Typically, within the culture of a sport, there are some acts that are against the rules of the game that are not viewed as dishonourable, while other acts that are against the rules are viewed as dishonourable. For example, in hockey, fighting is against the rules, but is not viewed as a dishonourable form of activity. Rather, according to most, it is part of the game. Contrastingly, kicking is viewed as an extremely dishonourable activity; in hockey the player who kicks is a pariah, while the person who fights is merely tough. This can also be seen in soccer with the recent events with Luis Suarez. A dirty slide tackle, or a pull of the jersey is not viewed as dishonourable, even though it is against the rules of the game, whereas biting is viewed as a very dishonourable act. What this shows is that in sport the distinction between acting honourably and dishonourably does not line up with the rules of a particular game; one can act honourably while breaking the rules of a sport.
The language of honour may sound antiquated as it may bring to mind an image of the Roman citizen, or the medieval aristocrat, but the term captures something important about ethical action. For example, to act honourably is to act appropriately, or to act in an elevated or dignified manner. Whereas to act dishonorably is to act shamefully; it is not just that dishonorable acts are wrong per se, but rather that engaging in them sullies one’s character and consequently one ought to regret them and be ashamed of them. To put this slightly differently, part of the nature of honour, is that one can legitimately have pride in acting honorably, and if one acts dishonorably one ought to be ashamed of acting in such a way.
The fact that in sports certain kind of rule breaking acts are viewed as dishonorable, while other types are not raises an interesting question. That is, does our sense that certain rule breaking acts within a game, like kicking in hockey, are dishonorable, while other rule breaking acts are not dishonourable signify that the purported dishonourable action is in fact dishonourable? Or is our sense just based on a norm that has developed in the sport that does not signify anything about the nature of the action itself? In this entry I will give an answer to these two questions. To put my answer briefly it seems that what makes an act dishonourable within the context of a sport is that it is not in accords with the norms of the game, and thus engaging in it violates the spirit of fairness.
It is quite clear that acts that are viewed as dishonorable within a sport, are not necessarily dishonorable without qualification. In the context of hockey kicking may be dishonorable, but if I get in an altercation with someone on the street there seems to be nothing dishonourable about kicking them. Thus, it seems that we cannot understand what makes an act that is deemed to be dishonourable within a sport, dishonorable, by examining the action outside of the context of that sport, as there are many actions that would be deemed to be dishonourable in a particular sport, but are not viewed as dishonorable in other contexts.
One possible way of making sense of what makes acts that are deemed to be dishonourable within a particular sport dishonourable is to look at how these acts fit into the sport. If an act is viewed as dishonourable in a sport typically very few players will perform that action. Consequently, it seems that acts that are deemed to be dishonourable within a sport are acts that others who play the game do not expect an opponent or teammate to engage in, both because they are deemed to be dishonourable and because players rarely engage in them. Thus, it seems fair to say that such acts are not in line with the norms of the sport. So, what might make an act that is deemed to be dishonourable in a sport dishonourable is that such an act violates the spirit of fairness that is central to all sports, as acts that are deemed to be dishonorable are not in line with the norms of the game so by engaging them one is saying that one does not have to conform to the norms of the game. This violates the spirit of fairness as part of what fairness means is that norms ought to apply equally to all, and when you violate the norms of the game you are saying that the norms of the game do not apply to you. In such a case one has acted dishonourably because the spirit of fair play is central to all sports and thus there is something particularly shameful about violating something central to all sports while engaging in a sport. Of course certain kinds of acts that are deemed to be dishonourable may be inherently cruel, and dangerous, such as a sucker punch, but generally what makes acts that are deemed to be dishonourable in a sport dishonourable is that they violate the spirit of fairness that is central to the game.
It might be said that if what makes acts that are deemed to be dishonourable, dishonourable is that they violate the spirit of fairness, how are these acts different from acts that break the rules, like fighting in hockey, that are not deemed to be dishonourable? If a violation of the spirit of fairness is at issue then shouldn’t all acts that break the rules be deemed to be dishonourable?
However, this thought fails to understand one thing about many sports, and that is that the rules of the game do not exhaust the norms of the game. I will continue to speak about hockey, because it is a sport I played growing up, I follow today, and I know quite well. In hockey, the rules of the game do not completely determine the norms of the game, as it is understood that fights, slashing, roughing, and charging are all infractions, but they are a part of the game even though the player who engages in such acts are penalized for them. Engaging in these infractions is commanded by norms of the game like “stand up for yourself and your teammates by fighting bullies on the other team.“ Hockey would not be the same game if the infractions noted above were not a part of it and commanded by particular norms within the culture of hockey. In this sense, when one gets in a fight in hockey one violates a formal rule of the game, and the norm that one should not break the rules of the game, but does not violate the norms of the game in general, as one is still acting on norms that are central to the game, such as the norm noted above. So, it seems that rule breaking in a sport in itself does not violate the spirit of fair play, and thus just because an act breaks the rules of a sport does not make that act dishonourable.
It should be noted that some norms within particular sports are deeply problematic, and thus the fact that someone is acting on a norm within a sport does not mean their action is entirely unproblematic. Surely, the norm of `targeting the head, ` which was not against the rules in hockey until recently, was deeply problematic as it put the health of players at risk. Thus, the fact that someone is acting on a norm of the game does not legitimate their action, but this does not change the fact that anyone acting on a norm within a game cannot be said to be violating the spirit of fairness of the game.