The Ethical Question Of Running Up The Score

Jun 15, 2019
Originally published on June 15, 2019 5:44 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Women's World Cup is underway in France, and as usual in the early rounds, the underdogs have been getting dispatched by the powerhouses pretty handily. But Tuesday's match between the U.S. and Thailand took this to a new level. The U.S. crushed the Thai opponents 13-0. For some, this was a cause for celebration and vindication, as the U.S. women have been pressing their governing body for better pay and conditions. But for some commentators, the lopsided result raises questions about sportsmanship and even ethics. Should the Americans have kept running up the score against the vastly outmatched Thais?

To settle this, we've called Shawn Klein, a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at Arizona State University. And he's with us now from KJZZ in Arizona.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SHAWN KLEIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And, professor Klein, I want to mention that you teach a class in sports ethics - a class that has a whole section of the syllabus devoted to the ethics of running up the score. So you have thought a lot about this. You watched this game. Did it strike you as unethical in the moment?

KLEIN: I thought it was exciting. I thought it was ridiculous. I kept running to my son and saying, they scored again. They scored again. I didn't experience it as lacking in sportsmanship.

MARTIN: And when you say ridiculous, you don't mean that in a bad way. You mean it like, ridiculous - like, wow, this is ridiculous.

KLEIN: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: This is crazy (laughter).

KLEIN: Crazy - this is - I've never seen this. This is, you know, Michael Jordan leaping over all the defenders in basketball. This is Serena Williams demolishing, you know, her competition in a tennis match. It was a sporting moment that you just don't see, and so it would - that part was exciting, to see that historical aspect of it.

MARTIN: And so what do you make of the way this has kept bubbling up all week? I just want to note that the U.S. coach, Jill Ellis, said that if this had been a men's soccer match, these questions would never have come up. I don't know any way to test that theory. But why do you think this has bubbled up like it has all week?

KLEIN: I mean, I think she's right to a degree. I do think that the fact that this is the Women's World Cup is playing a role of why it's getting the attention it's getting. At the same time, these questions do get raised in other sports. I mean, I can't recall it being raised in men's soccer. Certainly, from the U.S. perspective, the U.S. has never gotten (laughter) close to having this kind of match - at least, on the winning side. But in other sports, whether it's the NFL, men's college football, baseball, flipping the bat after a home run, the celebrations - this question does get raised against men's teams.

MARTIN: You did mention the celebrations. So that is another sportsmanship question that has come out of this match - about the way the U.S. women celebrated their goals - you know, jumping in each other's arms or rolling on the field. I mean, that's pretty standard stuff. But I do wonder if you think that the fact that the team kept celebrating when they kept scoring - do you think that's something that's pushing people's buttons?

KLEIN: I do think that that's the driving force for a lot of the discussions. But what the U.S. players were doing was coming together. In some of the cases - so you take Mallory Pugh, this was her first World Cup goal. Yes, it was the 11th goal that the U.S. scored, but this was her first goal. So of course she's going to celebrate, and of course the team around her is going to come to her and celebrate.

And that shows great team chemistry - that they're all so happy for Pugh's success and achievement - an achievement that she's been dreaming about since she was 6 years old. So I think that that ability to dream and then celebrate when you have achieved your dream, I think, is one of the magical things of sport. And I would hate to see us not celebrate that.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, for the people who think it's just not a good look or maybe it just makes the U.S. look bad or like bullies, why do you think that it was important from the standpoint of the U.S. women for them to play hard and score as many goals as they could? Like, what point do you think they were making?

KLEIN: One is just internal to their - to the team - that they can play well together in the context of a game in front of fans on international TV. I also think it's a message to the rest of the field that the U.S. is here to defend their championship, and they're going to play hard.

I think it's also important in terms of telling young women that it's OK to be who they are. It's OK to be great. It's OK to pursue greatness and to achieve greatness. And it's OK to celebrate your achievements and not to run from them and not to hide from it. And I think that's an important message.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to note the USA plays Chile tomorrow, Sunday. Care to - I don't know - handicap it for us?

KLEIN: (Laughter) I think that the U.S. will win. I don't think we'll get into the double digits again. I'll say that. It may be more like a - let's say 6-1 score. Let's go with that.

MARTIN: OK. That's Shawn Klein. He hosts a podcast called "The Sports Ethicist" where questions like this one often come up.

Shawn Klein, thanks so much for talking to us.

KLEIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.