Dirty Hands and Professional Athletics

November 15, 2011

Dirty Hands, Honor, Political Theory


Over the last few weeks, we have spent a lot of time talking about Machiavelli’s The Prince and Martin Hollis’ Dirty Hands. The Prince is essentially a piece of writing that outlines how Machiavelli believes a Prince should rule over his people. The Hollis reading, which is based around many of Machiavelli’s ideas, presents the principle we have talked about, that of Dirty Hands. This principle states that in politics, people are forced to make decisions they know are immoral and wrong, but do so for the betterment of the greater good.

Something that I have been thinking about over the last few days is whether I could relate the principle of Dirty Hands to something other than politics, and one possibility that came to mind was sports. In our world some of the most popular people are professional athletes. They make millions of dollars while serving as some of our biggest role models; although most of them have nothing to do with politics, I believe that because of recent events, that the Dirty Hands theory may be applicable to sports. Do professional athletes, as role models, millionaires and celebrities have an obligation to their fans to play clean and free of illegal substances? Or do you think this is a stretch, and the theory of Dirty Hands can’t be applied to professional sports?

In 2003, the federal government launched an investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Company (BACLCO) which was owned by Victor Conte, and for years had been suspected of providing performance enhancing drugs to many professional athletes, especially baseball players. As the investigation began to heat up, information began to surface that linked prominent American athletes such as baseball players Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens and Olympic gold medalists Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery to steroid usage. As more details began to surface, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig asked former Senator George Mitchell to lead an investigation into past steroid usage by MLB players. In December 2007, The Mitchell Report was released and it rocked the sports world, because its findings coincided with the BALCO investigation, and implicated Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens, among many others as probable steroid users. At this point, I believe that the theory of Dirty Hands is applicable to professional athletics, because just a few months after the report was released, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Roger Clemens, were indicted on federal charges of obstruction of justice, lying to a grand jury and perjury. Marion Jones, would ultimately be stripped of all five of her gold medals from the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and was sentenced to six months in jail, while Bonds and Clemens are still entangled in legal troubles of their own.

The reason I believe this issue could be considered Dirty Hands, is that from the very beginning these athletes, who already have plenty of money and fame, made the decision to break the rules of their athletic leagues and the federal government. Like the politicians who are the leaders of our nation, these athletes who are the faces of their respective teams and sports, put themselves above other players and knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs in hopes of making themselves and their teams more successful. I argue that in this situation the players viewed enhanced skills as beneficial for themselves and their teammates, because it would help to make their teams better as a whole. However, the implicated athletes made matters worse, because they could have came clean and saved themselves more trouble, but they knowingly lied again. This second attempt to deceive their fans and teammates, only to dug them into a deeper whole, one that has already put a five time gold medalist in prison.

What do you think Machiavelli would say about the athletes’ decision to use steroids? Would he support it, saying that they should do whatever they can to get a leg up on their competition (that is if they could be a fox and not get caught) or would he call them fools for putting themselves in such a position in the first place? Judging from The Prince and the Hollis reading, I think Machiavelli would be in favor of anything these athletes could to do give themselves and their teams an advantage, regardless of whether they needed to break the rules to do so. However, I think the most important thing he would say is that they must not get caught, because these athletes are the leaders of their sports, just like a Prince is the leader of his people.

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10 Comments on “Dirty Hands and Professional Athletics”

  1. bmschmid Says:

    I agree with most of your points, however the problem of Dirty Hands does not apply to sports in my opinion. The Dirty Hands problem is inherently a political theoretical conundrum. Trying to compare decent men of government who the public openly elects to sports stars that have no obligation or responsibility to their people is unfair. Leaders of the people and leaders of sports teams are not congruent because citizens look up to their representative so that person can represent their constituencies, but who do sport stars represent? They represent themselves. Politicians are also known as public or civil servants, sport stars are only servants to themselves. Role models and actually governmental leaders with real influence can not be put in the same light/

  2. samyoovpolsci Says:

    I do think that dirty hands problems exists in sports. However, not it the form of drugs, but rather through playing dirty. The usage of drugs is usually for personal glory rather than for the team. For a dirty hands problem to be valid, the immoral deed must be done for the benefit of others. Drugs is explicitly a personal thing.
    However, there are moments in sports where the Dirty hands problems does occur. In soccer, for example, a player would foul an opposition player if losing that man meant the potential of being scored against. In such cases, the fouling player will be given a card, but the commentators and the players all accept the card, sometimes even calling it a “necessary” play. Although the player did an immoral deed, he did it for his team. Just like a politician who would do an immoral deed for his constituents.
    Furthermore, when it comes to national team games, this idea becomes even more relevant as the players no longer simply play for themselves but represent their respective nations, justifying the dirty hands problem even more.

  3. hoeylue Says:

    The dirty hands problem is the problem of people doing something bad in order to do something good for the society, and not only for themselves. In order to transfer this problem to sports, we have to ask ourselves whether the bad athletes do really is for the good of the society or merely for them. As you mentioned in your post, athletes belong to the most popular and wealthy group, our society has to offer. The only motivation to still keep on doping must be their own need to achieve something special. And when they achieve to break a world record, or something similar to that, they would have done something for their own aims and goals and not necessarily for our society.
    On the other hand we should also consider whether there is direct harm to us, as a society, when athletes engage in doping. They obviously reap the pleasure of success alone but also carry the risk of having problems with their health alone. In other words, there is no real harm or advantage for the society before and after an athlete has doped. The question of fairness towards other athletes is another one, but is not related to the dirty hands problem.
    We also should ask ourselves whether we as a society want to see athletes on the Olympics who all are very similar to each other, in terms of strength and skills, or do we prefer to see athletes like Lionel Messi and Hussein Bolt, who clearly exceed their peers in various ways. I think the majority of us would prefer the second alternative, simply because of the fun and excitement it generates. In this case however, athletes could dope in order to satisfy the demand of the society and we would have a case of dirty hands.
    Another possibility of dirty hands could be the case, as you also slightly mentioned in your post, that doping can help single athletes to make their team win a game, as it is the case in all of the team sports.

  4. rfieds Says:

    While I think the article is very interesting and confronts a problematic issue in contemporary sports, I do not think that Machiavelli nor Hollis would consider issues concerning sports to involve dirty hands. Dirty hands is the willingness of a politician to do something immoral or wrong, yet at the wellbeing of society or the nation as a whole. I think that athletes are all immoral and wrong for thinking that steroids is an acceptable way to better their athletic abilities and I frown upon them for that. What these athletes are doing is both bad for society and bad for themselves. I do not see any dirty hands present in what they have done. If taking steroids elicited any form of dirty hands, then all athletes would take them in belief that they would bettering society in some form. However, many athletes have refrained from using steroids because they understand that it is illegal, immoral, and constituting an utter disadvantage to society. I completely agree with you when you say that the athletes have made matters worse because they could have came clean and saved themselves more trouble. This creates an even bigger problem for society and for the players themselves because they refuse to come to reveal the truth.

  5. jeanrichmann Says:

    I believe that cases of dirty hands do not apply to professional athletes. Steroid usage is not a case of dirty hands, rather just dirty hands. The ends may justify the means, the baseball players risk their personal health to become stronger and improve their athletic ability in order to perform better. However, the motive for performing this act of dirty hands is due to personal selfishness. In order for dirty hands to be justifiable, the dirty action must be for the good of the country, or other individuals. Baseball players use steroids not for the good of other individuals, but for selfish reasons. Players take steroids to perform better; this better performance leads to a large contribution to the team, making the player a larger asset. This then leads to a larger salary. Professional athletes use steroids to help generate a larger salary, not for the good of the team or the country for that matter. In order for dirty hands to be considered a case of dirty hands, the ends must justify the means AND the action must be done for the good of the people. When the action is done for personal benefit, there is no justification to the act of dirty hands.

  6. nluongo Says:

    I like how you have tried to apply the Dirty Hands problem to sports, and I can see how it is possible. One could argue that a city or other group of people “elects” a player by hiring him or her to play on that city’s team. A player may then feel that they have an obligation to fulfill certain duties for that city, win a championship for example. They would then have to decide whether or not to use illegal drugs to increase their performance and win for their fans. In this way an athlete would be doing an immoral act for the good of their city, which is clearly a problem of Dirty Hands.
    However, I admit that this might too idealistic in that it assumes that athletes are working for their city and not for their own personal gain. If the baseball players are simply taking steroids for a higher salary then Dirty Hands do not apply since it is the motivation for the immoral act that provides the distinction.

  7. jrsmyth177 Says:

    I think the only way you could apply dirty hands here is if the athlete was TRULY playing for the people in the city. If the athlete thought that performance enhancing drugs would bring their team a championship, which in hand would bring the city fame and even better bring it money then it would be dirty hands. I think that it is hard to put this assumption on professional athletes. Sure some athletes may want to win for their city, but that is not their driving force. Professional athletes are driven by money and fame. Athletes are not driven to bring their city fame, rather an athlete works for ultimate fame and huge amounts of money. Every professional player’s goal is to win a championship and go to the Hall of Fame. They work for their own fame not their city, that is why I think dirty hands do not apply.

    I would say that Machiavelli would support the use performance enhancing drugs if the athlete really felt that their team relied on his or her performance. He would say that doing this would definitely give their team a leg up on the competition. The only thing is, this is also hard to apply. Again we cannot assume that professional players play for their team. I would say that the stars of the team play for their own fame, while the role players play to win a championship. There self-imposed goals are more important then their teams. You bring up very interesting ideas that could go both ways, but I just think that it is hard to assume that athletes play for other people not themselves.

  8. benjishanus Says:

    I think it is absolutely crazy to think that athletes who used steroids and other forms of illegal performance enhancing drugs did so for “the betterment” of their teams and fan bases respectively. That’s garbage. They did so in order to give themselves an unfair advantage over the rest of the competition. They did so to cheat with the hopes of not getting caught.

    Your point that they already had plenty of money already is far from true in a lot of these cases. There have been countless players who tested positive for steroids in the minor leagues, or before they signed anything close to a lucrative contract. The reason they did so was to give themselves a CHANCE to one day become a star making millions of dollars. In reality, although so many athletes are in fact completely loaded, the vast majority of professional athletes (most of whom we would not normally hear about), does not make nearly enough money to make a living for the rest of his (maybe her) life. This is then a huge issue as most athletes do not have the education or skills to spin a poor playing career into a successful post-atheltic career. That being the case, a lot of athletes feel the need to cheat in order to make a living and become noticed.

    Regardless, I can’t see any relationship whatsoever between athletes cheating and making society better as a whole, hence, this is NOT a case of dirty hands. They have a moral obligation to preserve the integrity of the sport and play fairly for all those who look up to them. Not to mention, there is no doubt that their primary motivation for using these illegal drugs is to give themselves an unfair advantage, which may ultimately lead to a bigger paycheck at the end of the day. The bottom line is that when athletes make the horrific decision of cheating via performance enhancing drugs, they are looking out for themselves and only themselves.

  9. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    I do not think that steroids can be applied to the idea of dirty hands. For Machiavelli, the justification of dirty hands is that it benefits the common good. When he argued that the ends justify the means he wasn’t talking about selfish ends. I think that when these athletes took steroids, they mostly did so for their own selfish reasons. They just wanted to make money, get famous, and be loved by millions.
    The only one who I can really see possibly having some unselfish motivation is Marion Jones. I could understand an argument that she was pressured into taking steroids because she wanted to bring international glory to her country in the Olympics, though in the end she only brought her country shame.
    Basically, I just think steroids are more immoral than they are a case of dirty hands.

  10. golortegui Says:

    I think that the issue of steroids in baseball becomes an issue of dirty hands only after MLB decided to start testing its players for performance enhancing drugs. The fact of the matter is that before 2004, taking steroids was nothing more than frowned upon. If a player decided to use steroids in that era he may have been committing an act that compromised his own morals and values, but there were no laws in baseball that penalized him for doing so. Under the current system, if he were to take steroids it would be a case of dirty hands because now there are laws in place that makes it so that the advantage is unfair (and therefore immoral), whereas before there was no regulation.

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