After Virtue and Basketball

Sports suffer from a lack of absolute standards

Bracket makers take note: this past Tuesday the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team won their 72nd straight game, beating West Virginia by a whopping 28 points. The lopsided outcome was nothing new for this team, which has averaged a 32.5-point margin of victory during their record-setting streak. Although these juggernauts have clearly displayed their dominance in this particular season, the question remains: Are they the greatest ever? Some talking heads profess that they will be if they win the national championship at the end of this season, others doubt whether this team could contend with the 2001-2003 UConn team that won 70 straight. No matter which stance an onlooker takes, the argument illustrates the absence of an agreed-upon definition of ultimate value in sports. This problem is nothing new.

In the early 1980s, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre related a similar concern on a broader level; although we rate many things “good” or “bad” and pretend to operate as if we have absolute definitions these values, we in fact we have none. Therefore, in “After Virtue,” MacIntyre implores humanity to create agreed-upon laws based on rational virtues. Without such standards, issues of conflicting values reign. Sports as usual represent a microcosm of this dilemma. UConn’s team may have won more consecutive games than any other women’s team, but is this the mark by which greatness is awarded? If UConn loses in this year’s championship game to a team who is riding a mere 11-game win streak, would they still be considered deserving of the trophy or the title “best team”? This scenario only scratches the surface of the collective dissonance held in sports by competing measures of worth.

The Olympics is the mecca of sporting controversy, and it is precisely because its system of values is not standardized or agreed upon. Countries compete unofficially for the highest medal count, but should total medals count more than type? Although the United States won a record 37 medals at last month’s Vancouver games, they won five fewer gold medals than Canada; should silver and bronze medals have put our nation in the lead?

These debates become even more confusing when trying to designate an athlete as the “greatest Olympians.” In 2008, Michael Phelps wowed the world by capturing eight gold medals in the swimming events he competed in, quickly garnering him that title. But from another perspective, this is hardly fair based on the Olympic structure. There is little doubt that Phelps is the greatest swimmer of our time, but swimming allows for many more medal opportunities than other sports. How can it be fair to reason that Phelps is greater than an Olympic volleyball player, who has only one medal to compete for playing. If both athletes win all of the medals they were able to compete for, naming Phelps the greatest reveals its conditional meaning.

What ensues in the sporting world where no standards of excellence or value are set aside is plurality of honor and accomplishment. Awards in the NBA are given to the best non-starter (sixth man award), and in the Olympics athletes are dubbed “most decorated” even if they have failed to win a gold medal. During the 2002 World Series the MLB unveiled their top 10 “most memorable moments” with the top moment going to Carl Ripken Jr. playing the most consecutive games of all time.


And so the beat will go on in sports, like morality, as more teams, players, and coaches are deemed “the best this” and “the greatest that” while absolute worth remains to be defined. Such praise should not continue to be given without serious reflection. In the age where the specific virtues in our morals are increasingly harder to pinpoint, in our sports there exist infinite bests by infinite definitions. UConn will most likely win this year’s NCAA tournament, but that’s but one marker of achievement.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.