Introducing football ethics – an excellent textbook for neophytes


Lise Joern
University of Southern Denmark


Ove Olsen Sæle
Fotballens etikk: Idealer og realiteter
289 sidor, hft
Bergen: Fagbokforlaget 2021
ISBN 978-82-450-3687-9

Football is stacked with ethical predicaments. Allegations of corruption and misconduct have been made and pursued against clubs, associations, players, coaches and fans. Given the political, economic and cultural significance of football, an understanding of football related ethics is of paramount importance. Facing and tackling these myriads of ethical quandaries therefore necessitates a practical wisdom that the book Fotballens etikk: Idealer og realiteter [The ethics of football. Ideals and realities] by Ove Olsen Sæle seeks to cultivate. The main goal of the book is to introduce ethical reflection on football. It is aimed at those who want to take a first look at the field in order to know what the central problems and discussions are. As such, this textbook is timely.

Fotballens etikk is written for students, making a first foray into the field of sports ethics and assumes little prior knowledge of this strand of philosophy. As such it is intended to initiate the reader into a ‘philosophic awareness’ that might lead them to a fuller understanding of football ethics.

The book consists of 11 concise and tightly structured chapters. The first chapter serves as an introduction to the central questions that occupy the football ethicist. In each of the succeeding four chapters (2–5) Sæle expounds the tenets of four different approaches to ethical reasoning before applying each of these to the ethical field of sports. The next five chapters explore the field of football and the ramifications of ethical issues like match fixing, doping, racism, violence etc. Chapter 11 discusses how to promote moral skills in youth sports.

Chapter 1, ‘Generelt om etikk og idrettsetikk’ [Generally about ethics and sports ethics] outlines the case for the study of football ethics. Beginning with some foundational concepts, Sæle locates ethics within the discipline of philosophy. The implications of the key concepts for ethical action both within and outside the confines of football are identified here and re-emerge repeatedly throughout the textbook in a wide range of football related contexts.

Should individuals employ the “Golden Rule” – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – in all decisions and in their conduct when dealing with others?

The second chapter covers the ancient ethical virtues based on the Aristotelian tradition. The chapter aims to discuss football ethics in relation to Aristotelian values of righteousness, courage, moderation and especially wisdom, in order to highlight the qualities, which signify the good and wise football practice in relation to the virtues of episteme, techne and phronesis.

Chapter 3 focuses on deontology. Deontological (duty-based) ethics are concerned with what people do, not with the consequences of their actions. Under this form of ethics you can’t justify an action by showing that it produced good consequences.

In Chapter 4, Bentham’s utilitarianism is introduced, and J.S. Mill’s qualitative hedonism is explored to highlight the variation within utilitarian ethics.

Chapter 5 explores K. E. Løgstrup’s ontological ethics, understood as rooted in interdependence. Interdependence, the fact that human beings always hold power over each other, has two very different aspects, a negative and positive, each of them in turn leading to different aspects of ontological ethics. By negative and positive is meant the two opposing possibilities of all human interaction that we can either destroy the other person’s life (to a greater or smaller degree) or cause the other person’s life to flourish.

Chapter 6 briefly outlines the history of football. Chapter 7 analyses some of the ethical problems raised by contemporary elite football, such as doping, gender issues, match fixing, fan violence, etc. Given this emphasis, main arguments and points are illustrated with a plethora of examples from contemporary professional sports. This makes the book compelling also for a wider public whose interests lie outside philosophy or ethics, but who cares about sports in general and in particular the ethical problems it raises.

In chapter 8 and 9 Sæle identifies some of the abundance of moral and ethical questions faced by footballers, and the implications of these for action in the world. Sports, just as any other endeavour, place much emphasis on rules and regulations. Football ethics is concerned with what is the right thing to do in football. One aspect of football ethics addresses how individuals and teams conduct themselves when competing or preparing to compete in sporting events. In this case, the major concern is competing hard, yet doing so in the right way. In youth football, the ideal is character development, and ethical concerns centre on hard work, honour, teamwork, diligence, courage, and self-discipline. In professional football, the ideal is to win through effort and excellence rather than by cheating. This is more a personal ethical matter, but there can be strong influences from others, including coaches, teammates, friends, family, and fans. Should individuals merely do what they believe is right? Should individuals employ the “Golden Rule” – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – in all decisions and in their conduct when dealing with others? Should an ethical decision maker be concerned solely with what is legal and discard all other relevant principles, or should other factors come into play? Can an action be considered legal but be immoral? These are all tough questions that must be addressed. In these chapters Sæle discusses how ethical standards serve as the basis for football ethics. This topic is a fundamental introduction for encouraging an environment that highlights fair play, character development, and excellence.

The final chapter concludes the book by discussing how to teach morals and develop moral skills among young athletes. As with any athletic endeavour, sportsmanship and fair play require disciplined practice and consistency. But the lessons that young people learn on the playing fields – such as being fair to others and understanding the value of teamwork – can enhance their emotional growth and stay with them throughout their lives.

Perhaps the theories presented in the book are limited, but Sæle’s neophyte audience is rightly in mind, and the pedagogical value would not be vastly improved by simply multiplying these. Sæle has produced an excellent introduction to the subject that will be a hugely valuable resource for courses in sports ethics and talent development.

Copyright © Lise Joern 2022

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