Evaluating proposed rule-changes in sports: is there a word for this kind of enquiry?

Posted on April 5, 2010

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There is nothing I love more in sports punditry than a spirited debate over a controversial rule-change for a major team sport. There is no better way to get people to reveal what they value most in the experience of watching and following sports.

And at the moment there’s a lot of this going around: a new NFL overtime rule, strong pressure to change the structure of the NCAA Tournament, and a blue-ribbon commission in baseball “exploring ways the game may be improved.”

You take a sport people already love, and suggest a way it might be made even better. In reacting for or against the proposal you make arguments that appeal to what philosophers would call “normative principles.” You are arguing for why we should or shouldn’t, ought or ought not to change the rule, not simply about what the “empirical” consequences will result from the change (although those consequences matter). We don’t have a good name for this domain of normative enquiry. When we debate how individuals ought or ought not to behave, or what principles they should follow, we call this “ethics.” When we debate about what makes one painting superior or inferior to another, or how a piano player ought to play a certain piano concerto, we call this “aesthetics.”

Debates about rule changes in sports typically involve considerations that sound a lot like ethics and aesthetics — e.g., about clearing up something that is currently unfair or dangerous, or about facilitating the kinds of play that fans find most appealing to watch. Oftentimes cultural and historical considerations come into play, and so of course do commercial considerations. For major rule proposals there may be a mix of all of these things, but the “bottom line,” so to speak, is normative: would the proposed changes make the sport better, “more good”. Not just more profitable, or more popular with fans (both of which are empirical claims), but better (a value judgment).

And like value judgments in ethics or aesthetics, we believe that these proposals and judgments can be argued for. We can give reasons why there should not be a 96-team Tournament, or why the MLB should not permit aluminum bats. We rightly do not believe these judgments are merely a matter of taste and that nobody’s opinion is any better than any other’s. This does not mean we can always expect to achieve consensus in these debates — just as we usually can’t in ethics or aesthetics in most of the interesting cases.

As I said, I don’t believe we have a good name for this kind of reasoned normative enquiry; at least not in everyday language. I would be surprised if there were not proposals in the Philosophy of Sport literature which, despite my being a professional philosopher, I am not very familiar with. We have to be able to do better than “sportsthetics,” which sounds too much like a piece of equipment to protect sensitive body parts. I will work on it, and invite suggestions.

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