A common claim that I’ve heard in various post-game interviews with NFL players and coaches is “There are no moral victories in the NFL.” (See here, or here, or here.) As someone who teaches moral philosophy and who is a football fan, this claim intrigues me. What does this claim mean, and is it true?

In one narrow sense, it’s obviously true. The NFL does not keep track of moral victories. There are no moral victory standings. There are no playoffs for the teams with the most moral victories. There is no Moral Victory Super Bowl.

What is a moral victory? The term “moral” is derived from the Latin word for character. Moral victories are often discussed when good character is displayed, even though in a losing cause. In a paradigmatic example from the first week of this NFL season, the Cleveland Browns fell behind early to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-3. They battled back in the second half, and ended up losing 30-27. After the game, Browns Coach Mike Pettine said, “There are no moral victories in this league, but I was proud of the resolve and the character that showed up.” What message is Pettine trying to send with this comment? He does express pride in the character of his team. He is complimenting his team for their willingness to keep battling, even when the game looked lost. This character trait is clearly a good one, not only in the context of sports, but in many contexts throughout life. Why not simply compliment his team and leave it at that? I take it that the worry here–the worry that leads him to add the “no moral victories” claim to his comments–is that he doesn’t want his team to be satisfied with putting forward a strong effort. His point seems to be that whatever pride is taken in a strong effort needs to be tempered by the fact that the team lost. He is guarding against complacency, against losing sight of the goal of victory.

We need to consider this goal of victory. In his poem, “Alumnus Football,” noted sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes–not that you won or lost–

But how you played the Game.

Is the “no moral victories” claim simply a rejection of Rice’s claim? Is the idea that the only thing that matters in the NFL is winning and losing, character be damned? This is certainly a danger with sports and games in general and with professional sports where millions of dollars are at stake more specifically. The drive to win can swamp the concern with character. Is Pettine saying that a moral victory, a display of good character, does not matter in the NFL? Is he saying that winning is the only thing that matters in the NFL? If this is all that is going on with this sort of rhetoric, I would have a hard time continuing to be an NFL fan.

A different interpretation of the “no moral victories” claim is available however. To start with, I agree with Aristotle that a crucial part of a good life for us is developing and exercising our capacities. (See Book I, Chapter 7 of his Nicomachean Ethics.) A major contribution that sports and games can make to our living a good life is that they can help us develop and exercise our capacities. We are fascinated by sports because of the peak human performances that they contain. We watch highlights from games in slow motion because we marvel at the physical feats on display. Sports have the capacity to develop and display good character along with physical excellence, however. Participating in sports can help us develop perseverance, teamwork, and a variety of other virtues. “Commitment to Excellence” is not just a Raider slogan; we engage in sports because they help us develop our excellences–excellences of body and of intellect and of character. If this is right, if developing human excellence is a central purpose of sports, then moral victories–those times when excellence of character is displayed in the course of a sporting event–certainly should be part of the NFL. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is simply a warped, misguided perspective on the ultimate purpose and value of sports.

Things are a bit more complicated, however. Even if we agree that a central purpose of sports is to help us develop our capacities, we need to consider how they do this. And one way they do this is by getting us to focus on a goal internal to the activity, the goal of winning. We set out an arbitrary list of rules. Those rules set out an arbitrary way of assigning points to various events in the game, such as touchdowns and field goals and safeties and extra points. Winning then gets defined in this arbitrary way by the rules of the game. By playing the game, the players commit themselves to this arbitrarily constructed goal, but doing this promotes the development of the skills and character traits that we might regard as the true goal of the activity. Imagine a coach who sees his role as encouraging his players to develop their capacities, including their character. Such a coach might have a team which has displayed a great deal of character in a losing cause. Such a coach might ask his team to stay focused on the (lesser and arbitrary) goal of victory in order to promote the continued development of their capacities. Perhaps the goal of developing the virtue of perseverance is well served by focusing on the goal of victory. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is one way of keeping players focused on the continued development of their capacities, which is the ultimate moral victory.


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