The Morality of Sport-Hatred

It used to be the case that fans of Auburn University’s football team would gather after victories at Toomer’s corner in Auburn, Alabama, to throw rolls of toilet paper into the historic oak trees there. The trees have been removed. Not because Auburn University wanted it that way: Harvey Updyke, a fan of the University of Alabama’s football team – Auburn’s hated cross-state rival – poisoned the trees in 2010. Updyke was caught when he called in to a local sports radio show to brag about the deed. He was charged with criminal mischief, desecrating a venerated object and damaging agriculture. Although he initially pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, he later made a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to criminal damage of an agricultural facility. He served six months in jail, and was released in June of this year.

This is of course a bad situation. I’ve been to football games at Auburn, and though I sport-hate their football team, the celebration at Toomer’s corner was a great tradition and the trees, themselves, were beautiful. I don’t wish to pass more judgment on Updyke, but rather to reflection on an ethical question his action raises. Before posing the question, allow me a stipulation: Updyke’s crime was motivated by a particular kind of hatred. This is a kind of hatred often sanctioned in America and most Western societies with which I am familiar. Call it sport-hatred. I don’t have a unique account of hatred in the offing. I will understand it here as an intense blame-related emotion (or, if you prefer, an intense package of blame-related emotions and behavioural dispositions) directed at people, objects, ideas, symbols, actions: anything that inspires hatred. In turn, I will understand sport-hatred as hatred in the context of sports, and directed at people, objects, ideas, symbols, actions in the context of sports. Typically, sport-hate is directed at sports players, sports teams, sports organizations, sports mascots, and so on. When you sport-hate some agent (or some group agent, like a team or organization), you hate them because of their role or behaviour in the context of some sport.

The question: is sport-hatred morally permissible?

Obviously Updyke’s crime crossed moral boundaries. I am not asking about the moral permissibility of all actions motivated by sport-hatred. I am asking whether sport-hatred itself is morally permissible: do those of us who frequently undergo strong bouts of sport-hatred exhibit a moral defect? Am I morally blameworthy because I hate (citing teams here to avoid naming names) Arsenal, Duke University’s basketball team, or the Philadelphia Eagles?

Hatred itself is rarely if ever praiseworthy. Hate-crimes are taken to be especially odious crimes, and come with increased sentences. And hatred in daily life is frequently an overreaction, based on biased or otherwise mistaken judgments about the nature of some agent, some agent’s character, some action.

It is worth noting that, in contrast, sport-hatred is an oft-celebrated phenomenon. Forbes Magazine annually publishes a ‘top-ten’ list of the most disliked athletes. The sports and pop-culture bellwether Grantland recently hosted a vote to determine the most hated college basketball player of the last 30 years. Thousands of readers voted to winnow a field of 32 down to the most hated one. And of course any Premier League fan will gladly tell you what they think of the players and fans of their most hated rival (I recently watched a Newcastle-Sunderland derby with a Newcastle fan, and as a fan of the typically vitriolic and insanely competitive college football played in America’s Southeastern Conference, I felt right at home). If sport-hatred is morally wrong, it is perhaps the most widely-celebrated moral violation in modern society.

This unsettling thought creates a bit of pressure to justify sport-hatred. So we might wonder what kinds of considerations could do this for us. And posing this kind of question raises more general questions about the relationships between sport and morality.

In an interesting discussion, Peter Arnold (1994) mentions three possible views on the relation between sport and morality. First, there is the view that sport is morally valuable in the sense that they constitute a kind of moral training ground. Second, there is the view that sport is morally neutral, or at least morally unimportant. As Arnold describes this view, sport is “essentially non-serious” (76). Third, there is the view that sport is morally disvaluable in the sense that the kinds of character traits and actions promoted by desires to succeed in sport – e.g., aggression, dominance over others – are morally onerous.

Of course there are more possible views than these, and I suspect versions of all three views might be adopted to greater or lesser degrees amongst the populace, perhaps depending on the aspects of sport under consideration. It is implausible to think that sport is essentially morally valuable, neutral, or disvaluable. Sometimes engagement in a sport does serve to cultivate the moral virtues – certainly many place their children onto sports teams not just because they want them to have fun and make friends, but because they want them to learn the value of hard work, cooperation, and so on. But of course most of us are familiar with examples of sport-vices: little league coaches who care only about winning, parents of 5-year-olds who brutally berate (and sometimes physically assault) the referee, selfish players who seek only personal glory, and so on. And of course many of us feel the pull of the sport-is-neutral view. What’s so bad about a bit of vicious banter in the context of a game? Isn’t it much more fun to hate your rivals? Who wants to play a bunch of ruthlessly polite opponents?

Upon reflection, it seems clear (to me) that sport-hatred is sometimes justified (and thus permissible), and sometimes unjustified (and thus impermissible). An example of unjustified sport-hatred: we might hate a player simply for his or her success. This seems to me unjustified, and impermissible. (Likewise the actions motivated by sport-hatred can be unjustified and this impermissible. Sometimes fans cheer when an opposing player is injured. Philadelphia Eagles’ fans did this once when a Dallas Cowboys wide receiver (Michael Irvin) apparently hurt his neck badly. This seems to me (full disclosure: a Cowboys fan) a clear case of sport-hatred motivating an unjustified, and impermissible, action.)

An example of justified sport-hatred: famously, the New England patriots were once caught spying on the play-calling of other teams. This gave them an unfair advantage, and it is justified to sport-hate them for that.

Considerations of proportionality are relevant here as well. It is possible to sport-hate someone too much. The sport-hate heaped on LeBron James, for example, was perhaps initially justified: LeBron callously left his home-town Cleveland Cavaliers for perceived quick-success with the Miami Heat. Fans burned James’ jersies. The media loved the spectacle. But the sport-hatred continued, and to some extent still continues, over three years later. This is odd, since LeBron is in many ways an excellent teammate and competitor. It looks like the sport-hatred many still heap upon LeBron is out of proportion.

This discussion suggests that the reasons we engage in sport-hatred (as participants and observers) are crucial. What we need to identify, then, are the kinds of reasons that justify sport-hatred. What might these be?

A tempting – and admittedly tentative – proposal goes as follows. The kinds of reasons that justify sport-hatred either (a) track or (b) mirror those that justify hatred outside of sport. Consider people who exhibit moral vices – the arrogant, the callous, the selfish. Although it might be too much to suggest that irrevocable hatred of such people is justified, it is arguable that a circumscribed hatred is justified. Hatred in response to an action that exhibit moral viciousness might be justified in much the way that other blame-related attitudes are justified.

What kinds of sport-related actions track actions that exhibit moral viciousness? Those that exhibit moral viciousness directly. In my view the field of play is not entirely morally neutral. Athletes can exhibit laziness, selfishness, arrogance, malice, and so on. Such athletes arguably open themselves up to justified sport-hatred. Notably, one of the most hated college basketball players in recent memory, J.J. Redick, has admitted as much. In an article by Robert Mays discussing the amount of vitriol Redick received while playing for Duke, Redick told Mays: “I probably deserved it. I was sort of a prick.” Interestingly, Redick has long since toned down his antics and his attitude, and basketball fans seem to have noticed. Redick-the-professional-player is not nearly as hated as the college version.

I have suggested that justifying reasons for sport-hatred might not only track those that justify non-sport-hatred, but might mirror these reasons. I take this to be an importantly different relation, one in which we respond, not to features that themselves justify hatred, but to features that meet a mirroring requirement. To understanding what I have in mind here, note that sport competitions often mirror real-life moral conflicts. Many of the best sports movies – Mighty Ducks, Rocky IV, Karate Kid, The Replacements (just kidding) – capitalize on this fact, offering us a moral and a sports conflict that mirror and play off of each other in obvious ways. The relation between the dramatized conflicts sport displays, and the moral conflicts of ‘real life’ is likely to be complex, and difficult to specify with any precision. But consider three examples of how sport-hatred can mirror morally justified hatred in non-sport contexts.

First, it is sometimes the case that we come to sport-hate a player for certain character-related failings. That is, we heap blame and scorn upon a player for consistently failing to meet some norm internal to the sport. This might be a failure to rotate on defense, a failure to wrap up a tackle, a failure to make an easy shot, or whatever. We respond with sport-hatred in such cases in part because we take these failings to reflect a deficient character – at least in the context of the sport. It would be odd and probably out of place to suspect that some person’s deficiencies in a sport are easily transmitted to non-sports contexts (in spite of John Wooden’s famous quote that sports ‘reveal character’). But it might be justified to sport-hate such a person because, by the standards internal to that sport (or to sports in general), their character is deficient.

Second, we sometimes come to sport-hate a player or a team because we find their success an example of unfairness. Arguably, much of the sport-hate heaped on dopers stems from a justified hatred of unfairness. Or, to take anoter example, many people loathe the New York Yankees because it seems to them that the Yankees can simply buy success. Their success seems unfair, and the sport-hate is motivated by a justified hatred of unfairness, here on display in the context of a sport.

Third, we often come to sport-hate arch-rivals. This might seem to be motivated by biases, and thus obviously unjustified. But maybe not. Conflicts between rivals resemble certain kinds of very rare moral conflicts, between good and evil. I say such moral conflicts are rare because it seems to me that transporting the good vs. evil dynamic outside of sports is usually ill-advised (the world is not so clear-cut). But sport, as many have argued, does seem to provide a training ground of sorts – one in which we can identify with one side in a contest, and thereby experience all sorts of emotions and attitudes (including sport-hatred) directed to the other side. Sometimes there exist moralized conflicts in life in which hatred of the opposing side is morally justified, and in which hatred plausibly motivates morally praiseworthy actions (exhibitions of courage, for example). If the reasons for sport-hating another team (because they are your team’s arch-rival, for example) legitimately mirror these conflicts, it might be that sport-hatred of the arch-rival is thereby justified.

Peter J. Arnold (1994). Sport and Moral Education. Journal of Moral Education 23(1): 75-89.

Robert Mays (March 14, 2013). ‘I Was Sort of A Prick’: J.J. Redick on Playing ‘J.J. Redick.’ Grantland Accessed November 3, 2013.

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8 Responses to The Morality of Sport-Hatred

  • Jes L. Harfeld says:

    Great blog entry, Josh. Thanks.

    I’d like to suggest a sport-hatred which might not be covered by the suggestions you make above.

    This sport-hatred does not necessarily reflect an animosity towards or negative evaluation of the non-sport related character of the person or organisation (it doesn’t matter, in this sport-hatred, whether they are pricks or not). Neither, however, does it reflect a “failing to meet some norm internal to the sport” in the way you seem to suggest – i.e. a failing to do the sport well within the very wide parameters of the game.

    I would like to argue that one can justly sport-hate persons or organisations which ‘corrupt’ that particular sport in question. By ‘corrupt’ I mean praxis or even change which is not against the rules of the game (like, for example, doping, spying, wilfully injuring etc.). Also, this is not about the “failure to rotate on defence, a failure to wrap up a tackle, a failure to make an easy shot, or whatever” which, it seems to me, would be a failing universal to the particular sport. The sport-hatred in question (which is one I sport myself) is aimed at persons or organisations whose way of doing a particular sport makes that sport ‘worse.’ A given athlete can be extremely successful in a given sport, but still corrupt said sport, making it worse and eliciting my hatred. Now, as a case in point, I give you Rafael Nadal. Currently ranked number one in the world and with more than 50 career titles Nadal is obviously an incredibly successful tennis player … whom I hate with a vengeance because he is corrupting my beloved tennis game. The style and aesthetics of Nadal’s tennis is, with its ridiculous topspin and grunting power play from the baseline, as displeasing and wrong as tennis can be at this level. Within the rules of what you are allowed to do and the parameters for how to succeed in winning, Nadal is everything you could wish for. Nonetheless, It breaks my heart – and elicits my sport-hate – that the beauty, gracefulness and technical wonders of Roger Federer (and others) has succumbed to a different and worse kind of tennis.

    Perhaps the future will bring new revolutions in tennis and a new breed of tennis players who, once again, changes the game and brings back beauty. And I will sport-love them for it.

  • Joshua Shepherd says:

    Hi Jes! Thanks for this very insightful comment. I suspect the interplay between sports and morality is much more complex than a blog post could show, and I think you’re onto something.

    If I understand you correctly, particular sports have something like norms of proper functioning (which are sensitive to something . . . aesthetic considerations? more?), and when agents or organizations act violate these norms – perhaps by moving the sport-as-actually-played further away from proper functioning – their doing so justifies sport-hatred in response.

    I do wonder what the ultimate story is concerning the moral justification for this sport-hatred. Maybe you could tell a kind of mirroring story like I told, but perhaps this isn’t the most plausible way to go. The thought occurs to me that since sports is play, and not *as* morally serious as real life, standards for hate-justification might be lower. Perhaps Rafa’s ruining your enjoyment of Tennis is enough, given these lowered standards. But you seem to be going after something more objective than this . . .

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always been a big Rafa fan. I mean, you have to love the hustle (morally love, I mean). But that’s a conversation for another time.

  • Rod T. says:

    Ah, it’s all just in-group/out-group, sharpening-and-leveling horses**t. Throw in a dash of racism here and there and you’ve explained pretty much all sport-hatred.

    Obviously, some people do immoral things which justify disapprobation in the context of a sport that probably shouldn’t qualify as sport-hatred (perhaps Sean Payton’s headhunting regime might count.)

    A lot of legitimately terrible things are done based on this kind of horses**t – death threats, actual killings, destructive gambling, sometimes with mafia involvement (*cough* Tim Donaghy *cough*), drunken fights in bars, etc. It’s all horses**t.

  • Eli Weber says:

    Hi Josh,

    Really interesting post. I tend to think that in addition to the justifiability and proportionality of sport-hatred, we can also morally assess the content of the attitudes that constitute sport-hatred in particular cases. For example, it seems entirely justifiable to sport-hate someone like Alex Rodriguez. He exhibits many morally vicious character traits, and is clearly guilty of multiple violations of norms for fair play. So sport-hating A-Rod seems perfectly justified.

    However, suppose that in sport-hating A-Rod, my sport-hate includes a desire that A-Rod suffer a career-ending injury, as punishment for his transgressions. This desire, suppose, is partially constitutive of my sport-hate for A-Rod. In this case, I think we can conclude that sport-hating A-Rod is both justified and proportional (because the depth of my sport-hate is proportional to A-Rod’s transgressions), but that my desire to see him be terribly injured is morally blameworthy.

    Does that seem right to you? This seems particularly interesting to me, since it suggests that we can be morally blameworthy for aspects of otherwise-justified sport-hate.

  • Joshua Shepherd says:

    Hi Rod,

    I think you are right that people often do all sorts of morally wrong things because of sport-hatred, or at least because of an inability to keep their sport-related emotions directed towards the game. I also think you’re right that some of the darker elements of human nature (in-group/out-group dynamics run amok, racism, etc.) factor into the way we engage in sport. That was something I under-emphasized in my attempt to offer a justification for sport-hatred.

  • Joshua Shepherd says:

    Hi there Eli,

    Yeah, interesting thought. I didn’t work out the proportionality issue in much detail, but I think it’s good to think about the content of the relevant hate-attitudes in this connection. So, desiring that a player get injured is difficult if not impossible to justify, and represents a morally impermissible level of sport-hatred.

    You might want to reject the vague talk of proportions and levels and just go with assessment of content. In fact, focusing on content might be a nice way to get some clarity regarding the contours of justified/unjustified sport-hatred. If something like the mirroring requirement I floated is plausible, then we would need to figure out the structure of the mirroring relation – what about sports mirrors morality, and what doesn’t. I suspect doing so would bring us closer to Jes’s idea, but I’ll have to think more on this.

  • Emily Ryall says:

    There’s a good discussion of this in Tuxill and Wigmore’s (1998) chapter ‘Merely meat’? Respect for persons in sport and games’ in Parry and McNamee’s ‘Ethics and Sport’ book.

    They accept that there is a view that holds “hatred is legitimate in sport; [for instance] Ronald Reagan is quoted as claiming: ‘You can feel a clean hatred for your opponent. It is a clean hatred since it’s only symbolic in a jersey’ (Bredemeier and Shields, 1985, p. 23).” (p111)

    Tuxill and Wigmore consider this view from a Kantian perspective. They argue that hatred of one’s opponent is never acceptable. However, the level of respect one is able to have for one’s opposition diminishes in relation to the rules and nature of the sport. So for parallel activities (such as running, jumping or throwing events) where one does not does not hinder the progress of opponents, respect is possible, whereas for invasion games (such as football and hockey) where one aims to prevent the opposition players from reaching their aims, it is more difficult to respect one’s opponent. With regards to hate, they imply that one may indeed hate one’s opposition in sports such as boxing where you are not only trying to prevent your opponent in reaching their aims (i.e. winning a fight), but you are also doing it in a way whereby you are intending to harm them in the process.

    Whilst I think that Tuxill and Wigmore are wrong in their conclusions regarding combat sports, I do think they are correct in advocating that we ought to respect our opponents in sport, simply because the type of thing they are (human) means that they deserve this respect. As such, whilst it might be morally acceptable to hate particular symbols or actions, it is never morally acceptable to hate others. Therefore, there is no such thing as a ‘clean hatred’ in sport if you accept that your opponent is human.

  • Joshua Shepherd says:

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for the references and for your comment! Tuxill and Wigmore’s proposal is interesting. I am inclined to agree with you, however, that the nature of a sport (e.g., its status as a combat sport) does not justify sport-hatred, at least as I understand the notion. That said, I think sport-hatred is compatible with a level of respect for one’s opponent. As I understand the term, sport-hatred involves intense blame-like emotions and reactions in the context of a particular sport or game. It seems to me like I might be disposed to have these reactions and emotions, and to direct them at opponents, even while I respect those opponents. This might be especially the case if the competition is intense. The thought occurs to me: it might be that I experience some sport-hatred for an opponent precisely because I respect them, and thus wish to compete with them in particularly intense way.

    But I suspect you mean something slightly different when you use the term ‘hate’ in your comment. You say it is never morally acceptable to hate others, but it seems (to me) that it is frequently morally acceptable to experience strong blame-like emotions and attitudes directed at others (or even oneself).


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