Monday, March 1, 2010

"Selfishness" in Sports

I love to watch basketball. It was a sport I have enjoyed for a long time but didn't devote myself to a team until I moved to Southern California and the Lakers got really good. I grew up in central New Jersey and followed the Sixers while Charles Barkley was there but once he was traded to Phoenix, I lost interest (I see no reason in supporting a lousy product and am not ashamed of the "fair-weather fan" label). One thing I notice being said about basketball players that I don't hear nearly as often in other sports (I watch college and professional football, baseball only during the playoffs) is that good players are "unselfish" and bad players are "selfish". Here is a recent example from an article by Charlie Rosen about a great game between the Lakers and Nuggets yesterday afternoon:

But where Kobe reacted to a defense designed to smother him by changing his focus and creating easy shots for his teammates, ’Melo made no such adjustment. Instead, Anthony continued to look for his shots and virtually ignored his teammates. No matter what, ’Melo repeatedly forced shots and tried to bully his way to the rim. That’s why he registered only one assist to go along with his eight turnovers.

In the end, Kobe’s unselfishness and adjustments served to emphasize Anthony’s selfishness and blind stubbornness.

See what I mean? The player on the losing team is "selfish". Whenever I hear this from a broadcaster during a game it makes me cringe. What is selfish about losing? How is that in a player's best interest. This fallacy is based on an altruist's definition of the term, where "sacrifice" (i.e. passing the ball) is the moral high road. If you take the shot, you are selfish. But what about when the shot goes in? How about those amazing last second shots Kobe Bryant has been taking and making all year to win the game for his team. Now that is selfishness as it is properly defined. To win the game is the goal. To win the championship is the longer range goal. Whatever you logically do to make that a reality is what is selfish. It would be unselfish to pass the ball at the last second to a player you had no confidence in. The idea of the team sport is not to sacrifice to the team, but to use reason to work as a cohesive unit that can compete at its highest level and make every attempt to win. It is not unselfish or sacrificial to spend hours in the weight room or gym honing one's skills. Because if the goal is to win, then that practice is what's needed to win. And the heroic, rationally selfish person does not think twice about making that commitment.


  1. There is no "i" in team but there is in win.
    Michael Jordan

  2. We have a stats page in my rugby club's weekly program which lists your number of appearances, your tries and your tries per appearance ratio. It's ridiculous - and creates perverse incentives. We had a great runner who would score many tries but stuff up so many more because he was trying to add to his try tally.
    The measure of a great player is what he contributes to his team's winning.
    I'm a big guy, a front rower, and it's not often I get on the score sheet, as opposed to a fast winger who runs with the ball when guys like me have won the ball for someone to throw him. When I get back in the changing shed after I game I may laugh if I did dot down across the line but my reflection upon my own game is on how I went in the scrums and the lineouts and how many rucks or mauls I got to and made a difference.

    Those guys who hog the ball rather than using their teammates to score are not rationally selfish; it makes me cringe too to hear them described as such.

    Thanks very much for pointing out that in team sports, the overall team performance is what you must focus on as your goal.

    Andrew Bates, London


Thanks for the feedback!