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SportS’ unwritten rules

March 17, 2012
By Jim Tate - SMSU , Marshall Independent

Brett Gaul had always wondered about some of the unwritten rules of sports.

And as a philosopher, those questions gnawed at him.

Gaul, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southwest Minnesota State University, will present a paper at the upcoming conference, "A Mirror to Our Culture: Sport and Society in America," which will be held in Green Bay, Wis., May 22-24.

The title of his paper is "That's Not How You Play the Game! Three Well-Known (and One Not So Well-Known) Unwritten Ethical Rules of Sport."

"Three of the rules are familiar, one not so familiar," he explained.

The unwritten rules include not bunting to break up a no-hitter; not playing too aggressively in an exhibition or a blowout game; not taking advantage of your opponent's bad luck, bathroom breaks, or injuries; and not crossing the pitcher's mound.

"The issue of unwritten ethical rules of sport first caught my attention in 2007 when I was finishing up my graduate work at the University of Iowa," he said. "I saw a news story about an NFL preseason game. Usually, no one cares about these games, but in this one, Denver Broncos safety John Lynch thought that the Dallas Cowboys broke the code of ethics for the preseason. At the time, Wade Phillips was the Dallas coach and he had coached previously in Denver, and in the game Dallas blitzed a lot."

In his paper, Gaul argues that these unwritten rules center around respect. When the rules are violated, people are being disrespectful of others. "At the core is respect for other persons," he said.

Of course, a batter can bunt anytime he wants. But in a no-hit game, it's frowned upon.

"It's considered unethical," said Gaul.

But of course, there are exceptions. Take, for example, a 1-0 game. In that instance, the team behind might want to bunt to get a baserunner on, in an effort to push him around the bases and tie the game.

As far as not crossing the pitcher's mound, that little-known unwritten rule gained attention in April 2010 when Yankee Alex Rodriguez, on first base and running with the pitch, crossed over the pitcher's mound on his way back to first base following a foul ball, drawing the ire of Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden. That situation, Gaul said, goes back to respect. And knowledge of baseball etiquette. Afterward, Rodriguez claimed ignorance about that baseball unwritten rule.

To illustrate the rule against taking advantage of your opponent's bad luck, Gaul points to a 2010 Tour de France incident in which Alberto Contador attacked after race leader Andy Schleck's chain come off.

"People criticized him for that decision," said Gaul. "This is a month-long race, and in the 15th stage it's disrespectful to do that to the leader. If it's the last stage of the race, though, then there's no one to blame."

It's also not in good form, added Gaul, to overtake the Tour de France leader when he stops for a bathroom break during the race.

There's an interesting unwritten rule in soccer about injuries, Gaul continued.

"There's a practice that if I'm playing your team, and someone on your team is injured and the referees don't stop play, my team- if we have possession of the ball - will kick the ball out of bounds so your player can receive medical attention. Then, when your team throws in the ball, it's thrown to someone on my team as a favor for stopping play for the injured player. I didn't know about that rule, but a friend told me about it," said Gaul.

Gaul has been in love with sports all his life, as either a participant or a fan. The Iona native is excited to present at the conference as it features talks by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and ESPN Executive Chairman George Bodenheim.

The paper has been "about five years in the making" admitted Gaul. He added that, generally speaking, these unwritten ethical rules of sport hold true until the end of the contest, when it comes down to winning, or losing.

"I argue in the paper they aren't absolute moral rules. At the end of the contest, if it's in doubt, then I don't think it's inappropriate to break those rules. After all, the point of the game is to win," he said.



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