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Philosophically Speaking

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We've been having an interesting discussion in the diaries about games, sports, ethics, civility, violence, and control.  Well...we haven't put it exactly in those words but really those are the issues swirling around.

I don't want to have more discussion here about the Odom/Roy foul or its interpretation, which provided the catalyst for the discussion.  However I think it would be interesting to examine some of this in a broader context.

Games and sports intentionally suspend some, but not all, of the common rules of civility and society.  This is part of why we watch them.  Imagine a sport that didn't:

:::The clock starts:::

I say, how are you, old chap?

Well, thank you!  And you?

Announcer:  Ooooh...look at that handshake they've started out with.

Color Commentator:  That's a reverse Henderson Grip if I'm not mistaken.

Enjoying the weather?

Yes!  It's quite fine!  Would you like to sit down for some tea?

Indeed!  After you!

No please, I insist.

Announcer:  Well Bob, it's the classic standoff.

Color Commentator:  I know it's early, but this could go a long way toward determining the outcome of tonight's contest!

The ratings, I'm sure, would be spectacular.

I won't go as far as Locke and say we voluntarily give up rights when we enter into a contest (though some of the legal questions surrounding hits in the NHL could raise that issue) but it's certain that we give other people permission to conduct themselves in ways that would be shocking in the context of normal society, and indeed we act that way ourselves.  If, while at my house for dinner, you picked up the butter dish only to have me smack it out of your hand--sending it flying through the air and spattering against the wall--while I wagged my finger and screamed, "Not in MY house!" you might rightfully be offended...especially if the other guests started cheering.  Take that to the basketball court and you turn around and nod "Nice play" when the same thing happens.

If you think about it, some of the things we do symbolically in games can be pretty gruesome.  The goal of Monopoly is for me to take all of my friends' money and property and leave them homeless.  The Game of Life encourages rampant materialism to the point of having children just so you can weasel gifts out of everybody else.  "His name is Filbert!  Now where's my 500 bucks?"  In sports, of course, the symbolic turns physical, but left unfiltered it's no less disturbing.  It's no accident that the verbs we use to describe the means of success are things like control, dominate, hit, defeat, slaughter, demolish, ram, jam, humiliate, and the like.  Take some of those out into your normal relationships and your life is going to turn out pretty yucky.  But sports and games--at least as popularly defined in our culture--don't work without them.  If you land on Boardwalk and I forgive your debt because I feel bad for you the game never ends.  If Martell Webster rammed the ball home with authority and then tossed it to the opponent, saying, "Fair is fair...you get to dunk on us now!" he'd never play in the league again.  In fact "giving permission" for people to act uncivilized to you in a sporting/gaming venue is probably too weak.  You want them to act uncivilized in certain ways because it makes a better contest.  Even on those occasions (such as professional sports) where winning trumps having a good contest you still end up respecting the opponents who gave you the worst time.

This explains somewhat why I, myself, can hold diverse urges, motives, and goals without having a split personality.  In conversation on the blog I insist on a certain level of charity and fairness.  When talking to other blogs about their team I employ the kindest, most encouraging construct I can find, since I remember what it's like to love a team that engenders few opportunities for hope or celebration.  When writing game previews, with the occasional semi-humorous exception, I try to respect the opponent and explain what the sides will need to do in order to be successful.  When the ball goes up in the air, however, that's all out the window.  I don't want us to respect or be kind to them anymore.  I want to win.  And I want our team to do whatever is necessary within the accepted limits of the sport to achieve that victory, even if that same behavior would seem uncivil and uncharitable before and after the game.  Furthermore I expect the opponent to do the same.

This begs the question at the heart of the issue, however:  what are the limits beyond which the incivility, unfairness, risk, or lost integrity become so great that the game itself gets ruined?  Obviously some things go too far.  The brawl in Detroit, complete with flying drinks, free-swinging players, and thrown chairs is the classic example.  I tend to think in most cases thrown punches even between guys in uniform also crosses the line (except for some reason in hockey).  On the other hand we often value our teams employing the "no free layups" rule, especially in the playoffs.  Technically it's illegal to knock someone out of the sky from behind.  But the game has built-in penalties for such and sometimes the cost of the penalty is deemed less than the cost of following the rules.  Correctly identifying those times is praised as a strength, not condemned as a subversion of the game.

I said I didn't want to revisit the Odom/Roy Foul issue but I will dabble just far enough into it to show that this question is really the crux of the argument.  For most, I believe, just hauling off and hitting Odom with a roundhouse would be too far beyond the limits of sport and civility.  But as far as a hard, retaliatory foul on Kobe in similar fashion?  For some that is also too far...the game has remedies for such a situation and those should be enough.  Others say that's within bounds...perhaps the bounds defined by Odom and the L*kers themselves.

Moving back to the overarching theme, defining this line between the edge of civility and "too far" is not an idle exercise.  For one thing a young team like ours needs to understand not only how far they can go, but how far they have to go in order to achieve their goals...even in this sense of controlling a game through perhaps-uncivil, slightly unruly means.  Leaving the line undrawn also threatens to ruin the enjoyment of the game.  I like to watch poker.  I enjoy the gamesmanship in poker.  I can't stand to watch a guy who continually spouts whiny, self-absorbed, illogical, uncomfortable bull-stuff.  I fully understand this is a tactic to put opponents off balance.  I also understand that it makes the game near-unwatchable after a while.  In extreme cases, an ill-defined line can even be dangerous.  The most scary thing about the Detroit-Indiana brawl to me was not what happened to a couple fools who threw things at players and charged the court.  It was that the whole arena could have easily been 30 seconds from an outright riot.  It's not unheard of for people to get killed when the mob instinct takes over.  It seems to happen every couple years in other countries.  Sports lose not only their luster, but their purpose when those things happen.

So that's the question of the day:  For you, as a fan watching the game for passion and enjoyment, how far is far enough and how far is just too far?  If you were advising the Blazers on these matters, what would you encourage them to do, what things would be permissable under certain circumstances, and what things would be on your "never go there" list?

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)