Intentionally Losing: Part III—The Sake and Purpose of Sport

By on April 10, 2014 9:33 am
Institute of Sports Law and Ethics

In most walks of life, it’s easy to explain why an immoral action is immoral.  You catch someone stealing your purse and you might say, “You should not do that.  I have a right to my property, it’s against the law,” or one of many other reasons stealing is considered wrong.  The perpetrator in this case doesn’t have much of a moral leg to stand on.  But in the case of intentionally losing a game, it seems more obscure.  If you play badminton with someone who’s clearly not trying—or even trying to lose—and you say to him, “Hey, you’re supposed to try your best,” he might respond with something along the lines of, “Says who?  I never agreed to that.  I’m here to meet new people, get an easier draw in the next match,” or any other reason to play.  And aside from the very few events that explicitly have “try your best” as a rule (such as Olympic-level badminton), it’s not in the rules.  For many, it seems as though the “Says who?” sort of response has some merit and it forces us to examine why we’re all out here in the first place.  Just what is the overarching purpose of this endeavor?

Many commentators have attempted to answer this by referencing the “sake” of sport: intentionally losing a game is unethical based on concepts like the game’s “spirit” or “sake,” or the “game” itself.  It is as though intentionally losing somehow violates the entire institute of sport and that the purpose of sport should encompass sport’s “sake” or “spirit.”

In a 1998 Tiger Cup soccer match, for example, Thailand played Indonesia and both set out to lose to avoid facing the home favorite, Vietnam, in the next round.  In overtime, an Indonesian player kicked the ball into his own goal despite Thai players attempting to prevent it.  Because of this the player received a lifetime-ban from international soccer for “violating the spirit of the game.”1

Evaluating the ethics of the intentional loss requires us to consider what the purpose and so-called “spirit” of sport even is.  Without this foundation, answers to questions about sport lack any basis and ensuing discussions frame personal tastes more than they do universal truths.

We should first conceptualize what it would mean to affirm the “actual purpose” or “sake” of any institution.  Russian writer Leo Tolstoy asks in his essay What is Art?, “For whom is [art] being done?”  Paragraphs later, he answers rhetorically, “It is said that it is all done for the sake of art.”  Likewise for sport.  What does it even mean to say that we must act ethically in the sporting arena for the “sake of sport?”  Sport is not some metaphysical thing, above and beyond the people who play it.  In much the same way that the “Purpose of life” question is answerable only in the context of one’s own life, it seems that we too can evaluate the purpose and “sake” of sport on our own terms, if it even makes sense to say that there is such a thing.

We can’t avoid the obvious, surface-level answer to determining a particular sport’s purpose: to pursue the stated objective by following a pre-determined set of rules.  Though the question of interest here is a deeper one—what is the purpose of pursuing the stated objective?  We might ask two soccer players what purpose lies behind their voluntarily playing the game.  The answers would likely vary from person to person: to pursue excellence, to enjoy the outdoors, to get a scholarship, etc.  Because, in order to make any sense, the age-old question should be, “What is the purpose of your life?”  Likewise, the sake-of-sports issue seems increasingly subjective: “What is the sake of sport…in your life?”

But it is here that sport diverges.  Unlike art and “life,” a sports league is by definition shared and public.  And because sport isn’t some overarching “thing,” sport, then, just is those players.  In this way a particular game does go beyond just those who play it.  The intentional-loser bites the very hand that feeds him and devalues the institution in which he voluntarily participates for whatever purposes he chooses.

And in youth sport, an additional way out of the purported relativism arises.  Coaches and educators determine the purpose and sake of sport for the minors who participate.  And we know that a big part of the answer to the purpose of youth sport lies in making the lives of these athletes better—not just through physical fitness but also all of the life lessons and character building imparted uniquely well through sport.  Additionally, another part of the answer lies in making society better, as we’re much better off with people of character contributing to the common good.  Well-taught and well-played sport truly can and does make the world a better place.

Once you instruct a child, “Don’t be your best,” or even “Be your worst,” you’ve greatly diminished the opportunity for that individual’s character growth.  There should be no doubt that one characteristic we value in individuals is the drive to be one’s best.  And once we accept this as our foundation, evaluating actions within sport such as intentionally losing becomes much easier.  And so we can celebrate youth sport for the right reasons and realize being your best might just be the answer to the age-old purpose-of-life dilemma in the process.  Here we have yet another instance where it all comes full-circle: life informs sport which, in turn, informs life.


1 In the game video (at 2:24), Indonesia’s defenders make three passes around the Thai forwards in order to score on themselves.  The goalie clearly experiences some dissonance having his own team score against him while his actual opponents try to prevent it.

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