Illustration by Caetano Santos
Illustration by Caetano Santos

Sports fans are accustomed to having long, epic debates over who is the best in the field of play and what it means to be the best in a game, with much discussion centered on who to root for and who to root against.

According to the University of North Carolina’s Jan Boxill, in a conference held last Thursday by the UC Santa Cruz philosophy department, sports may be the best barometer for public ethics we have.

“Our sports tell us who we are are and who we’d like to be,” Boxill said. “It would be hard to ignore how sports are designed for self-development.”

A leading ethicist, Boxill focuses on sports ethics and has worked as an announcer in the Olympics as well as for the United States Anti-Doping Agency to determine performance-enhancing drug policy specifics. Beyond her work, Boxill classified herself as a big fan of athletic competition who has received extraordinary access to professional athletes and coaches.

The conference was one of many held in the philosophy department’s Peggy Downes Baskin Lecture Series, according to its official flyer, which focuses on presenting interdisciplinary ethical lectures for students and professors alike.

Boxill explained why a systematic approach to the way games are played and talked about by fans, players and coaches reveals much more about how people view themselves than just the game.

“Even those that are uninvolved are affected by it,” Boxill said. “Why else would heads of state go out of their way for Olympic swimmers?”

Boxill spoke of her three-pronged approach to understanding why sports are important for ethical studies. As sports are self-regulating, public and voluntary, sports become a forum that “dramatize social orders, and human fallibilities … and portray virtues we wish to exhibit in society,” Boxill said.

Boxill said sportsmanship is an ideal we wish to strive for and that those who exemplify bad behavior are part of sports’ ability to examine the way societies view the concept of respect.

“Sports is a challenge, and a challenge requires mutual cooperation,” Boxill said. “It is not just winning [that] dictates how one feels about sports, but the process associated with the game. Disrespect of the rules shows a lack of respect for one’s self.”

More than 30 people packed the audience of the small humanities classroom where Boxill spoke, which included several members of UCSC’s ethics bowl team, graduate students in a variety of disciplines, philosophy professors and UCSC athletics director Linda Spradley.

Ethics bowl team member and third-year philosophy student A.J. Felling said Boxill’s approach better explains why fan culture arises around sports. In questioning Boxill directly after the lecture, Felling asked about motorsports, which had caught his attention due to the ethics of how people “only wish to see crashes.”

“It’s very easy to make hackneyed judgements without knowing how these games work and what makes people continue following them against their better judgement,” Felling said.

Former NCAA Women’s tennis player and third-year UCSC student Soph Lundeberg approached the lecture not as a passive fan, but as an athlete. Lundeberg said what Boxill taught her best was how athletics can become a forum for success.

At a dinner reception held after the meeting, Boxill could hardly eat any of the food provided by UCSC catering because of the many questions being asked to her by Felling, Lundeberg and several graduate students. Lundeberg was excited to have met Boxill.

“I was really excited, this is where I want to go with my life when I think of how much time I’ve spent arguing ethics and playing sports,” Lundeberg said. “I feel like I just met the oracle today.”