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Philosophers, coaches, athletes to discuss ethics in sports

Philosophers, coaches, student athletes and scholars will look at the contrasting public images of basketball stars Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman and ask which player is more ethical.

They will examine the impact of sports on society ­ and society on sports ­ and ask whether anything is wrong with the marketing strategies that are such a big part of contemporary athletics.

These and other topics are on the agenda for the colloquium " 'If you want to build character, try something else': Ethics and Sports in 1997 and Beyond" that will be held at the Arrillaga Sports Center on Friday, May 16. All sessions are free and open to the public.

Co-sponsored by the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation and the Department of Comparative Literature, the day-long symposium begins at 9 a.m. and will bring together a number of the participants who spoke at "The Athlete's Body in History, on the Field, in Society," a conference held at Stanford two years ago.

Panelists and debaters from academic departments include Ted Leland, director of athletics; Roger Noll, professor of economics; and Provost Condoleezza Rice. Athletic coaches are Mike Montgomery, men's basketball; Robert Weir, track assistant; and Lisa Izzi, women's gymnastics. Three Stanford athletes also will participate.

Elisabeth Bronfen, a Swiss American professor at Columbia University and the University of Zurich who is widely considered the leading specialist in gender studies in the German-speaking world, has been invited to participate. Wolfgang Welsch, professor or philosophy at the University of Magdeburg and an analyst of contemporary culture, also will attend. Representing Stanford will be Patrick Suppes, professor emeritus of philosophy and an authority on the philosophy of science.

The title of the conference is taken from an anti-sport slogan that dates from the late 1960s in the United States. Athletic Revolution, by Jack Scott, popularized the turmoil that athletics was undergoing in those years as critics attacked the traditional concept of sports as a means to strengthen both mind and body.

"Before 1960, sport was very militaristic and its value systems were those of compliance," says Leland. "Today, we've moved away from that to a much more collaborative model between the athlete and coach, and we're interested in the issue of character development because it impinges on everything we do here."

Leland sees the symposium as a chance for coaches to do what he calls "intellectual in-service training."

"The last sentence of the [athletic] department's mission statement notes that 'the intrinsic value to the participant is the primary criterion by which the worth of programs should be judged,'" Leland adds. "If we need to justify sport, it seems to me that the idea that sport builds character is one of the only justifications that works in the long run."

Rick Schavone, women's diving coach and co-organizer of the symposium, says that for many people sports are a mirror of society today.

"You can't pick up a newspaper without reading about an athlete who's done drugs, raped somebody or beaten his wife," he says. "But we're saying, 'No, if you enter the sport world, you improve, you change.' "

By asking three philosophers to discuss the concept of ethics as it relates to sports, Schavone says questions probably will be raised about particular athletes who are constantly in the headlines.

"If we say that ethics has to do with completing the work you're handed, doing the job you're given, then Rodman does the job as well as Jordan. If that's what ethics is, then Rodman is an ethical person."

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature in the department of comparative literature and professor of French and Italian, suggests that if administrators of many college athletic departments were asked about the importance of their work, they would answer that sports build character.

"But they'd say it without really meaning it or knowing why and how," Gumbrecht notes. "And the athletics department at Stanford is saying, 'Let's see how it really works. Let's dismiss all the ready-made answers and start with uncertainty."

To that end, the three invited scholars will each give a brief talk, followed by panel discussions and capped by a final debate. The questions at the center of the day's discussions include the following:

For more information about the symposium, call (415) 723-2904.


By Diane Manuel