Ethics in sport. Fidelity to colors

Yves de Saá Guerra, Ph.D.


You have probably heard a story about a “star” of a sport, who has been playing on the same team for a lifetime and who felt the colors more than anyone else; but who suddenly, leaves or is kicked out of the team. And even, sometimes, signs with the maximum rival. But this not only happens with the players, but also with the coaches.

Perhaps, the next thing you’ve heard on the news is people pissed off, insulting and ranting against everyone. Frustrated because they experience how a good player or coach, with whom everyone was happy and represented the team’s values, suddenly vanishes. It may have happened to you and you wonder why this happens. Why are sports values being lost?

It’s a very good question. We should consider it more often.

It is clear that when a player or coach signs a contract, they must defend the colors of that team at all costs and until the end.

Without knowing well what end we mean: When the competition ends; When your contract end or when managers think that the best option is to sell it?

We call a player, who leaves the team, a traitor. But if a worker resigns for a better position in another company, we do not criticize him because it is logical. In sport we do. Why? When they trade a player or coach who wants to defend the colors more than anyone else, the most common is to point out to their level of performance. If it is low, it is normal to be fired. But when its performance is high and still it is transferred. Is that what we are transmitting to the new generations?

We encourage public order forces to defend the homeland above all. To go against the enemies of the country. But if we tell them that they do not belong to this country anymore, that we kick them out and that what they have done in the past does not count? How do they feel?

It is very possible that you are now facing the moral dilemma of knowing if it is inevitable to achieve sports goals at any price. Is this not against sports values themselves?

In order to try to solve this it is necessary to attempt to understand how these phenomena work. During the last years, we have witnessed how the times in which teams have a permanent reference among their roster decrease. Athletes who thought they would never leave the team, finally leave. Many of them through the back door.

In Spanish football there are many examples of after won everything, team dispenses with their services: Xavi, Casillas, Puyol, Vicente del Bosque, etc. In basketball, the squeakiest example is Pepu Hernández, the first world champion with the Spanish men’s basketball team, who did not renew his contract. Maybe being a world champion is not enough.

As a curiosity, in the NBA Stephen Curry became last year (2018) in the unique player chosen in the 2009 Draft that remains on the same team.

And why is this happening?

Fidelity is something we are passionate about. Both in sport and in life we promote the feeling of belonging to a collective. We promote an identity that makes us feel safe and that leads to an activity shared with teammates and rivals. In addition, sport values boost the spirit of sacrifice for the chase of a purpose and excellence in sports performance.

From a moral point of view, people make value judgments in relation to themselves and others. In this way, we identify what is right and what is wrong. That is, what should be done and what not, in relation to a given context. Unlike morality, ethics promotes a reflection on what is correct and what is not. Based on ethical principles, the individual makes decisions and guides his actions based on moral motivations.

Morality is, according to the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the philosopher Imanuel Kant, the action submitted to reason.

Or as the English philosopher Francis Bacon said: The perfection of one’s behavior is to maintain each one’s dignity, without harming the freedom of others.

Therefore, if we are so clear that it is wrong to ruin a team and the affected person, why are teams destroyed? Why does the love to colors not be taken into account?

Let’s have a look to the following examples: an organism can persist as a result of the death of its cells; or an organization is perpetuated by the removal of its members. Variation and change are inevitable and undeniable stages through which every complex system must travel to grow and develop. When this transformation is achieved without the intervention of factors external to the system, we talk about a process of self-organization, as indicated by Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine (Nicolis and Prigogine, 1977).

Self-organization is a deep and very interesting concept. It is the key to many natural phenomena. Self-organization allows the system to recover balance, modify its structure and adapt to the surrounding environment; through the generation of behavior patterns based on local interactions of its constituent elements and relationships with the environment itself. (I already told you it was a deep concept).

Regarding the sports field, science points out that in professional sports there is a high volatility in the rosters. In the Spanish ACB professional basketball league, only a handful of players remain on the same team for more than five seasons in a row (Arjonilla López, 2011). We see that, indeed, in sports such as European football, baseball, American football or hockey, the permanence of coaches on the same team is due to a Power Law (Aidt y col., 2006); A behavior that many other natural phenomena exhibit (Schroeder, 1992; Malacarne & Mendes, 2000; Greenhough, Birch, Chapman, & Rowlands, 2001; Newman, 2005; Mendes, Malacarne, & Anteneodo, 2007; Bittner, Nußbaumer, Janke, & Weigel, 2009; Heuer, Mueller, & Rubner, 2010) such as earthquakes (Mega et al., 2003), flooding (Malamud & Turcotte, 2006), landslides (Li, Ma, Zhu, & Li, 2011) or forest fires (Song, Wang, Satoh, & Fan, 2006).

Sin título

Figure1: The distribution of tenure length for English football managers, 1874-2005. Fuente: Aidt y col.; Physica A, 2006.

That the permanence of the coaches is distributed in the form of a Power Law means that there are more coaches with lower permanence in teams and less coaches who remain in the same team during their sports career.

The importance that this kind of phenomena display a distribution in the form of a Power Law lies in it is scale-free. That is, it can take place at any level regardless of age category, budget or performance level. And, above all, it shows the presence of underlying mechanisms such as complex networks, nonlinear dynamics, phase transitions or phenomena of self-organization critically, which we have briefly described previously (West, Brown, & Enquist, 1997; Bak, 1999; Barabási & Albert, 1999; Malacarne & Mendes, 2000; McGarry, Anderson, Wallace, Hughes, & Franks, 2002; Newman, 2005; Bourbousson, Sève, & McGarry, 2010).

Professional sport is a highly competitive environment where, a priori, the results are what determine the continuity criteria of coaches, players and managers. The performance of a coach tends to be evaluated by the result of the team which he is in charge. Aidt and his collaborators (2006) point out that when coaches reach a certain threshold of performance or “reputation”, if the results do not reach that level, the natural process is that they will be replaced. Or on the contrary, if they achieve higher levels, other clubs will contract their services.

Sport is a phenomenon that brings together a large population at all levels. Not only at the level of those who practice it, but at the level of amateurs, executives, investors, companies, external professionals, etc. This fact results in that sports industry is among the ten industries that generate more money in the world. The degree of professionalization has increased considerably in recent years, and proof of this are the budgets that are managed, and the length of the permanence of the members in teams.

Authors point out that a priori, there are reasons why a social organization such as a sports club/team should evolve into a critical state. A state where any small variation will trigger a substantial change. Social organizations gradually evolve in response to internal and external economic, legal and social pressures. Decisions within a social organization result from complex interactions between many factors.

In addition, to prolong the existence of this and other systems over time it is necessary to select parameters that turn it in a critical state, as we have mentioned. In addition, they present a mechanism that prolongs this state. Normally, such mechanisms are associated with three requirements:

  • An energy input, for example, particles; or in our case, coaches or players.
  • A mechanism for maintaining the state, such as a range that serves as a threshold to replace coaches or players.
  • Finally, a dissipation mechanism. That is, the replacement of players or coaches through dismissal, promotion or retirement.

As we can see, sports reality is not static. Professional teams modify their operation. This causes athletes and coaches are traded as values that can be bought and sold regardless of performance or love for a team. There are several studies that suggest that there are teams that “produce” players, and others that “buy” these players or coaches.

Unfortunately, these professional sport dynamics are increasingly extrapolated to sports in early stages, where people are literally trafficked. Players are sold and bought regardless of the improvement of the player himself. The only thing that matters is the benefit that is obtained by selling a “rough diamond”.

It may make sense that the economic is being imposed on the ethical, because ethical is artificial and the Power Laws are the natural.

Or maybe not?

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