The Spirit of Business and Sport  

This post is co-authored with Leonid Sirota*

Should a cricket player forgo taking runs as a result of an opponent’s mistake? Adherents of a certain understanding of the “spirit of cricket” think that they should, in some circumstances, even though neither the game’s Laws nor the official explanation of its spirit say so. Veteran cricket player Ravichandran Ashwin, is not one of them. At a recent Indian Premier League game, he took the runs, and was promptly accused of not playing in the spirit of the game.  

Ashwin responded in a series of tweets, and made a more general comment at the end of the thread: 

Give your heart and soul on the field and play within the rules of the game and shake your hands once the game is over.  

Ashwin’s response echoes Milton Friedman’s idea of the social responsibility of business executives to follow the shareholders’: 

“desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom”.  

As Friedman suggested, Ashwin insists that the athletes’ responsibility is to seek victory, within the Laws of cricket. He also believes in shaking hands after the game, following the “ethical custom” of sportsmanship.  

Friedman goes on to add that a particular corporation might choose to have a more philanthropic purpose, such as operating “a hospital or school. The manager of such a corporation will not have money profit as his objective but the rendering of certain services.” 

Applying this idea to cricket, a team might choose to play in a manner which prioritises genteel conduct even if some success (runs or wickets) is sacrificed in the process. Insisting that batters leave the field when they believe they are out even if the umpire does not declare them out might be an example.  

But it is important to stress that this is a choice. A legitimate choice, to be sure, and perhaps a praiseworthy one, but the opposite choice—be it batters taking all the runs that no rule prohibits or a business not foregoing profits lawfully earned—is in no way unethical. 

The key point, as Friedman would point out, is freedom to choose. A player or team could “do good” for society by inspiring future generations not only by their cricketing abilities but also their sportsmanship or spirit in which they play the game. However, this spirit of cricket need not be defined in the same way by every team and player. Ashwin’s interpretation, whether one likes it or not, is legitimate too. Similarly, each corporation might have a different vision of how it should do business. These differences help both the team and the company distinguish themselves from their peers. For a team, it might attract relevant sponsorships or help them inspire future generations. For a company, the reputation will help attract relevant stakeholders (particularly employees and consumers) and may also help them contribute to society in their chosen way.  

In business or in sports, we should encourage a diversity of interpretations of the spirit of the game, rather than pushing for uniformity. As Ashwin also points out, we should be especially wary of those who have already made their sporting and financial fortune demanding generosity on the part of those who have not yet. As the official statement has it, “respect is central to the spirit of cricket”. In cricket and in business, this should extend to respect for the diversity of people playing the game, and of the views they hold. 

*Dr. Leonid Sirota will join the Reading Law School as an Associate Professor in 2022.

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