Feature Article

Fair Game, II
by Stephen Sniderman
(The first part of this article, Fair Game,
appeared in The Life of Games, No. 3.)

Fair and Unfair Advantages

In games and sports, you are said to have an advantage over another (or others) when conditions seem to favor your success over your opponent(s). In other words, you have an advantage over your opponent when you have a better chance of winning than s/he does. Some advantages (such as home-field) precede play, others (such as being ahead in the score) are “earned” during the play itself. Some advantages are very obvious, others are almost imperceptible. Some are visible, others are intangible.

But why are some advantages acceptable to us and others are not? Why do we work hard to eliminate or minimize certain advantages and not others? How do we tell the difference between a “fair” and an “unfair” advantage? Advantages that intuitively seem fair include the following:

  • greater physical or mental ability;
  • greater concentration;
  • more experience;
  • more diligent practice;
  • more effort or “hustle” or energy expended;
  • greater speed;
  • faster reflexes;
  • greater knowledge;
  • better vocabulary;
  • better co-ordination.

In general, we think of these as legitimate reasons for one player or team to have a better chance of winning than another. It’s hard to imagine someone seriously saying, “That race wasn’t fair. He was faster than I was.” Or, “We wuz robbed [in a baseball game]. They outhustled us.” Or, “You cheated [at Scrabble]. You know more words than I do.”

We also seem to believe that certain inherent character traits give players a justifiable advantage, though they have little to do with the skills being tested by a particular competition. We praise players for having grace under pressure, confidence in their ability, a winning attitude, a “killer instinct,” a “game face,” a “poker face.” All of these supposedly give players a competitive edge in almost any competition and usually separate the near-great from the great, which means that virtually all games and sports are testing these intangible qualities.

On the other hand, advantages most of us would consider unfair include behaviors we call “cheating”: 

  • having more players on your side (e.g., in a tug-of-war or a football game);
  • using marked cards during a poker game;
  • jumping the gun in a race;
  • doctoring your equipment (such as putting cork in a bat);
  • playing an opponent who’s groggy from a medication;
  • building up your body with drugs that aren’t available to your opponent;
  • using secret hand signals in bridge;
  • adding a foreign substance to a baseball before pitching it;
  • punching your opponent during a pileup in football;
  • surreptitiously pushing your opponent during a race.

We also seem to think that various differences between players (such as age, gender, weight, physical handicap, school size, or professional status) give one individual or team an unfair (dis)advantage. In these cases, we keep one set of players from playing “down,” i.e., playing those over whom (we believe) they have an insurmountable advantage of some sort. For example, we rarely allow males and females to compete against each other, we have leagues for youngsters and brackets for oldsters that are age-specific, we pit boxers and wrestlers against others in the same weight class, we have a Special Olympics only for those with specified physical impairments, we divide high school and college sports into divisions based on the student population or the number and type of athletic scholarships they’re allowed to give, and (except in specially defined events), we say that people who have earned money in competition should not compete against people who haven’t.

An inconsistency?

And yet, we generally allow teams or individuals with vastly different skill levels to compete against each other, and in most cases without a handicap or head start. Evidently, no one sees this kind of situation as unfair, even in individual sports and games, since we make no effort to “handicap” these games (although we handicap the betting).

As a result, it is not uncommon to see very lopsided scores in high school or college sports. In fact, when we do introduce handicaps into a sport, it’s probably not so much to make the game “fairer” but to make it more interesting, to make the outcome less predictable and more suspenseful.

In any case, the handicap never completely compensates for the difference in skill levels. It’s usually some percentage (like 2/3) of the difference in two players’ average scores. In actual play, the weaker player is still at a distinct disadvantage. I would guess that most people would think it would be unfair to “penalize” the better player by giving the weaker one a handicap that would allow him or her to win more than half the time.

For some reason that is not clear to me, we rarely devise leagues based strictly on ability, leagues which cross gender and age lines. (One exception is tennis, which often has tournaments or leagues based on players’ skill-level ratings.) Presumably, we could make competitive male-female contests in most sports by pitting females against younger males. For example, we might put 12th grade girls in a tournament with 10th (or 9th or 11th) grade boys, but, to my knowledge, no one has ever seriously proposed such a possibility.

Our bias against mixing the genders is so strong, apparently, that we have not even done the research necessary to find out how much older females would have to be to give males a run for their money. Why do we continue to insist that girls play only girls and boys play only boys in junior high, high school, college, and pro athletics? Is this an issue of fairness or just plain old sexism? Are guys’ egos really so fragile that a sophomore male would be devastated to lose to a senior female?

Equally puzzling to me, we never set up leagues for non-professionals on the basis of

  1. the amount of time they spend practicing;
  2. how many years they’ve been playing;
  3. the age at which they started playing;
  4. how many private lessons they’ve had;
  5. how much financial and emotional support they get from their parents;
  6. how good the facilities and equipment are that are available to them;
  7. how good their nutrition is,

and so on. Some differences that make one player better than another are perceived as needing to be “corrected,” while others are not. Are we operating out of practical necessity (since it would be quite difficult to determine these things about players) or do we just do things this way because we’ve always done them this way? Is there an underlying pattern to all this?

One Theory

For the moment, let’s assume there is and try to come up with a theory of fairness that makes sense out of our practices, that finds some kind of logic (or at least superficial consistency) in the way we treat games and sports in our culture. All right, first attempt:

We perceive an advantage to be fair when we assume it derives from a superiority in those skills, talents, abilities, or traits that we believe the game is designed to test and not from what we would label as “extraneous” factors.

For example, we might claim that a running race is intended to test the participants’ relative speed, body control, handling of pressure, and competitive spirit. It seems reasonable to say that the race is supposed to answer the question, “Who can run this distance in the shortest amount of time?” Our goal, we might argue, is to equalize all other factors so that that question can be answered as meaningfully as possible.

By that reasoning, an unfair advantage would be one which is believed to result from some factor other than those being tested by the sport. For example, some people are claiming that the new bodysuits that swimmers are wearing give some athletes an unfair advantage. As an article in Sports Illustrated asks, “How many Third World swimmers can afford the suits, which cost between $130 and $250? Are records set by swimmers in these suits tainted?”

In the same article, it’s pointed out that, for the 2000 Olympics, the International Cycling Federation outlawed the use of “SuperBikes, those high-tech, lightweight, $30,000 wonders” so that poorer nations could afford to compete in the cycling events. Apparently, being able to buy better equipment was perceived as unfair because it’s not allowing us to test accurately which players have the better skills.

Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. For one thing, it’s often pretty hard to say what qualities are being “tested” by a game or sport. For example, what characteristic does an all-luck game (like War [the card game] or “Chutes and Ladders” or bingo or a lottery) test? Are they designed to determine how lucky the players are? Is lucky-ness a “trait” that inheres in each individual and which can be ascertained through the playing of a game the way speed or strength or cleverness can?

In addition, there seem to be many other counterexamples. Why, for example, would we not want to prevent professionals from competing in amateur tournaments if the “real” goal of a competition is to test the skills associated with that type of activity? What difference does it make if some people make a living at it and others don’t? If the professional is better, hasn’t s/he earned that superiority?

Some would undoubtedly argue that the professional benefits unfairly from the fact that s/he earns a living at a particular sport and therefore can spend far more hours practicing than someone who has to make a living at some other job. In addition, the professional usually has the best coaching money can buy, the best equipment, and so on. Therefore, this argument might run, we must “protect” amateurs from having to play against the pros. There should be a venue in which people who play for the love of the game can compete against others like them.

If we accept that argument, then we are not just interested in finding out which players have the best skills associated with a contest; we are evidently also interested in how they acquired those skills. Since American athletes, reporters, and fans have often been heard to moan that the athletes (and chess-players) of Eastern-bloc nations get an unfair advantage because the state subsidizes them whereas those in Western countries have to foot their own bills, it seems obvious that we do not think that competition is intended merely to test people’s skill level. In some contexts, we seem to think of a contest as fair only if all players have roughly equivalent opportunity to acquire their skills.

But our ideas on this issue are clearly muddled, as a look at the Olympics will quickly show. For many years, the Olympic Committee did not allow professionals in various sports to compete in the Olympics, but now the rules allow them in some competitions (like basketball and tennis) and not others (like diving and gymnastics). Is this just a case where politics outweighs our notion of fairness, or should we recognize that the professional/amateur question is a perfect borderline case that will ultimately help us define what we mean by a legitimate advantage?

What about genetic advantages?

Either way, other counterexamples come to mind. For instance, great height is not generally perceived to be an unfair advantage in basketball, even though it is not something the player can claim credit for. Obviously, it’s just a lucky accident of genetics. Yet when one team’s players are significantly taller than another’s, we don’t usually complain that that team’s victory is somehow tainted. According to the “testing traits” theory, we should. Does it make sense to say that tallness is one of the traits basketball is “testing”?

Similarly, our culture seems to accept the as-yet-unproven (and perhaps unprovable) notion that genes make black basketball players able to jump higher, on average, than white players, but I don’t remember hearing anyone say that the resulting advantage is unfair.

In fact, reporter Jon Entine has published a book (Taboo:  Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It) that offers “scientific” evidence for this highly controversial position, that athletes with African ancestry have a genetic advantage over others in sports that require speed and explosive jumping ability, but nowhere in this book does Entine or any one he quotes suggest that that advantage is unfair or that runners with no (recent?) African ancestry need to be afforded a “head start” in sprints. He also says that “blacks” have more difficulty swimming than other athletes because they are “sinkers,” but he doesn’t suggest that we handicap swimming races in favor of Africans or put weights on the non-African swimmers, as if they were horses in a race.

(In this context, some readers might remember Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” which brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of trying to “equalize” everyone’s chances of success in life by assigning handicaps—tangible disadvantages—to those who are smarter, more beautiful, stronger, or faster.)

If players of a certain ethnic background inherit spring in the legs or quick reflexes or height or the ability to float, why are those inherited characteristics not considered unfair? After all, some are. According to Newsweek, for example,

Some athletes and coaches argue that international sports are unfair because, for instance, Caucasian ethnic groups typically have significantly higher levels of muscle-building testosterone than North Asians do. Some athletes therefore pump up their testosterone levels just below the allowable threshold, a source inside Beijing sports circles told Newsweek, “as a way of leveling the playing field” (September 11, 2000, p. 44).

If we had some way to determine, once and for all, that Caucasians have more testosterone than Asians or that Africans have more fast-twitch muscles than any other group (as Jon Entine claims), what should we do about it? What would be “fair”?

Should we handicap sports on the basis of ethnic background, gender, age, ability? We currently give handicaps in some sports, like golf, bowling, horse racing, go, chess, and not in others. Why? And doesn’t our willingness to narrow the gap between competitors by giving weaker players an artificial advantage further undermine the theory that sports are “testing traits”? If we give someone a head start in a race, will the result tell us who the faster runner is?

"Fair Game, II" by Stephen Sniderman35 | 36 | 37

The Life of Games
No. 4 (April 2007)
©2007 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.