The Sum Less Than the Parts

Shawn E. Klein
Arizona State University

Arthur L. Caplan & Brendan Parent (ed.)
The Ethics of Sport: Essential Readings
530 pages, paperback.
Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017
ISBN 978-0-19-021099-1

Most of the papers collected in The Ethics of Sport are interesting and informative. They provide insight into many different aspects of the study of sport and of sport itself, and they do so from different disciplinary perspectives.

Nevertheless, this collection as a whole is a disappointment.

First, most of the chapters fail to engage in systematic ethical analysis. For example, “Concussions and Football: Failures to Respond by the NFL and the Medical Profession” is a helpful primer on the development of the medical understanding of concussions, but it does not focus on analyzing the normative issues. It does not ask or address questions like: what is the level (if any) of acceptable paternalism in sports with significant concussion risk? Or, what should leagues be responsible for and why? Or, what should team medical professionals be responsible for and why? Similarly, “Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sports: A Review of the Literature” and “Science at the Olympics: Four Selections” provide the scientific and technological background on their topics without examining the relevant ethical questions. David Wiggins gives a fascinating history of black athletes in American sports; but does not engage the ethical issues that arise in race relations in sport.

These are but a few examples, but too many of the chapters are descriptive, sociological, or journalistic in nature and do not analyze normative questions as one would expect from a volume called The Ethics of Sport. Later in the review, I will look at the handful of papers that are focused on ethical analysis.

Second, The Ethics of Sport is too ambitious in its scope and intent. It tries to cover many different broad and controversial issues, to provide the ‘essential’ readings for those issues, and to be multi-disciplinary in its approach. These are worthwhile goals, but can sometimes be at cross-purposes. The broad scope of both the topics and the disciplines makes it difficult for the editors to provide the essential readings. Each one of the issues (whether race, gender, collegiate sports, performance-enhancing, concussions, etc.) could sustain its own anthology, but here only gets two or three chapters at best. It is unlikely that one is going to be able to cover the essential readings from multiple disciplines on the ethical issues of gender in sport, for example, with only two chapters.

Moreover, each one of the disciplines here, from philosophy and sociology to law and history, have different methods, approaches, and goals. The challenge of meshing these different methodological approaches under one heading is daunting. Don’t get me wrong, scholars from different disciplines need to talk to each other more. There is much to learn from each other and crossing disciplinary boundaries will improve our mutual understandings of sport. But as anyone who has attempted to work across disciplines will readily admit, it is difficult. We often talk past each other or bog down in internecine battles. To avoid this, working across multiple disciplines requires, at a minimum, that the methodical differences are exposed and discussed.

It pulls articles from journals across many disciplines but has no discussion of the different methodological approaches.

This collection, unfortunately, does not do this. It pulls articles from journals across many disciplines but has no discussion of the different methodological approaches. The very short introductions for each part of the anthology do not do enough to connect the subsequent chapters, set the context for the methodological differences of the different papers, or provide an overarching vision of why these papers were selected for inclusion. Why these papers? What makes them essential? Moreover, there is no general introduction or conclusion to explain the purpose of the volume or its organizing principles. This leaves the volume feeling somewhat scattershot and without context.

Notwithstanding the above criticisms, several papers in this collection do analyze and engage ethical questions in sport in a systematic way. In what follows, I briefly look at these six chapters.

Chapter 6: “Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes”

This chapter is a good model for what I would have hoped from much of the rest of the book. The authors set the background and history of IOC and IAAF sex testing. They lay out the current policies in a clear and concise way, then ask important ethical questions:  Does “endogenous testosterone actually confer athletic advantage in a predictable way” and if so, is such an advantage unfair (120)? This chapter examines the impact of these new policies on our understandings of sex and gender in sport. And, it grapples with the challenge of balancing the creation of a fair playing field with the need for greater opportunity for all individuals to compete in sport.

Chapter 9: “The ‘Second Place’ Problem: Assistive Technology in Sports and (Re) Constructing Normal”

In another chapter that contends with the issue of a fair playing field balanced against greater sport opportunities, Denise Baker examines the case of assistive technology used by some disabled athletes. Baker’s contribution is to analyze the concept of “‘normal’ human performance” (198). Seeing this assumption as underlying many of the arguments about fairness and sport purity often used to restrict the use of assistive technology, Baker attacks the assumption as problematic. Using the human body as the basis for normal advantage is, Baker argues, too restrictive and biased against non-typical bodies. She argues for the “creation of an international, interdisciplinary organization” that would “define, quantify, and regulate the mechanical actions that constitute the defining components of a sport” (210). This shift in understanding of what is required in sport would serve as a new basis for determining fair and unfair advantages in the use of assistive technology.

Chapter 21: “Humans, Horses, and Hybrids: On Rights, Welfare, and Masculinity in Equestrian Sports”

As part of this critique, he presents his case that sport is too deeply tied to a “masculine ideology” and that animals are victims of modern sports culture.

Kutte Jönsson seeks to defend equestrian sports in his contribution to the book. He does so in a surprising way, basing his defense on “a radical egalitarian point of view” (402). This view argues against gender distinctions as well as interspecies distinctions between humans and non-humans. The author first criticizes traditional conceptions of sport and the role of animals in sport as currently constituted. As part of this critique, he presents his case that sport is too deeply tied to a “masculine ideology” (402) and that animals are victims of modern sports culture. Jönsson then shifts to “the hybrid argument” intended to break down the distinctions we make between species (413). This provides the theoretical basis for his defense of equestrian sports. While I find the arguments unpersuasive, the chapter is commendable for raising important moral questions about the nature of sport and our relationship to non-human animals in sport.

Chapter 22: “Is Hunting a ‘Sport’?”

This chapter is a thorough analysis of the question of whether hunting ought to count as a sport. John Alan Cohan focuses primarily on the conceptual issue of what is sport and if hunting as amusement (as opposed to hunting as sustenance) falls under the concept of sport. As such, Cohan doesn’t delve into the complexities of animals rights and welfare or the morality of eating meat or using animal products. Instead, using twelve criteria that characterize sport, Cohan argues that hunting fails to be a sport because it doesn’t satisfy these criteria. I would have liked to see Cohan ground more of these principles in the philosophical literature on the conceptual boundaries of sport. This might have allowed him to make his case more concisely and to avoid some of the categories that are non-essential. For example, criteria seven is “Sports are divided into professional and amateur categories” (439).  Cohan argues, wrongly it seems to me, that there is no amateur/professional divide in hunting (439), but even if he is correct, this hardly seems essential to defining sport or hunting. We can quite easily imagine a given sport without any professional levels or governing organizations (or professional hunting or even Olympic hunting). At the same time, Bernard Suits discusses the importance of established institutions for sport and Cohan would have profited from appealing to this in his discussion.[1] This greater engagement with the philosophy of sport literature would have made this contribution better.

Chapter 26: “The Ethics of Technologically Constructed Hypoxic Environment in Sport”

Using the case of “technologically constructed hypoxic environments (TCHE)” (500), the authors develop a framework for analyzing the ethics of performance-enhancing technologies more generally. TCHE refers to various technologies, like high-altitude training, that use the deprivation of oxygen to increase athlete endurance and performance. Although they discuss other relevant factors, the focus of the analysis is the criterion of the spirit of sport: whether allowing a technology to be used undermines the meaning, essence, or purpose of sport. The authors emphasize the centrality of “athlete autonomy and responsibility for performance” for interpreting the spirt of the sport (507). On this “thick” view, to the extent that a technology reduces autonomy or diminishes responsibility for the athlete’s performance, the case for the banning of the technology gets stronger. Ultimately, they find that the effects of TCHE are not significant enough to make a case for banning (508). However, using this analysis, they propose criteria for analyzing performance-enhancing technologies in general.

This chapter delivers on what I would have expected from the book: a thoughtful analysis of ethical questions in sport by applying principles from ethics, philosophy, and other relevant fields.

Chapter 27: “Gene Transfer for Pain: A Tool to Cope with the Intractable or an Unethical Endurance-Enhancing Technology”

They are careful to bring these various factors into the analysis and acknowledge the limits of their conclusions.

The last chapter in the book is the most interesting to me. It takes up a novel twist on standard doping arguments. First, it is looking at a relatively new technique, gene transfer, and so is novel in that sense. Second, this technique exists in “the grey zone between therapy and enhancement” (512). The gene transfer technique in question helps to reduce pain, with clear therapeutic uses in sport and beyond. But it also can help enhance performance by reducing one of the blocks to an athlete’s training and performance. As such, the analysis requires care and subtlety. It has many moving parts: the medical professionals and researchers, the governing institutions evaluating the technologies and enforcing rules, the athletes’ autonomy and performance, the role of pain and the consequences of its reduction, questions about paternalism, and the meaning of sport. The authors meet these challenges well: they are neither overly dismissive of gene transfer nor too easy with permissiveness. They are careful to bring these various factors into the analysis and acknowledge the limits of their conclusions.

Similar to the previous chapter, Sylvia Camporesi and Mike McNamee deliver on the promise of this anthology. They clearly and concisely explain the science behind the technique and how it might be applied in the sport context. Then they examine the normative justification and permissibility of gene transfer technologies, as well as the implications of their arguments for performance-enhancing technologies in general. These last two chapters are exactly what the rest of the book should have been.


While many of the individual papers in this volume are quite good, the overall book is disappointing in terms of its organizing principle and focus. I don’t know who the audience of this book is. I would have assumed it would be for someone like me: one who teaches and writes about sports ethics. But, given the concerns raised above, it would not be useful as a text for an undergraduate Sports Ethics course and it is too varied and without sufficient context to be that valuable for research.

Copyright © Shawn E. Klein 2017

[1] Bernard Suits, “The Elements of Sport,” in Ethics in Sport 2nd ed., ed. William J. Morgan, (Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2007).

Table of Content

I. What is Sport?

(1) What is sport?
Roland Barthes
(2) Normative Theories of Sport: A Critical Review
Sigmund Loland

II. Categories and Discrimination

(3) Uneven bars: Age rules, antitrust, and amateurism in women’s gymnastics
Ryan M. Rodenberg and Andrea N. Eagleman
(4) Going pro in sports: Providing guidance to student-athletes in a complicated legal and regulatory environment
Glenn M. Wong, Warren Zola, and Chris Deubert,
(5) Women in Sport – Gender Relations and Future Perspectives
Gertrud Pfister
(6) Out of bounds? A critique of the new policies on hyperandrogenism in elite female athletes.
Katrina Karkazis, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Georgiann Davis, and Silvia Camporese
(7) Race relations theories: Implications for sport management
Earl E. Smith and Angela Hattery
(8) Black Athletes in White Men’s Games’: Race, Sport and American National Pastimes
David K. Wiggins
(9) The “Second Place” Problem: Assistive Technology in Sports and (Re) Constructing Normal
Denise A. Baker
(10) More Similar Than Different: The Psychological Environment of Paralympic Sport
Kristen D. Dieffenbach and Traci A. Statler

III. Athletes as Role Models

(11) Professional Athletes and their Duty to be Role Models
Sandra Lynch, Adair Daryl, and Paul Jonson
(12) An Exploratory Study of Professional Black Male Athletes’ Individual Social Responsibility (ISR)
Kwame Agyemang and John N. Singer

IV. Power and Corruption

(13) Universities Gone Wild: Big Money, Big Sports, and Scandalous Abuse at Penn State
Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux
(14) Investigating corruption in corporate sport: The IOC and FIFA
Andrew Jennings
(15) ¿Plata o plomo? Why do Footballers Fix Matches?
Declan Hill

V. Risk: Choice and Coercion

(16) The Organization and Regulation of Full Contact Martial Arts: A Case Study of Flanders
Jikkemien Vertonghen, Marc Theeboom, Els Dom, Veerle de Bosscher, and Reinhard Haudenhuyse
(17) Concussion and football: Failures to respond by the NFL and the Medical Profession
David Orentlicher and William S. David
(18) Player safety in youth sports: Sportsmanship and respect as an injury-prevention strategy
Douglas E. Abrams
(19) Health and Sports Law collide: do professional athletes have an unfettered choice to accept risk of harm?
Ken J. Berger

VI. Medicine and Sports

(20) Ethical Issues in Sports Medicine: A Review and Justification for Ethical Decision Making and Reasoning
Bruce H. Greenfield and Charles Robert

VII. What about Animals?

(21) Humans, Horses, and Hybrids: On Rights, Welfare, and Masculinity in Equestrian Sports
Kutte Jönson
(22) Is Hunting a Sport?
John Alan Cohan

VIII. Enhancement and Improvement

(23) Sports Enhancement
Thomas H. Murray
(24) Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sports: A Review of the Literature.
Amit Momaya, Marc Fawal, and Reed Estes
(25) Science at the Olympics (Ice Vests, New Materials, Does Doping Work, and Neuroscience)
(26) Ethics of technologically constructed hypoxic environments in sport
Sigmund Loland and Arthur Caplan
(27) Gene Transfer for Pain: A tool to cope with the intractable, or an unethical endurance enhancing technology?
Silvia Camporesi, and Mike McNamee
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