the Eagles organization thinks that signing Vick will bring in more money in the form of more wins than it will lose through any sort of protest. Now, it is conceivable (although improbable) that there could be someone whose prior actions are so bad that a significant portion of a team's fans would stay at home out of protest, resulting in an overall net loss of money from the signing.

    You also might consider the implications of future loss of value if, say, a player were to repeat a heinous crime after having been given a second chance. The value of the franchise would drop if it becomes known as "the team that helped Michael Vick kill more dogs", although I admit that even this scenario is probably not going to overshadow the histories and legacies of most NFL teams.

  3. Anonymous5:51 PM

    The only reason I'd be hesitant to sign Vick for the the type of (small) money he is guaranteed is due to the fact that there is evidence thta he may be in fact crazier than the typical NFL player, and thus more prone to future illegal activities which would cause me new PR problems. Look, lots of people are in businesses in which animals are integral to profit, and thus kill animals when it is deemed profitable to do so, and sometimes the killing is done in pretty painful (to the animals) ways. Damned few people, however, go out of their way to kill the animals in ways that maximize the pain the suffering, purely for the purpose of inflicting pain and suffering.

    That Vick fella ain't right in the head, and that may cause some problems in the future, but I suppose for 1.5 million it's likely worth the risk.

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