Immediately after scoring a goal, soccer players can be seen flailing wildly as if they’d accomplished the most rare feat in human history.  The Wikipedia entry on “Goal Celebration” lists 33 common celebrations, comical in and of themselves to see put into words: “Celebration Number 1: The scorer running away from teammates who wish to embrace or congratulate him,” and, “Number 21: Teammates congratulating the scorer by kneeling down and pretending to shine his shoe.”

In the culture of baseball, on the other hand, when a batter achieves the equivalent of a goal in the form of a home run, were he to merely stand for a moment to admire the ball sailing over the fence or even glance at the pitcher, a melee ensues.  Benches clear with players threatening punches.

This difference isn’t due to participants celebrating the rarity of events: recent World Cup soccer games averaged almost three goals per game while that same year’s baseball games averaged fewer than two home runs.  Something else drives this difference in behavior.  We could call it the “When in Rome” clause: certain cultures just have differing modes of living.  Each respective sport is its own culture, and participants behave in a way they likely wouldn’t in another culture.  What’s of interest here is whether these stark differences lend any credibility to the defense of moral relativism: certain actions in sport being allowed based solely on their being culturally acceptable.  In what way should a particular sport’s rules and ethos determine ethical actions?

Allowable home run conduct is governed through baseball’s various unwritten rules; while soccer’s governing body, FIFA, designates a literal rule about it: “While it is permissible for a player to demonstrate his joy when a goal has been scored, the celebration must not be excessive.”  Clearly, though, “excessive” is left up to the culture.  (And, in light of recent findings, FIFA should hardly be considered a bastion of morality at this point.)

Interestingly, though, soccer players occasionally refrain from celebrating goals as though some form of baseball’s unwritten rules do apply.  This occurs in the case of blowout games, as Germany did on behalf of Brazil in the recent World Cup Final, or in the rare instance when a goalkeeper scores, out of respect for the humiliation likely experienced by the opposing goalie.  Additionally, players who score against a team for whom they’ve recently played also act demurely following a goal, as in the recent Champions League match when Juventus striker Álvaro Morata scored a game-tying goal against his previous team, Real Madrid, and then quietly walked away.

Celebrations in the sport of football are strongly curtailed by the rules with only a small subset of celebratory actions available to touchdown scorers.  According to NFL rules, one may not celebrate in a “prolonged” or “excessive” manner and, just this year, prohibited using the football as a “prop.”  Penalties have been recently meted out for celebrations including dunking the ball over the goal post, pretending to be a minuteman shooting a rifle (at a New England Patriots game), and Brandon Jacobs placing the ball under his jersey in honor of his pregnant wife, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty and a $10,000 fine.

The NFL catalogues these sorts of infractions officially as, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” as a form of “Taunting.”  (Though it’s hard to imagine how Jacobs’ referencing his wife’s pregnancy taunted opposing players.)  This is where cultural norms cross over into the ethical arena.

While an evaluation of taunting should seem like a normative issue we can all agree on, it turns out that such evaluations are relative to the sport.  Jumping up and down following a home run is a form of taunting, but a soccer player doing this same action is not.  In our family’s front yard wiffle ball games, celebrating home runs often constitutes as much time as the actual playing of the game.  Context matters.  In the case of sports, the context just is the culture of the respective sport.

Celebrations are akin to manners, while under the banner of ethics.  For example, eating banquet chicken with your hands at a hosted dinner is bad manners.  It doesn’t seem immoral per se, but if one’s hosts are offended by your bad manners, this crosses into the ethical realm.  We ought not outwardly offend people (if we can easily avoid it) and we shouldn’t taunt them either.  This is where the “When in Rome” clause comes into play.  You need to understand a culture in order to act appropriately within it.  In Indonesia, you hand objects to others with your left hand, in Thailand you don’t wear shoes in someone’s home, and in baseball you don’t jump up and down after you hit the ball over the fence.  To do so in each of these situations would likely offend those with whom you’re engaged.

Ethics typically deals with the interests of others and determining if and when others are harmed.  It’s obvious in cases such as slavery—even though a particular culture allows and endorses slavery, we understand it harms individuals and is thus unethical.  It becomes less obvious in the culture of sport, in part because harm is more difficult to decipher.  Outside of causing undo physical harm to someone, acts such as flopping seem to many to be in a moral grey area.  “Isn’t that just part of the game—i.e. the culture?” some argue.  In the culture of golf you penalize yourself when necessary, and in the culture of soccer you deny, deny, deny any wrongdoing.

Handing a plate to someone in Indonesia with your right hand hardly seems to harm them.  Likewise, pumping your fist after a home run.  But, in these cases, the respective cultures determine this, not those of us on the outside looking in. Because, to taunt someone and outwardly humiliate someone is unethical, and that’s just what these cultural norms inform us of.  We want to avoid offending someone and we need to understand the respective culture in order to do so.  And so, we need the anthropological perspective in this case to inform our actions: how ought we to act following a success in respective sporting culture?  To ignore this, ignores the core of the sport itself.  And if you ever hit a home run off of me at my home, I’ll look forward to enjoying your home run dance…I’ll be offended if you do anything less.

Photo by Tommy Gilligan/USMA Public Affairs

Photo by Tommy Gilligan/USMA Public Affairs