It’s a Fair Game – Cheltenham Science Festival 2011

I’m speaking at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival later today and for those of you that can’t make it, or those of you that are coming but want to have chance to think about the discussion in advance, here’s the first draft of my 10 min talk (apologies for any bad grammar or spelling – I said it was ‘rough’!):

It’s a Fair Game

Are the anti-doping rules and policies fair?

Well, in order to answer such a question we need think about what we mean by fair?

Does this mean; everyone is subjected to equal treatment?

A cursory glance suggests, yes, the rules are the same for everyone and therefore these rules and policies are fair.

However, you only have to dig a little bit deeper to realise that it isn’t quite as straightforward as we might like to think.

When sport is discussed the metaphor ‘level playing field’ commonly crops up. And this is founded on the idea that sport should be about testing the natural capacities of the athlete. And by ‘natural capacities’ we mean the raw God-given talent that we are born with, and the mental courage and tenacity to be dogged and determined in developing this talent in order to reach its potential.

And this is one of the odd things about our stance towards doping. One of the main arguments used in support of the anti-doping policies is that using these substances are a short cut to reaching, or even surpassing this natural potential. You are not only cheating the sport, you are cheating yourself.

And yet no-one says the same about sleeping in a hypoxic chamber which has a similar effect on the red blood cells and oxygen carrying capacity as living at altitude. No one says the same about wearing state of the art clothing or footwear (although the recent ban on polyurethane swimsuits is an interesting exception that we might want to discuss further later). No one says that intensive sessions with your sports psychologist are a short cut to success. All of these things are part and parcel of elite sport whereby a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing, between success and perceived failure. Yet if we follow this argument that is often used against doping to its logical conclusion, we would rule out training altogether. Let the winner be the one who manages to get out of bed having never spent a day in the gym or watching what she ate, yet who manages to cross the line first. But this is ridiculous. Just as we value an athlete’s natural capacity, we also value the sacrifices they make in reaching their potential.

So when we talk about fairness in sport – it’s a myth. The countries that win the majority of Olympic medals are not those that happen to have the best gene pool (if we think a genetic lottery should be the basis for fairness) but those that are able to invest millions into talent identification, facilities, equipment, training, medicine, nutrition… the list goes on and on. It is the exceptions to this myth that get highlighted as examples that if you’ve got the raw talent and determination to succeed then you’ll make it. I note that the writer, journalist and former athlete, Matthew Syed, is speaking after this event on these ideas, and if you haven’t read his book Bounce, I thoroughly recommend it.

So sport at the elite level certainly isn’t fair if when we use the term, we mean ‘fairness as equality’. There are countless millions that had they been born in the right country, and spotted at the right time could have a shot at success.

So perhaps we mean fairness in that we are free to determine our own paths. Fairness as liberty and autonomy one might say.

Yet this certainly isn’t the case in terms of doping. Another common argument given in support of anti-doping is that these substances are terribly harmful and we don’t want these poor athletes suffering from their ill-judged decisions.

Now my parents might say that I make ill-judged decisions – not least because I play sports that I probably shouldn’t. And certainly not now I’m well into my thirties. I’ve got a large scar on my forehead from being stamped on in a rugby match, chronic pains in my shoulder from repeated injury to a collarbone I broke quite badly, several broken fingers and if you notice me hobbling about today it’s because I went to a gymnastics session last night and went over on my ankle. I’d be very surprised if you could find any former athlete that doesn’t suffer from chronic pain as a direct result from participation in sport. Sport is a dangerous pursuit.

Yet when it comes to doping, there is a sudden desire to protect athletes from potential harm. I don’t wish to get too side-tracked on the argument against doping from harm because this isn’t really what this session is about, but Verner Moller in his recent book ‘The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping’ makes a very compelling argument that allowing doping, particularly in the world of cycling, might actually reduce the harm done to athletes in their rigorous pursuit of glory.

So fairness as liberty doesn’t seem to stand up either.

Perhaps fairness could be applied then in relation to the fair treatment of athletes as human beings.

Yet I am doubtful of this too for two reasons. First, such is the hysteria that surrounds doping, any athlete that is suspected of a doping offence is vilified, particularly in the media. It is almost akin to serious crimes (and I don’t want to have a Ken Clark moment here) so I’ll leave you to think of which crimes these might be. Even athletes that are cleared of doping offences are seen to have a shadow lurking behind them. Cynical comments abound that the athlete just got off on a technicality whereas they are, in fact, still guilty.

Second, I don’t know whether you are aware of the anti-doping ‘whereabouts rule’ which requires athletes to state where they will be at a particular hour every day of the year. The rationale behind this is that the anti-doping authorities don’t have to go hunting for an athlete if they wish to conduct a test. Miss three of these tests and you’re guilty of an anti-doping offence. Now, I don’t know where I’m going to be from one day to the next but you can imagine that there may be good reasons why an athlete, even with a strict schedule, might not be exactly where they said they would be for every day of the year. This rule has been criticised for going against both privacy rights and data protection laws. Moreover, a rule of this kind is not fair in its treatment of athletes. It is akin to having a tag or curfew order or having to report to a police station on a daily basis.

So the idea of a fair game isn’t as straightforward as it initially seems. Apart from the fact that fairness itself is quite a slippery term, the idea that the anti-doping rules are part of making sport fair, doesn’t seem to ring true.

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My thoughts on the proposed student fees…

This blog post originated from a Twitter conversation that I had with a colleague @oddhack following my tweet “After consideration, I am starting to come around to the proposed increase in student fees. *she says bracing herself for some flak*”

I suppose there are three different questions that need to be considered:

  1. Is there any way that HE could be funded without students having to pay fees?
  2. Should HE be funded without student fees?
  3. If fees are the only option then what is the fairest way of paying for this?

I don’t know the answer to question 1. There obviously is a finite pot of money so should it be spend on defence or health or other forms of education (i.e. pre-school, primary school – which the coalition is arguing for). Saying that, I’m sure that millions is spent on things I wouldn’t agree with such as men’s World Cup football bids.

The more important question then is question 2. This is much more complex. People that haven’t gone to University argue that they shouldn’t have to fund those who do but this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. I think the real problem is that those making the decision to increase fees had the advantage of free University (my PhD supervisor said that he had enough money from his student grant to go travelling every summer during his degree!). For a coalition who’s mantra is ‘fairness’ this seems the opposite. I wonder how much it would actually cost to implement the old grant system with numbers rising to 40+% of the population. The question is whether the good resulting from making HE free is worth the investment (and the sacrifice of other things). The criticism I suppose is that it is intellectual elitism as those who have the intellectual skills/abilities/motivation will be given an additional push to help them secure a better job whereas those who do not have the skills/ability/motivation will be left at a disadvantage. Ought we to fund vocational training in the same way? I think one of the main problems at the moment is that the Government (and wider society) isn’t clear as to what Universities are – they are not supposed to be vocational training centres (which I fear they are turning into – many of my students seems surprised that they are expected to both read and think!) and their value can’t be measured in purely economic returns.

Which brings us to 3. I think the mistake that the coalition has made here is in the language they have chosen to use. Why didn’t they just call it a graduate tax as that is essentially what it is. Saying that they are increasing fees has misled so many students into thinking that they still have to find the money up front which just isn’t true. If they had just said that all new graduates would be paying 2% of their income once they were earning £21,000 in order to fund other students, then I expect the reaction wouldn’t have been so fierce. I’m also not convinced of the argument that it will put off students going to University once they realise that they don’t have to pay anything up front. This was the fear of raising fees to £3000 and it hasn’t had any effect whatsoever. It might actually mean more older people coming to University because if you’re already 55 or 60 then you might think it is an opportunity for a free degree as there’s little chance you’ll be earning over the threshold once you complete. It might also have the same effect on part time students who will get the same opportunities as full time students which they haven’t had previously.

These questions then really come down to how much should we (both from a collective and individual point of view) value higher (and I also think further and vocational) education? Do we say as a society that we value it so much that we will give everyone the opportunity to participate in it free at the point of need? Or do we say that if individuals value it then they ought to pay for it (by being provided with a loan or greater tax burden)? I would argue the former, simply because it gives the signal that society values well educated and trained individuals. And if David Cameron really wants to measure well-being then being appreciated for what you can offer is a great part of this.

Should the SPL referees go on strike?

The Scottish Premiership referees have voted to strike this weekend in protest against the growing threats that they receive from players, managers and fans alike in addition to the fact that they feel their integrity is being questioned. But are they right in doing so?

The latest controversy was fuelled by match officials, Steven Craven and Dougie McDonald, admitting that they lied about the reason for changing a penalty decision. This led to widespread criticism about the honesty and integrity of referees, and Celtic Chairman (and ex Home Secretary) John Reid and Scottish MP Pete Wishart, to suggest that officials are forced to declare which teams they support and prevented from refereeing in those matches.

There are two particular ethical concepts at the core of this issue; fairness and respect. One of the basic tenets of sport is that it is a fair contest where the best (i.e. most talented, most deserving) side wins. A sport where the rules are ignored or overlooked can quickly descend into anarchy and is no longer sport at all. Sport can only work if the rules are followed. The Victorian conception of sport was that officials were unnecessary since players themselves were able to ensure adherence – the role of umpire in cricket was just to hold the hats and jumpers of the bowlers and count the balls in the over. However, the rise of professional sport (with its extrinsic rewards), along with a change in sporting attitudes, led to officials being needed to make sure that players didn’t try to give themselves an unfair advantage. And these officials were expected to be totally objective and impartial, even if their competency could sometimes be questioned.

Now, the SPL officials are being attacked on grounds of both competency and impartiality. On the latter, there is no defence for official’s bias towards one team over another. If the adherence to rules is a prerequisite for sport then this undermines the game itself. Even if all officials do genuinely seek to remain impartial, it would still seem reasonable to bring in Mr Wishart’s suggestion that referees do not officiate in games where they support one of the teams so as to ensure there is no sub-conscious conflict of interests or grounds for accusation of bias.

However, on the issue of competency, the criticism given towards the referees is unreasonable. And this bring in the concept of respect. All those involved in the game realise that matches can not be played without a referee. Let us be charitable and say that these referees are doing their utmost to ensure they make the correct decisions. So when considering the limitations of being human and the balance of probability, an incorrect call occurs, does this justify the torrent of abuse that officials receive? Of course it doesn’t. No-one deserves to be subject to death threats, especially on the grounds that they gave a penalty when it wasn’t, or vice-versa.

And this seems to be the fundamental problem with football.  Officials are not given the respect that they, as humans, ought to be given. The FA’s respect programme seeks to change behaviour towards officials in football, but it it is limited because it focuses primarily on amateur and children’s football rather than professional leagues. Arguably, it is fighting a losing battle when those at the grass roots emulate the behaviour of players and managers at the top.

In no other job would such behaviour be considered anywhere near acceptable, and those involved would be subject to disciplinary measures on the grounds of bullying and harassment. However, sport once again, appears to be a moral vacuum.

So are the referees right to opt for strike action? I would say absolutely. I would like to see such solidarity spreading out to other associations whereby referees refuse to officiate unless they are granted the respect they deserve, both in the capacity of being human and in that they enable the game to take place at all (let us witness a professional game without the use of match officials to see how it works). Nevertheless, in return, officials need to ensure that their biases do not affect (either consciously or sub-consciously) the decisions they make. They need to ensure that they do their level best to keep the game fair.

I recognise the frustration that clubs and fans feel when referees make incorrect decisions but the times I have been on the receiving end of this, I have had to bite my lip for I know that without them we would have no game at all. We must respect officials regardless of the (human) mistakes that they might make simply because without them the game would become unplayable.