Gender, Sports and the Ethics of Teammates:  Toward an Outline of a Philosophy of Sport in the American Grain


A Paper Submission




In this essay, I argue that the ethics of teammates is an underdeveloped region of the philosophy of sport (and philosophy generally) and that there are resources within American philosophy to analyze and develop its phenomena.  The teammate relation has been neglected because the dominant model of the internal structure of teams, a model that I develop via Josiah Royce’s theory of loyalty and community, treats these relations as secondary to the relation of loyalty to a team’s cause.  The teammate relation should, however, be a central focus for philosophers because (1) interactions with teammates form the primary source of interaction in sports, and (2) because it appears, contra Royce, as primary for many athletes.  To adequately theorize this relation and its ethics, the dominant Roycean model must therefore be seen as not universal, and an alternative model should be developed.  I lay out a two-part program to do so that draws on Charles Peirce’s logic of relations, and Jane Addam’s version of care ethics. 





Gender, Sports and the Ethics of Teammates:  Toward an Outline of a Philosophy of Sport in the American Grain




            In September, 2007, coach Greg Ryan of the USA Women’s Soccer Team made a bold strategic decision.  Instead of playing ace goalkeeper Hope Solo in the World Cup semifinal match against Brazil, Ryan elected to start veteran Briana Scurry.  This decision was highly publicized by the sports media because it appeared to be such a radical and questionable decision.  True, Scurry had played well against Brazil in the 2004 Olympic Games and had helped secure the victory, but that was three years prior and Solo had since earned the starting role.  It was a risk, a gamble.  And in the end, it was a gamble that failed dramatically.  Scurry gave up four goals, and the US team lost 4-0.

            The events that followed made news outside of the sport’s world.  Solo criticized publicly her coach’s decision, stating, “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is, it's not 2004 anymore."  The reaction to Solo’s comments by her team was dramatic.  Solo was benched for the bronze-medal match, and then suspended from the team.  In fact, she was not allowed attend the match, nor attend the medal ceremony where her teammates received the bronze.  At the end of the tournament, she was also prevented to return to the US on the same flight.  After a few months, Solo rejoined the team.  Yet, despite a public apology and a team meeting to clear the air, only one player visited her room, joined her for meals, or sat next to her on the bench. 

            Solo’s teammates’ reaction has been criticized by many and found, to many others, downright perplexing.   Kasey Keller, a US Men’s Soccer Team goalie and 18-year professional veteran in English pro leagues stated what most in the sporting world were thinking: In England guys get in fights and arguments all the time, and usually within an hour or by the next day everything's fine.  But to be completely ostracized? I've never heard of anything like that.”  Others have claimed, however, that women soccer players, and women teammates in general, inherently handle conflicts among themselves differently.  Cat Whitehill, a teammate of Solo’s, stated after the incident that male teammates “can punch somebody in the face and it's done with.  For girls, we don't punch in the face. We hold it in, and when it comes out, it's fire, which is really awful. But as women we all understand that people are human, and I think everybody has truly forgiven Hope. We can still have a bond with her.”[i]  

            Solo’s situation is not a rare occurrence in competitive team athletics.  In America, thousands of players and coaches negotiate ethical problems among teammates every day.  In my own experience as a volleyball coach and player, I have witnessed and participated in similar events – though perhaps not as extreme! - on both men’s and women’s teams.  But Solo’s public situation, and also the attempts to understand its moral dimensions, does throw into relief three philosophically interesting facts.  First, the ethical relations among teammates, that is, intra-team relations, are highly important, and extend beyond the bounds of competitive sports.  Business and educational practices are replete with them.  Second, these relations appear widely variable; Whitehill’s statement above, for example, sorts them into masculine and feminine categories.  Third, these relations have not been adequately addressed philosophically, nor have they been addressed clearly in popular culture.  The evident groping about for explanations and answers in popular writings, and the facile solution proffered about inherent differences between the sexes indicates at once the lack and the need for real philosophical reflection on situations like Solo’s and the ethics of teammates generally. 

            In this essay, I want to explore why I think the ethics of teammates is so important for philosophy to study, and then offer the following series of arguments.  (1) The usual, and yet often unconscious, model of team and intra-team relations adopted by American competitive athletics (and philosophers of sport) may be represented with more clarity via Josiah Royce’s theory of loyalty and community.  (2) This model provides a coherent logic and ethic of intra-team relations, but at the same time, reduces their value by deriving them from an apparently deeper relation – that of the relation of each team-member to the goal, or the cause, of the team.  (3) Because of this reduction, relations of teammates to one another are not usually considered a topic for serious inquiry.  (4) More importantly, however, the Roycean model fails to justly account for relations among teammates whose value and fecundity seemingly exceed that of the relation of team-member to the cause of the team.  This failure points to the need of an alternative model of team and intra-team relations.  I conclude the essay with a program for future research in this direction. 

On the Importance of an Ethics of Teammates

            Although the literature on ethics and sports is voluminous, it is narrowly focused on the following issues: fair play and the development of moral virtue and character.[ii]  The issues surrounding fair play often concern the rules of competition and players’ comportment with respect to these rules.  Analyses of cheating, the use of performance enhancing drugs, and respect for one’s opponent are typical topics.  The inquiries into the relation of team sports and moral virtues, on the other hand, are more directly connected with the general theme of moral edification.  There is a long history of discussion surrounding the benefits or harms of competitive athletic participation upon the character of both the players and the viewers of competitive athletic events.  In general then, the focus, thusfar, has been upon the ethics of inter-team interactions within the boundaries of competition, and upon the moral development of individual competitors.

            This twin focus is important to highlight, for it reveals an important point:  the prevailing model of the structure of athletic teams clearly deemphasizes intra-team relations among teammates.  The lack of scholarship on these relations is an indication of this general orientation, as is the confusion with situations like Solo’s.[iii]  Intra-team relations, however, are, in my view, more important to address than inter-team competitive relations,  and more important than the study of the cultivation of moral virtues in these contexts.

            The simple reason why arises from the following indisputable fact:  by far the most interactions a player has in her playing career is with her teammates.  These interactions occur prior to, during, and after training.  They occur when traveling to and from competitions.  And they occur in times of relaxation away the sport.  To give just one example:  a competitive Division I NCAA women’s volleyball program will spend three to four weeks of two to three practices a day, six days a week prior to the actual competitive season beginning and, therefore, prior to competing in a formal match.  This time does not include the time spent together at meals or in the weight room.  During the season, practices run two to fours almost every day that the team is not competing.  After the season ends (it is 3-4 months long), off-season training begins.  Since an average team plays in roughly thirty matches a year, a simple calculation and comparison confirms my point:  teammate interaction is the primary type of interaction that occurs in competitive team sports.   Youth team sports are not much different; competitive matches are infrequent, and teammate interaction predominant. 

            The effects of such massive interaction on the lives of the participants are difficult to fathom.  Plausibly, habits and moral conceptions cultivated in these interactions are transferred into broader social settings, and vice-versa.  And, given the number of participants in team sports in America at all levels and age groups, the effect of these habits and conceptions in general social life, not to mention within teams themselves, is probably substantial.  Philosophical reflection on the structure of teams and the norms that govern their internal interactions, and those norms that should govern them should of paramount concern to philosophers.

            Why, then, has the ethics of teammates not been addressed?  There are two major reasons.  First, much of the philosophical inquiry into sports has most likely come from observers of sport rather than active participants.  To the observer, the experience of team sports is primarily confined to formal competitions, and so the philosophical problems that present themselves are sorted through that medium.   Hence, it is not surprising that concern primarily for fair play and issues like sportsmanship should dominate the ethical literature on sports.  The second reason is much more influential:  the prevailing model (adopted by most athletes, viewers, and scholars) of the structure and internal relations of teams deemphasizes the ethical relations among teammates.  This deemphasis occurs on a formal and axiological level.  I turn now to an explication of this model.

The Prevailing Model of the Structure of Competitive Athletic Teams 

            In our Classical American tradition, Josiah Royce’s logic of community and his ethic of loyalty together form the outstanding example of the most prevalent model of the structure of teams and the ethics of teammates.[iv]  A Roycean community is defined, in part, through the connections of three terms:  a cause, individuals related to the cause, and the relation which binds a cause and the individuals.   “[A] cause,”  Royce writes, “means… something that is conceived by its loyal servant as unifying the lives of various human begins into one life.”[v]  For example, a cause may be curing cancer, and the individuals related to the cause are those doctors and others that work together to see their cause to fruition.  United through their service, these individuals constitute a single entity:  a community.  Loyalty is Royce’s description of the relation between individuals and their common causes.  In The Philosophy of Loyalty, Royce gives a series of definitions of loyalty, each intended to deepen and extend its import.  His first definition reads: “The willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”[vi]   A person is loyal when she consciously intends to serve the cause, actually performs concrete actions aimed toward it.  Royce’s mention of “thoroughgoing” is intended to add that true loyalty suffuses the whole person: intellect, emotion, will and action must be aligned and harmonized in relation to the cause for true loyalty to exist.  Royce’s last definition loyalty emphasizes its metaphysical and metaethical import:  “Loyalty is the will to manifest, so far as is possible, the Eternal, that is, the conscious and superhuman unity of life, in the form of the acts of an individual Self.”[vii]  This is not the place for a full explication of Royce’s final definition of loyalty; I mention it only to exhibit a cause’s centrality and importance with respect to its willing servants and their relations.  As Royce says, they lie and different levels.

            The doctrine of the two levels of a community finds a full articulation with respect to the Christian community in Royce’s The Problem of Christianity.[viii]  But the clearest expression of this doctrine is found in a logical formulation written in a letter to a colleague.[ix]  In the letter, Royce argues that, formally, loyalty is the relation “being a member of,” symbolized by Royce as “e” (currently by “Î.”)  If one is loyal to a cause, then one belongs to the cause, or rather, belongs to community that is defined by, and is the expression of, the cause. 

            This relation has been studied closely by logicians and was used during Royce’s time (and now) as the basis of what is now known as set theory.  Its logical properties include the following:  asymmetry, non-reflexivity, and intransitivity.  In our context, the asymmetry of the e-relation is the most important, for it maps the two levels of a community.  The individual’s loyal relation to the cause is not the same as the cause’s relation to the individual:  the cause lies on a higher level than the individual.  Royce argues this hierarchy implies that the cause and the community it forms are both more real and more valuable than the individuals which are loyal to it.[x] In one sense, these claims follow from the individual member’s experience.  Causes, since they call us to serve them and animate our life, appear as givers of purpose and meaning.  In The Problem of Christianity, this gift of loyalty appears as grace, and also as the origin of life itself.[xi]

            While the great metaphysical and ethical importance of the cause with respect to loyal individuals is captured by the asymmetry of the e-relation, the formal difference, of the e-relation from other intra-communal relations captures the asymmetry of the relation of loyalty with respect to the relations among members.  A similar metaphysical and ethical hierarchy exists here, as before.  But here, it rests on the fact that intra-communal relations are logically derived from the loyalty relation.  To see this formal difference, consider Royce’s example in his letter: 

            Consider, as a simple instance of what I mean, a “linear triad” of points in space.            A linear triad in points in space, is a triad such as (p, q, r), when p, q, r, lie on one           right line.  In our ordinary “descriptive space, one of the members of such a linear           triad lies between the two others.  Now let T be used, for the moment, to name             this linear triad as an assemblage or set of points.  We can then say:  “p e T,” “q e   T,” and also “r e T.” Notice how differnt is the relation of q to T from the relation    of q to p and to r or the pair (p, r).  q is a member of T.  q is between p and r.  The             distinction is quite fundamental for the whole of geometry.[xii]


Once these relations are adequately distinguished, it is possible, argues Royce to define all types of relations in terms of classes of individual members, and hence in terms of the e-relation.[xiii]  Accordingly, not only do individuals pale in comparison to the cause that creates the community, but the relations among individuals appear to have a derivative and hence secondary status with respect the relation of loyalty, or the e-relation. 

            This logical derivation cashes out in Royce’s ethics in two distinct ways.  First, the ethical relations among community members are determined with reference to, and in subservience of, the particular cause that unites them, and thus, one’s duties towards others are derivative of one’s logically prior loyalty to the cause.  Second, since the relation of loyalty is of supreme metaphysical, logical, and ethic importance, Royce argues that our highest cause should be loyalty to loyalty itself.  This means, concretely, that when judging and selecting causes, one should chose so that the cause also serves the cause of loyalty itself, that is, of preserving it and extending its field of connections. 

            With this rough sketch of Royce’s theory in hand, we can return to the interpretation of the structure and ethics of the interior of a team.  A team is a class of individuals loyal to a cause.  Usually this cause is stated in terms of some competitive goal, such as winning a championship.  One’s individual ethical duties with respect to the team as a whole and its cause are determined by the needs of the cause.  A player must train hard so as to help realize the goal, and play whatever position the team needs her to play in order to help secure the goal.  She must be selfless, devoted and dedicated.   Her teammates are experienced primarily as coworkers united in their service to the cause.  This calls for mutual respect and recognition, and perhaps support and encouragement in training and playing.   Whatever other relations that may obtain between teammates, and that are not necessary to realize the cause, fade into the background and must not be allowed to interfere with competition and training.  Loyalty to loyalty dictates that one respect the rules of competition, and do what one can to ensure the integrity of the game.  For this ensures that other teams may form, train, and compete.  The concern for fair play and sportsmanship is therefore an expression of loyalty to loyalty.[xiv] 


Conclusion:  The Failure of Royce’s Model and New Directions

            That Royce’s model of community is unconsciously adopted by many, if not most, Americans as the primary model of competitive athletic teams should not be controversial.  Most anyone who has played on a competitive team is asked to do whatever it takes, within the confines of fair play, to help the team achieve its goals.  “Be a team player!”  “Sacrifice for the team!”  And when conflicts arise between teammates, coaches usually say things like the following: “I don’t care if you like each other or if you hate each other, but you will respect one another enough to work together to achieve our common cause!”  In short, relations among teammates are important and worthy of care and nurture only to the degree that these relations contribute actively to the cause of the team.  Their value is only insofar as they derive from loyalty to the team cause.  By far the more important relation, formally and materially, is that of loyalty to the cause. 

            Royce’s account of loyalty and community, therefore, is not merely descriptive; it is also normative.  It serves as an ideal that all sport’s teams should strive to achieve.  Certainly some of Solo’s teammates, and Solo herself, understood their situation in this manner.  Commenting on what she sees as a transition from a non-Roycean to a Roycean team, US soccer team member Abby Wambach said, “Things are changing.  The younger players have a little bit of that emotional attachment to each other, but less so than in the past. You don't have to like each other, but once you cross that line [enter the game], if you can like each other for at least 90 minutes, then I think you can be successful.”  Statements like these belie tacit acceptance of the normative force of Royce’s model.  Relations among teammates, if thought about at all, are typically categorized as those that that help the team, and those that don’t.  Those that don’t are considered immature, irrelevant, and are often cast, like Wambach does, in emotional terms.  And the lack of professional scholarship on the teammate relation is only a natural consequence of conceiving it as “second-class citizen.” 

            The force of Solo’s situation, however, and other situations like it, should give one pause.  Certainly, my own experience coaching and playing with both men’s and women’s teams has caused me to reflect upon the descriptive accuracy, normative force, and logical validity of Royce’s model of community as it applies to competitive sports teams.  For what is apparent is that Solo’s teammates clearly thought her actions violated norms governing their relations as teammates, and further, that these relations were somehow more valuable (and perhaps more real) than whatever loyalty they possessed to the cause of winning the gold.[xv]  In my own experience as a professional coach over a period of ten years, I have seen this phenomenon, and not only on women’s teams.  Other coaches I have discussed this with have witnessed it as well. 

            It is possible to understand the experiential primacy of intra-team relations as a failure on the part of Solo’s teammates to properly evaluate and modify their relations to one another and to their cause, as Wambach seems to do.  But we might also question the ability of the dominant Roycean model to explain the phenomena accurately, and its elevation to an ideal.  A radically empirical philosophical methodology, one that takes its cue from the primacy of the phenomena, would seem to dictate this.  This is a path I believe worth pursuing, and there are other resources within the American philosophical tradition from which to draw. 

            To conclude, I want to specify the general shape of such an inquiry.   In order to successfully describe the phenomena of the primacy and ethic of the teammate relation I suggest the following two part program:  (1) At the level of the logical analysis of relations, pursue a theory of relations that avoids defining them in extension (that is, as Royce does, as a class of individuals defined by the all-important e-relation).  Charles Peirce, for instance, follows this path with his conception of a relation as such.[xvi]  Making relations of all kinds logically primary, and not derivative from the relation of loyalty, appears to be to a promising way to be formally faithful to the phenomenal importance of the teammate relation.  (2)  At the level of ethics, such a shift toward the primacy of inter-personal relations suggests a turn toward a more overtly care based ethic, and a move away from deontological and consequentialist ethics (of which Royce’s ethic is a unique blend.)  The version of care ethics developed by Jane Addams might prove to be an important resource in this context.  For as Maurice Hamington notes, “while Addams employed caring in response to the needs of others, she contributes an active, even assertive, dimension to care ethics not commonly found in feminist theory.”[xvii] 

            A pragmatic care ethic with an emphasis on action, combined with a logic of relations, is a promising lead into an alternative model of intra-team ethical relations.





















[i] Quotes taken from Grant Wahl, “Hard Return,” in Sports Illustrated, June 30 2008

[ii] See as evidence for this claim such texts as:  Ethics and Sport, ed. M.J. McNamee and S.J. Perry, Ethics in Sports, ed. William J. Morgan, Klaus V. Mein, and Angela J. Schneider,  The Erosion of the American Sorting Ethos: Shifting Attitudes Toward Competition, by Joel Nathan Rosen, Sports Ethics:  An Anthology, ed. Jan Boxill, Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport, by Robert L. Simon.

[iii] There are, to date, no philosophical articles on the nature and ethics of the teammate relation.  So far, the only research on intra-team relations has focused upon the coach-athlete relation.

[iv] Indeed, Royce himself used these theories to analyze various aspects of sports in “Football and Ideals,” and “Some Relations of Physical Training to the Present Problems of Moral Education in American.”Josiah Royce, Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other American Problems, 1908.

[v] Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, p. 252.

[vi] Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, p. 17.

[vii] Ibid., 357.

[viii] Cf. Royce, The Problem of Christianity, pp. 50, 122, 139, 218, 268-269, 194.  

[ix] Royce to Fite, July 20, 1913, Letters, ed. John Clendenning, . 604-609.  Royce often used symbolic logic as a means to clarify relations.  Indeed, he argued that this was the sole purpose of symbolic logic! Royce writes:  “‘Symbolic Logic’ I use, not as end in itself, but merely as a means to state some exact relations so that one sees them for what they are, and gets clear of all this desolating pragmatistic psychologizing tendency which now undertakes to save us the trouble of having any thoughts at all.” Royce to Fite, July 11, 1911, p. 556.

[x] Royce, The Problem of Christianity, 125.

[xi] Ibid., 57-58.

[xii] Royce to Fite, Letters, 608.

[xiii] “In brief, a relation is a character that an object possesses as a member of a collection (a pair, a triad, an n-ad, a club, a family, a nation, etc.), and which (as one may conceive), would not belong to that object, were it not such a member.” Royce, The Principles of Logic, 339.

[xiv] From this perspective, we can see that Solo’s public criticism emerged from her loyalty to the cause of winning the championship, but that they were not an expression of loyalty to loyalty. 

[xv] It is also doubtful that all the negative interactions between Solo and her teammates derived from some perceived violation by Solo of the cause of the team, or the cause of loyalty to loyalty.  For loyalty to a cause, whether of winning the championship or to loyalty itself seems, in this situation, irrelevant.  The issue appears to be centered on the relations among Solo and her teammates alone.  

[xvi] Robert Burch attempts a Peircean analysis of relations as such, what he calls relation-simpliciter in his work A Peircean Reduction Thesis: The Foundations of Topological Logic.  To what degree his results might aid the present inquiry deserves attention. 

[xvii] Maurice Hamington, “Jane Addams,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.