Albert Camus wrote that what he knew most surely about morality, he owed to sport.
Camus was an author, philosopher and amateur footballer (he played in goals for the University of Algiers).
He held the view that political groups, religious bodies and other similar authorities, tend to create moral systems and frameworks that impose artificial and overly complex values on our lives, typically to suit their own ends and purposes.
Whereas he believed that a more simplistic sense of morality could be forged through resilient participation in basic human activities and practices. A sense of collective purpose, work ethic, bravery, discipline and fair play, characterise playing in a football team, for example, just as much as they give a sense of meaning to our own individual lives.
Building our idea of morality from the ground up as opposed to receiving it from external ‘authorities’ is the best we can hope for, according to this way of thinking. And there is a strong sense in which this view appeals to me.
But there is a problem with it, which the analogy with football highlights perfectly: it would be one thing to cultivate a sense of collective purpose among a group of naturally individualistic thinkers; it would be another thing entirely to use this as a foundation for morality, especially when our individualistic preferences rarely leave us.
There are too many instances of cheating and rule-breaking, bias and discrimination, self-indulgence and psychological egoism in football, as in the vast majority of human activities, that it hardly serves this purpose well. But on the other hand, Camus does seem to have a point regarding the artificiality and tendency to bias inherent in the alternative approach.
So the question we are left with is this: through which source do we come to understand the values of honesty, equality, fairness and integrity that are assumed to sit at the heart of sport, morality and life? Who or what defines them?
If we define these values through engaging in basic human activities and practices, they become susceptible to individualistic preference; if we have them imposed on us through external authorities, they become susceptible to authoritarian bias and corruption.
When we talk about upholding the value of integrity in sport, how do we know that our understanding of integrity is authentic; how do we know that our sense of integrity is not in some way tainted by our own individual preferences, particularly in football, when individual preferences are partly definitive of the competition itself?
Do we rely on the relevant authorities to define integrity in terms of the notions of fair play, sportsmanship, transparency and tolerance? Do we assume we understand this definition in a non-circular way? And how do we know that we can rely on footballing authorities not to subtly modify the meaning of integrity, as a direct consequence of their commercial responsibility to maximise revenue in the game?
The crux of the problem is that if you try to define the notion of sporting integrity from a vantage point within the system that it is supposed to regulate, it comes under pressure from competing and contradictory demands. If you try to define it from outside that system, there is a danger that the definition will fail to cope with the complexities that emerge from within the system.
It is incredibly difficult to get out of this tangle.
Our interpretation of what sporting integrity consists in is dangerously close to losing its authenticity whichever way you define it.
And its function as a standard is just as useful as one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s elastic rulers that shrinks or expands to fit the size of the object it is measuring.