From sexual abuse scandals to police violence, through racial discrimination, athletes have become in recent years the real spokespersons for certain societal issues, as we saw on Wednesday at the Parc des Princes. While the world of high-level sport appeared to be a closed and opaque universe often on the fringes of social issues, the speeches and protest actions of athletes invite to rethink the place of the athlete in our society, but also the very essence values carried by the high performance community. It is from a reflection on this theme that the philosopher Bernard Andrieu sheds light on the idea of a new sports ethic inseparable from a philosophy of the body and bodily commitment.
In your book Sports ethics, you come back to the prevailing moral values in this area. What do we find behind these values?
These are extremely traditionalist values, part of the heritage of Pierre de Coubertin, in other words in the wake of Olympic morality. It is a question here of a theoretical universal morality which puts forward dignity, respect and fair play. There is the idea that these values are universal enough to be shared by any culture and by any athlete, which makes them sort of a moral message, a screed or a table of the world. law, since the heads of institutions will refer in their code of ethics to these rules. But it is not enough to put forward values for them to be necessarily followed. There are many cases of violations of these rules in the world of sport, whether with racism, acts of violence, sexism, etc. And when the president of the International Olympic Committee declares that sport is not political, it is because it considers precisely that it would be enough to respect the moral rules of the Olympic charter so that, finally, the sportsmen and the sportsmen find solutions and satisfactions in the problems which they encounter.
Do you differentiate sports ethics from sports ethics?
Sports ethics is the way in which an athlete has incorporated the moral rule by adapting it to the context of his discipline. In other words, it is a reflection on the orientation that he will give to his body, to his gesture, to his act, according to the moral values of sport. In sports ethics, there is the standard that applies through the rule, in sports ethics, the actor, the athlete or sportswoman is obliged to think of the application of the rule in relation to a judgment, to an interpretation that he will make of it. And it is in this sense that we speak of applied ethics, since it involves judging on a case-by-case basis. Ethics is not morality because morality is based on institutions in sport, with powerful codes. In reality, we subscribe here to a thought specific to Aristotle, since ethics is considered as the moment of reflection of sportsmen on their relationship to the rule. The athlete seems to be in a relationship of obedience, he is therefore in the moral, and in fact generates few problems. But as he also has a power of ethical elaboration of his act, he will realize that he can produce a new value and switch to a relationship of agency.
What should we understand by this notion of agency?
This agency is the athlete’s ability to claim, to be the author of a new value. And this demand is made in terms of commitment, in terms of opinion, in terms of thought, but above all from within the practice. Agency is not something that would come from outside, like when we boycotted the Olympics where we used sport to play politics. Today with this notion, we use our sport, our existence, our experience, our interiority to denounce a certain number of things and affirm a certain number of values. There is here a real performative power of enunciation on the part of the athlete. The Sarah Abitbol case is a case in point. This former skater has written a book in which she recounts the circumstances and conditions of the sexual violence she suffered at the hands of a trainer. She was able to describe this painful experience because she exists as a person, as a sports subject. For this, it was necessary that she especially mourn the effectiveness of sports ethics. Since morality, law, appeals to the federation have not solved the problem. Agency is in a way a form of revolt against the carelessness, the ineffectiveness of the establishment in solving concrete and practical problems.
Are we not witnessing a form of reappropriation of this agency by the major sports industries, such as Nike or Decathlon?
The problem with sport is that it is inside a system of economic valuation, that it is a market. The real question is who are the people who buy the shoes, T-shirts, etc. These are communities of practitioners who, precisely, recognize themselves more and more through spokespersons, that the big brands will not hesitate to market in order to be able to gain market share. Those of traditional sport are disappearing with the emergence of practices outside clubs and federations. Today we are much more concerned with urban and transversal practices. And while we see that the authorities have not changed one iota their positioning in relation to the rules and moral values, the market will take these revolts into account in order to be able to trade them. It can indeed appear, as a recovery by capitalism, but at the same time, it is also part of a modality of recognition. That is, if you don’t do something spectacular as an athlete to claim new value, you will not be visible. If you are not visible, you are not recognized. I believe that many athletes are aware of this and thus use their own brand. Just look at what happened in the NBA, where they were on the verge of stopping the championship. It took pressure from Obama, brands, etc. Indeed, commerce needs agency. And agency needs commerce. In addition, one can wonder about marketing choices, since there is a kind of selection by the market, noble causes. However, for agency, all the causes are noble since they arise from conflicts, from lived situations.
To have lasting agency, it would therefore be necessary to tackle the foundations of sport, and ensure that athletes and institutions are trained on ethical issues?
We continue to regard the athlete as a patient, as an obedient being, and already very happy when we give him a subsidy to do his sport. With such consideration, we will always be in a kind of non-sustainability of agency, in a kind of protest mode fueled only by networks. And for what political efficiency?
Does this relationship to the agency of the athletes make it possible to draw up a criticism of the major sporting bodies?
It is true that faced with these issues and these protest movements, we have a sort of blockage of the establishment. When there is a problem, we will solve it by isolating it and using the pretext that it is specific to a particular federation. In reality, it is a much more global problem. And fundamentally, this mode of operation of the federations cannot be sustainable. It already feeds resentment, revolt and denial of democracy in sport. What is also interesting is to see that sport remains above all a social laboratory. What happens in sport on agency is also happening in the rest of society with protest movements, whether with the yellow vests or the fight against university reform. They would like us to believe that sport would be different, that there would be no politics, that it is a real bubble. You can actually exercise, for health and well-being benefits. But through practice, there are other issues which are issues of socialization, integration and social inclusion.
Sports ethics – Sports ethics, performance, agency, edited by Bernard Andrieu, Vrin, 256 pp., 13 euros.