Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On the synthetic NBA basketball

There is some controversy over the NBA's switch to a synthetic basketball this season, instead of using a leather basketball as in year's past.

As many of you may not know, in my spare time I'm a vegetarian and have a general concern for animal rights and welfare. I realize that most Americans have an automatic defensive hostility to vegetarians and people who talk seriously about animal rights; that's fine. I understand that if you like your pet or were moved as children by such works as Bambi, Old Yeller, or Charlotte's Web but you also think it's OK to eat animals, you've probably got some internal issues to work out. I went through a great deal of intellectual hand-wringing over the issue before I found out chickens have individual personalities and decided I didn't want to eat them anymore.

But I'm not here to debate eating animals. Seriously, in wrestling with the issue I think I've heard every argument for and against animal consumption; hell, I think I've made most arguments for and against animal consumption. No, I'm not trying to preach. I know there are a lot of contradictions and moral inconsistencies when it comes to human use of animals (for an objective look at the issue, see Harold Herzog's "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries"). I'm writing this because I'm guessing there aren't a lot of sports bloggers who are vegetarians or concerned with animal welfare, and I thought I could provide a unique perspective.

When you use a leather basketball, you are using the flesh of a dead animal for a game. For entertainment. While you may be able to carry on a reasonable argument that animals can and should be used for things necessary or beneficial to humankind (like medical research), I can't see a reasonable argument that the dead flesh of an animal is a reasonable thing to use for games and entertainment. The only real defense is that the animals are being killed for their meat anyway, so we may as well use the leftover skin for something. I suppose that works as a pragmatic argument, but I'm not sure it's a very sound moral argument.

I really hope the synthetic ball works out and that over time the players get used to it. There's going to be an adjustment period in a change like this, but I think over several months (alas, maybe years) players will adjust to the point they don't even think about it. After all, according this article from PETA, the same decision was made for the NCAA and I haven't heard a great deal of outrage in college basketball. My guess is that high schoolers use all sorts of balls to play, and it's not that hard to adapt to the NCAA ball; meanwhile, NBA players have been playing 82 games a year for years with the same ball, and have evidently forgotten that they probably grew up playing with a variety of balls (no jokes), indoor and outdoor.

Furthermore, I'm a little disappointed with human scientific capability if we can't devise a synthetic basketball that has the same features as leather. They're obviously very close to doing so; a lab-created ball does indeed have most of the features of a ball made from animal skin. Perhaps we should be impressed that they've come this far. I hope scientists are able to go even further; if the synthetic basketball could have the very same qualities as a leather basketball, there would be no discussion, no debate, and no real reason to use real leather.

I hope that in the future when considering this "controversy," you don't just see it as a debate between two types of materials, or two different ways to make a ball. There is a moral question as well. One type of ball requires that animals be killed for it to exist (according to PETA, one cow makes four basketballs); the other type requires that no animals be killed for it to exist. That's at least worth considering, isn't it?


  1. Anonymous6:04 PM

    As a basketball fan, I can honestly say changing the basketball was dumb. And so is David Stern, the King of Pointless Rules to Get My League in the Paper.

  2. "I understand that if you like your pet or were moved as children by such works as Bambi, Old Yeller, or Charlotte's Web but you also think it's OK to eat animals, you've probably got some internal issues to work out."

    Explain to me why I probably have internal issues?

  3. I know this wasn't your desired effect, but reading this article is making me crave a burger.

    Sorry man. I'm a carnivore at heart. (Assuming I have a heart. I suppose I need to examine my internal issues to verify that.)

  4. blue viking devil, I said I wasn't trying to start an argument over that here, but I don't see how people can watch movies as kids that show animals as these emotional creatures, or that emphasize the sadness in life for these creatures when they're killed for food, but grow up and think that has nothing at all to do with animal consumption. It's like living two lives; one where you love your dog and another where you eat cows. It makes less sense to me every day.

    If parents bring their kids to see "Charlotte's Web" before Christmas, then feed their kids a big juicy Christmas ham, I no longer believe moral consistency is possible.

  5. An imposed emotion in fictional stories is suppose to cause me to have inner turmoil?

  6. If you expect me to believe "fiction" is something separate and meaningless from existence and the psyche, that no themes from fiction have moral resonance, or that emotions felt from fiction have no impact on emotional and rational attitudes toward reality, you're talking to the wrong person.

    Yes, I think there is something wildly inconsistent about enjoying a film or book that identifies with a piglet that doesn't want to be eaten, then eating ham.

  7. I would say the line gets blurry when one person "personifies" animals for a story and when people write the same way except believe that they are doing this to raise the awareness of individual personalities and emotions of animals.

    The broader audience is not able to discern if the writer/author is doing this to show that animals are beings that deserve rights or if they are just trying to tell a human moral story using animals.

    Obviously I know that fiction is related to reality and existence, essentially an interpretation and telling of existence, but I am not sure of the moral implications it imposes on me because animals are the characters.

    Can I ask what happens in reverse? By this I mean, do you have internal struggle if in reality you believe it is wrong to torture and murder someone but you totally enjoy watching a movie like "Saw" or "Hostel"?

  8. I guess my essential question is what is the relationship between morality in fiction and reality?

    If I connect with a vengeance murder in fiction (i.e. a dad avenging the murder of his son/daughter/wife) but oppose murder of all types in reality, do I have inner turmoil that I need to work out because of the moral inconsistency?

  9. When I watch horror movies, I'm not sympathizing with the murderers and torturers.
    Regardless of whether personification exists, a story like "Charlotte's Web" asks you to sympathize with a farm animal that does not want to be slaughtered and eaten. If you want to sympathize with Wilbur, but then eat meat, just know that you are essentially one of the "bad guys" from the movie. You're one of the people who wants Wilbur to be eaten. But don't watch the film and sympathize with the piglet and feel you're morally "clean" regarding it.

    But it is pointless to discuss this with you. You eat meat and you will continue to eat meat. You have no desire to change your behavior or change your moral attitudes or beliefs. If you even argue about this, you are either just arguing for the sake of argument, or merely looking for ways to justify the behavior you don't want to change.

    People make fun of me for being a flip-flopper. But say this about me: I make overt attempt to live my life by the principles I wrestle with. I'm willing to have my mind and life changed by an idea. When I'm arguing about ethics, I'm cutting to the quick and I'm willing to live by what I'm arguing about.

    Furthermore, as I've said, I didn't write this post to make an argument about animal consumption on my sports blog (I have Costanza Book Club for that). I'm guessing you know that but are just trying to bait me into it anyway (for those who don't know, "blue viking devil" is my "real life" friend who does things like that).

  10. PV, I know that you try to live you life consistently by what you believe and you are right my attitude is not going to change (right now at least). I am not trying to bait you, but rather seriously am wondering what the connection is between fiction-reality in terms of morality.

    I understand you distinction between a Horror film and your Charlotte's Web example, but I still wonder about the moral implications of taking some kind of joy in watching a horror film and its moral effects in reality. If you dont want to discuss it here, well then I can wait until I am in the frozen tundra of Minnesota over Christmas. Maybe over a beer with Kiah.

  11. Oh, and I dont consider you a flip-flopper, I know that you have had moral arguments and grappled with it all as you have come to this conclusion.

    I respect your stance more than I respect people who are vegan/vegetarian and yet somehow claim "fish" dont count and they go ahead and eat them.

  12. As a pacifist, I've grappled with this too. I've determined that there is a difference between fantasy violence and actual violence. Morality from fiction can bleed into or change morality in reality, but I have a conscious recognition of the difference. Furthermore, as Martin Barker says of those who claim fantasy violence makes people violent: "Their claim is that the materials they judge to be harmful can only influence us by trying to mkae us be the same as them. So horrible things will make us horrible--not horrified. Terrifying things will make us terrifying--not terrified. To see something aggressive makes us feel aggressive--not aggressed against. This idea is so odd, it is hard to know where to begin challenging it."
    Usually watching violence in movies further convinces me that violence in real life is bad.

  13. Anonymous3:54 PM

    Stick to the Vikings.