Mill’s View of Professional Sports and the College Alternative

This past summer while in our nation’s capital, I bought tickets to see the Washington Nationals play the Milwaukee Brewers.  The game was just like any other Major League Baseball game that I’d been to.  Expensive food, bad seats, loud music, and obnoxious fans doing cheers I’d never before seen as a Braves fan.  However, the game changed when Milwaukee’s second batter came to the plate.

Ryan Braun at the Plate front the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Ryan Braun at the Plate from the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee’s second batter was Ryan Braun who was infamously tied up with the Biogenesis scandal that notably sidelined the New York Yankees’ perennial all-star Alex Rodriguez for all of this past MLB season.  Around 50,000 boos echoed around Nationals Park.  The first pitch came too high.  The second one was a strike.  The third, a home run.  The boos grew louder and the Nationals fans’ displeasure grew more.  Braun was suspended for 65 games in the 2013 season, and the public has been slow to forget his past doping.  However, doping is nothing new to baseball and other professional sports, and for that reason almost all sports — college and professional — test heavily for performance enhancing drugs.  When we look to philosophy, we are presented with a moral disagreement on the matter.  In the fourth chapter of John Stuart Mill’s On LibertyMill presents the distinction between the public and the private spheres and how people can be punished for their actions in each.  A pinnacle tenet of Mill’s writings is the liberty that one has in his or her private life in that no “one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it”.  This means that as long as it is not harmful to another, than someone can do as he or she pleases.  To some this could be a legitimate argument for the use of PEDs.  The side affects are felt by the taker alone,and the only change is to the person taking the PEDs.

Picture of Mill from

Picture of Mill from

However, contrary to this interpretation of Mill, PEDs have an effect that reaches far beyond just the person taking them.  Later in the chapter Mill addresses this as “encroachment on [others’] rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights”.  The use of PEDs affect others in sports, as they tip the balances of teams and benefit those who have the financial means to avoid detection.  If someone who lifts weights purely for self enjoyment wanted to take PEDs, then Mill would say that he has the right to do so, but once it is put into a competitive environment particularly in a professional setting, than this is immediately brought into the public eye.

Spike Albrecht under the basket from

Spike Albrecht under the basket from

College sports seem free of this injustice however.  This evening, I went to see the Michigan men’s basketball team play Detroit Mercy.  The game wasn’t particularly close or entertaining, and I am still cold from the walk home.  However, there is some beauty in college athletics.  As much as schools are accused of spending too much money and exploiting unpaid players, there is something to appreciate about the amateur team and the unselfish nature of unprofessional team sports.  For me this appreciation comes from the open nature of amateur competition.  The players aren’t competing for an endorsement deal or a contract extension.  They are trying to win, and in many ways this makes Mill’s private-public distinction less relevant to college sports, as the actions of the athletes tend to be less self-benefitting and more for the team.  Millions are still spent on drug testing throughout the NCAA, but rarely are people ever found using PEDs unlike in professional sports.

Braun was given his punishment, and is still booed every time he walks up to the plate at an away game. He violated the rules and the trust of his fans, teammates, and league.  He continues to be “justly punished by opinion” (Mill) as people have the right to do under Mill, but now that he has served his “legal” (under league rules) punishment, he should be free to exercise his rights as a player and a person in the future.  The college game stands apart, free from self-centeredness and while personal ambitions mean less, the good of the whole (team) prevails.

Jonathan Hyman

Section 8 – Blog 3


2 thoughts on “Mill’s View of Professional Sports and the College Alternative

  1. Pingback: What would Mill say about playing football? | THE BIG HOUSE OF IDEAS

  2. I liked your comparison of college athletics and profession sports using Mill’s ideology. I agree that watching college sports is fun because the players are giving everything they have for themselves, their teammates, and their universities. You don’t see the same drive and heart in professional sports because the athletes are just playing for a pay check. As for the PEDs I believe they should be deemed punishable because although on the surface they only harm the person taking it, in reality it harms his teammates, opponents, and family as well.


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