Friday, January 28, 2011

Golfers like the rules. Why don’t other athletes?

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Last week, professional golfer Padraig Harrington was disqualified from the Abu Dhabi Championship after a television viewer noticed that he illegally moved the ball and emailed officials. Harrington was one stroke off the lead.

But Harrington accepted the disqualification with incredible grace. “The rules are good, we abide very well, the players love the fact that we apply them,” he said. “We love the standard that we play by. When we have to stick to that, that’s the best thing about the game.”

Often, athletes in sports such as football have the opposite attitude. Last year, former running back Marshall Faulk said, “It’s a well-documented thing that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying in sports. Some of the best things that are done in sports are illegal. You work around the rules to get things done.”

Angela Lumpkin, who wrote “Cheating and Gamesmanship among Amateur and Professional Golfers” as part of the book Golf and Philosophy: Lessons from the Links, writes, “Amateur and professional baseball, basketball and football players are often coached to act in unethical ways to gain competitive advantages, and many teammates expect each other to do whatever it takes to win. Professional golfers, unlike amateur golfers, play a game without on-course coaches and teammates who encourage cheating and gamesmanship and in which playing by the letter and spirit of the rules is revered.”

Harrington epitomizes Lumpkin’s words. The culture of golf at the top level is a culture of principled behaviors. Research by Dr. Sharon Kay Stoll and others shows that that college level golfers score much higher on tests of moral reasoning that other athletes.

A professional sports culture that honors fair play can foster the development of high moral standards at other levels of the game. Reports about Harrington’s handling of the situation should be at the top of the news. Other sports should be asking how they can build a more golf-like sense of integrity into their culture.

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