Another Perspective...
Is fair play just for losers?
by Sally Planalp and George Cheney
Jan 05, 2017 | 3689 views | 0 0 comments | 439 439 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Among the many other hot topics of 2016, there was a lot of talk about winning and losing, how to “behave” in each role, and what victory or defeat means.

Here’s a story about winning and losing that captured our attention. An American tennis player, Jack Sock, was playing Lleyton Hewitt, an Australian champion, at the Hopman Cup match last January. Hewitt served a ball that the line judge called outside, but Sock urged Hewitt to challenge the call because Sock knew it was inside. Sock was right, leading to his losing the match. This event is newsworthy, but it shouldn’t be. Strangely, one media source concluded that because Sock lost the match, being honest gets you nowhere. This also made international news, with the episode winning the admiration of people around the globe as “sportsmanship at its absolute best.”

What was Sock’s likely thinking? Perhaps: “I’ll always feel guilty for stealing the match from Hewitt?” Or: “I must uphold the rules of the game?” From the video, one gets the sense that he was not thinking anything at all: he just reacted immediately, much to the astonishment of the audience. This is exactly what people often report when they do the right thing by turning in a lost wallet, paying their fair share of income tax, or jumping in the river to save someone who’s drowning. “Of course, that’s what anyone would do.” The rules of fair play and the golden rule are so internalized that no extensive thinking is required.

Games, sports, elections, business competition should be set up so that they fairly determine winners and losers, recognizing that you may be a winner this time and a loser next time. In fact, the odds are very good that you will be a loser as well as a winner, sometime and in one way or another. There’s a special responsibility for winners to make the rules fair because they have more power to do so, but losers also have the responsibility to call out winners who rely on unfair practices as well as to accept fairly determined results.

In 1971, philosopher John Rawls described a clever thought experiment where anyone who “plays” in designing a society does so without knowing what rung on the ladder of wealth and power he or she will be at. As the old protest song goes, “Which side are you on?” According to Rawls, the rules and governing structures should be set up so that no pre-determined answer is required. The system, of course, should work for everyone regardless of social position. This experiment leads to a question: If you didn’t know what your income or wealth would be, would you buy into the current economy? If not, what would you change for the benefit of all?

The hunger organization Oxfam uses this type of experiment as applied to global food inequality through the organization’s famous dinners. All attendees sit in a room and eat dinner, but what each person gets on their plate is determined by lottery. Following the known global distribution of food, 50 percent get rice and water; 30 percent get rice and beans, 20 percent get a Chipotle-type meal, and 1 percent get a fine multi-course restaurant meal. Bon appetit! Diners watch each other eat and are often profoundly affected by the stark differences in circumstances.

It is interesting to apply the concept of fairness to many different situations and policies. Is it fair to require everyone to have health insurance? Is this a case of the majority oppressing the minority? It is easy to fall into thinking that if you are in the majority of people who are reasonably healthy that you will never fall into the minority that needs more medical care. Nevertheless, the great lottery of life can produce accidents, illnesses, and for the lucky, old age with its attendant weaknesses and maladies. You would not want to be turned away from medical care if any of those problems strike; nor would you want to be forced to declare bankruptcy for medical reasons, as so many people do. In a sense, your own and others’ “healthy selves” need to act fairly toward possible future “unhealthy selves.”

The U.S. Constitution and other long-standing governing structures are set up to establish the rules of fair play because the players may come along centuries later (like us). Constitutions may be amended, of course, as ours has been 15 times (not counting the Bill of Rights and Prohibition and its later repeal), but rules of fairness still govern. The citizenry has been expanded, for example, to include former slaves and women, but they too must play by the rules. We have checks and balances among three different branches of government to prevent one from becoming too powerful and dominating the others.

There’s a similar argument for not letting the majority oppress the minority. Religious freedom is not as much for the majority who tend to have freedom but for the minority whose freedom is much more at risk. If you did not know if you were going to be in a religious majority or minority, what would you want? It is often observed that members of the LDS church are especially strong advocates of religious freedom because of their history of religious oppression as a minority. Religious freedom is only one example of another foundational principle of our country — ensuring freedom for unpopular or even marginal groups if those groups do not threaten other foundational rights.

“Fairness” is an interesting idea because like other favorite words it can be used in straightforward and in deceptive ways. For example, when we say we want fairness, are we thinking mainly about ourselves and those who are like us or everyone? Or, do we mean fair play by the same rules for all? Think about what you and others mean by “fairness.”

Lately, rules have been violated all around, and it seems that players like Jack Sock are increasingly rare. One can argue that the U.S. Senate kept the filling of a Supreme Court vacancy from President Obama as guaranteed by the Constitution. One can argue that the Democratic National Committee unfairly manipulated the primary phase to favor Hillary Clinton’s chances over those of Bernie Sanders. Partisan congressional redistricting, known as gerrymandering, is commonly used to strengthen or weaken the power of some constituents to benefit those in power (and keep them there). In North Carolina, a battle is still raging over whether the Republican-controlled legislature has exceeded its authority in limiting the powers of the incoming Democratic governor. Most importantly, it is incumbent on all parties (big and small) to guarantee “non-rigged”elections. That means fair and reasonable procedures for registering to vote, for confirming valid registrations, for voting, and for counting votes. Until we have such a system that is trusted by winners and losers, we are not the great democracy that we claim to be. What have we gained by winning if we undermine the very system that regulates the game and is designed to ensure fairness for everyone?

We should always remember the place of the loser or the minority. We could always be “there” tomorrow.

George Cheney and Sally Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of Communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Copyright 2013 The Times-Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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