Category Archives: NFL

Go Goodell, Go! Soon.

The controversy swirling around Roger Goodell’s suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is precisely why the NFL Commissioner needs to resign or be fired. I happen to think he got this one basically right, but that is not the real issue here. Goodell has no credibility with the players, with media, or with fans. It doesn’t matter what the decision ended being, the conversation would be the same. People would still be shouting: “He is overreacting because of the bungling of the Ray Rice case.” “He is being too harsh.” “He is being too lenient.” “This is more about Goodell than the particular case or the good of the NFL.”

I am not claiming that a new commissioner wouldn’t face criticism or get every decision correct. But the focus would be more on the merits of the case. With Goodell in charge, it is about Goodell and his tenure. No action he takes can be understood except through the prism of a year of disastrous decisions. A new commissioner who comes with some gravitas would not have that baggage – at least not directly. At some point, enough owners will realize this and Goodell will be gone.

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Sports Ethics Show: The Value of Playoffs and Championships

New Sports Ethics Show Episode
Baseball playoffs are in full swing with both American and National League Championship Series opening this weekend. For baseball fans, this is one of the most exciting parts of the baseball season. But are we getting something wrong? Is there something wrong with having playoffs decide champions? Are there better ways of determining champions and organizing sport competitions? Dr. Aaron Harper of West Liberty University discusses these questions and related issues with Shawn E. Klein.

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Why Goodell Has To Go (And Will)

Following the release of the elevator footage showing Ray Rice punch his fiancé, I texted my friend Joe: “What’s your over/under?”

He immediately replied “For Goodell? 7 days.”

I think it is telling that my friend knew exactly to what I was referring. And we weren’t the only ones. Many people were starting to call for Goodell’s job. Indeed, the National Organization of Women was demanding his resignation even before the video’s release.

I didn’t agree with Joe that it would be as quickly as a week. My response was one month. I am still within that window, though I now suspect it might be a little longer than a month. Nonetheless, I will be shocked (and disappointed) if Goodell is the commissioner by the start of next season.

Why he should go:
I do not know if Goodell ever saw the infamous tape. I am not sure how relevant it is either. Either way, Goodell comes off poorly. The best case scenario is that he is incompetent and the worst case is that he is lying and covering all this up. In either case, he demonstrates that he is not fit to be the commissioner.

Why he will go:
Almost everyone agrees with that, but many think that this won’t matter. Goodell is protecting the owners and that’s his job. He has made them a lot of money and so they are not going to dump him.

To the latter: Curious George as NFL commissioner would have been able to generate the revenue that Goodell has. The NFL is essentially on auto-pilot; Goodell doesn’t seem to have done anything revolutionary and novel to grow the NFL’s revenue. He has been, to this point, a decent steward, but then any decent executive could have done the same.

To the former point, I do think that this is the view of many owners at this point. Goodell is taking the heat and they are shielded for the most part from the public’s ire. Ultimately, though, the owners want this off the headlines and to go away. The thing is that as long as Goodell is in charge, it won’t. It doesn’t matter what moves he makes: so-called independent investigations, commissions to revise policies, etc.. These might be the right moves to make at this point, but no one accepts that Goodell is taking these moves in order to deal with the problem of domestic violence in the NFL. Even if that is the primary motive, Goodell has no credibility. Every move he makes will be seen as just a PR move. You can see this in the responses to his press conference on September 19. The responses from fans, players, media members, and so on, skewered him. No one took him seriously; they didn’t believe anything he was saying. And, importantly, NFL sponsors voiced their concerns publically. They haven’t pulled their sponsorship for the most part, but a public comment by the sponsors was a clear signal to the owners: they don’t take Goodell seriously either.

So, Goodell might be shielding the owners for now, but he has no credibility going forward to make the changes that will need to be made. And there is nothing he can do to restore that credibility.

The owners will hopefully recognize that they need to make a move, and soon, to begin to restore confidence in the league.

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NFL, Domestic Violence, and the Law

Roger Goodell is rightly under siege for his mishandling (at best) of the Ray Rice domestic violence case. The focus right now is on whether Goodell will lose his job (he will), but the bigger story here is the widespread problem of domestic violence in the NFL. Since 2000 there have been more than 80 domestic violence arrests and there are at least 14 currently active players who have a history of domestic violence (accusations or charges).

Before we tarnish all NFL players with one brush, it is important to note that arrest rates (for all crimes) for NFL players is much lower than the national average for men in their age range. According to this 538 article it is just 13% of the national average. That said, the article points out that domestic violence accounts for nearly half of the violent crime arrests for NFL players. So even though vast majority of NFL players are not getting into any kind of trouble, the NFL does have a domestic violence problem.

Of course, this is a much broader problem than the NFL or sport more generally. It is a societal problem. Goodell and the NFL have failed to take it seriously enough and for that they deserve moral blame. But why do we find that our professional sport leagues are the ones meting out the punishment? Because our legal system is failing to respond appropriately to domestic violence. Ray Rice got probation; the prosecutor publicly stating that even with the now public graphic video showing Rice punch his then fiancé in the face, Rice would not have gone to jail. And in case after case, we see the same: probations and suspended sentences.

It is right to criticize the NFL (and the other leagues). They have acted wrongly, or at least, negligently. But I think we are missing a deeper problem. Our legal system is not taking domestic violence seriously enough. These cases are most often prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses and not felonies. And as the prosecutor in Rice’s case said, probation is the typical result. Moreover, this is not special treatment for professional athletes. This is, apparently, the norm for such cases.

There is a real and interesting debate to be had about what the responsibilities of a private institution like the NFL are. To what extent should the NFL be policing its members and employers for behavior that is only indirectly connected to the NFL’s mission? This is an important question to ask. And many are now thinking about this and related questions of institutional responsibility.

But whatever one’s answer is to the above question, most of us agree that the state and its justice system do have responsibilities for policing the kind of behavior that we call domestic violence. One of the primary roles (maybe even the only role) of the state and the justice system is to protect individuals against the violent attacks of others. But in regard to domestic violence, the state is failing woefully.

We are rightly angry and disgusted by the NFL’s failing to do the right thing regarding these cases. But we wouldn’t be relying on the NFL to punish these players if the legal system was doing its job. We ought to be directing more of our outrage at the feet of the prosecutors, judges, and lawmakers (and ultimately ourselves as the voters putting these people in power) who have been coddling these violent abusers for years.

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Ray Rice, the NFL, and Theories of Punishment

Update Sept 8, 2014: After a new video was released to the public, Rice was cut by the Baltimore Ravens and then suspended indefinitely by the NFL. ESPN story.

Let me join my voice to the cacophony of criticism crashing into the NFL regarding the Ray Rice suspension.

Rice, a running back with the Baltimore Ravens, received a two game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He allegedly hit his fiancée (now wife) in an Atlantic City hotel in February. The incident was caught on video and Rice was arrested for assault. He avoided trial by entering an intervention program.

Since the league announced its suspension last week, there has been near unanimity in opinion that the suspension was too light and that it sends the wrong kind of message. Like most, I was surprised that Rice was only suspended for two games. I expected at least four.

I don’t have much to add to what has been said all over the internet and airwaves. Like all decent human beings, I abhor this kind of violence and think Rice deserved a harsher punishment (both from our legal system and from the NFL). The first fault lies with our justice system which allows one to avoid justice through so-called intervention programs. The second fault lies with the NFL system of administrating violations of its personal conduct policy. It is arbitrary, lacks consistency, and has little transparency. Both of these need serious reform.

I decided to write a post on this because there is a philosophically issue worth pointing out. It might help explain the disconnect between the NFL and the rest of the country (but it might not!).

What is punishment for? Is the point of punishment to give wrongdoers what they deserve? Is the point of punishment to deter other like behaviors? Is punishment about giving something back to the victim? Many of the ways people respond to cases like Rice’s depends in part on how they answer these questions.

There is a long philosophically history to these questions that, like all interesting and worthwhile philosophical questions, traces back to the Ancient Greeks. I don’t intend to answer them here (I refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia and the Internet Encyclopedia for good summations of various theories and views).

Most of the public response to the Ray Rice case centers on the question of sending a message about domestic violence. The perception is that the NFL went light on Rice and so is implicitly saying to the world, especially to its players, that domestic violence isn’t all that bad. The league has wide discretion in cases like this and so it could have suspended Rice for much longer. In not doing so, it looks like it doesn’t take domestic violence as serious as the rest of think it should. It isn’t so much about Rice, his actions, and what he deserves; it is about the perception and impact of the punishment on society. (Call this the ‘message’ view.)

On the other hand, the NFL might not be thinking about punishment as a message. It may be that they are looking at specifically what Rice deserves in this particular case. (Call this the ‘desert’ view.) Rice was a first-time offender. He has a good reputation for community work and as a teammate. His wife, the victim, went to the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, to plead for leniency in Rice’s case. In his meeting with Goodell, we have to assume (based on Goodell’s comments) that Rice was contrite, that he took responsibility for his actions, and that he outlined the steps he is taking (counseling and what not) to make sure he doesn’t screw up again.

If Goodell’s thinking on punishment is primarily about what the wrongdoer deserves (as opposed to the message sent or the broader consequences for society), then maybe Goodell looked at all of this and determined that Rice didn’t deserve in this case a harsher punishment.  (I don’t think this; I am only suggestion a possible way to interpret Goodell’s decision.)

If this is the case, then it helps to explain (maybe) the disconnect between the NFL and the rest of us. We are looking for the message, the consequences for society. We want to see a powerful institution like the NFL tell the world that domestic violence is intolerable under all circumstances. Goodell and the NFL, on the other hand, might just be looking at the specific circumstances of Ray Rice and what his case of assault deserves independent of any social message.

This leaves open the question on both theories of punishment of what the appropriate punishment ought to be.  What amount games would have been appropriate for the ‘message’ view? Four? Eight? The whole season? And for the ‘desert’ view, is two games really what Rice deserved? I don’t envy judges or commissioners who have to make these determinations. But it is essential to be clear on what standards one uses and what justifies those standards.

Furthermore, it is an interesting ethical question about which standard ought to be in play here. Should the NFL make its disciplinary process one primarily about the message it sends? That seems like a recipe for injustice in cases where the message demands a drastically different penalty (either harsher or more lenient) than what the individual really deserves. On the other hand, treating each case as only about what the wrongdoer deserves misses the potential impact (positive or negative ) of such discipline.

In the end, though, I don’t actually think Goodell and the NFL were taking what I have called the ‘desert’ view. The NFL is always concerned about the message. The conduct policy is there, as we hear so often, to protect the shield. That is, to keep the image of the NFL pristine. Since that is its primary concern, the NFL missed the uprights wide right.

 

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Filed under NFL, Philosophy, violence

The Sports Ethicist Show: Rule Changes in Sport

The next episode of The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday, March 3, 2014 at 6 pm CT on Rockford College Radio.

Rules are an essential part of sport. They define it, they govern it. But what about changing the rules? Three recent rule changes have gained national attention recently: expanded MLB replay, limiting home plate collisions in MLB, and penalizing the use of the ‘N’ word in the NFL. Shawn Klein and frequent guest, Mike Perry, discuss these rule changes and whether they are good ideas or not.

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Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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The Sports Ethicist Show: The Reality of Fantasy Sports

The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

It’s fantasy football playoff time! Chad Carlson, professor at Eastern Illinois University, talks with Shawn Klein about some of the ethical and philosophical issues in fantasy sports. We discuss his recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport: “The Reality of Fantasy Sports: A Metaphysical and Ethical Analysis”

Related/Discussed Links:

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

(Update 12/17 10 am CT: The Itunes feed is not currently working, but you can still get the podcast here: http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/the-sports-ethicist-show-the-reality-of-fantasy-sports/ )

(Update 12/19 12:30 pm CT: The rss feed for iTunes is working again.)

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You Make the Call! Golden Tate, Miroslav Klose, and Officiating Errors

At the start of the semester, I posed the following the question to my Sports Ethics students:

The quarterback fires the ball at you, but the throw is low. You get your hands on it and come up with the ball, but you clearly saw that it touched the ground first. The referee signals a catch and a first down.  What should you do?

With only one exception, the students selected this answer: “You do not say anything and get set for the next play.” The one outlier selected the answer:  “You tell the referee that it was not a catch.”

This is not a surprising response. On Thursday morning on the Mike & Mike ESPN Radio show, they discussed the question of whether Golden Tate, a Seattle Seahawk receiver, should have admitted that his controversial game winning touchdown on Monday Night Football was not really a catch. Mike Golic and Mark Schlereth, both former NFL players, responded without any hesitation or qualification that he should not.

In marked contrast, in the Italian Serie A match on Wednesday between Lazio and Napoli, Miroslav Klose appeared to score a goal for Lazio early in the game. The Napoli side was incensed, claiming that ball came off of Klose’s hand (ironically, Diego “Hand of God” Maradona used to play for Napoli ). Klose admitted to the referee that this was indeed the case and the goal was subsequently disallowed. Karma did not, however, reward Lazio or Klose: they ended up losing 3-0.

Klose, Gate, and Supererogation

Supererogation refers to the category of moral actions that are praiseworthy but not required. Such actions are typically ones we praise individuals for doing but would not criticize if individuals do not. For example, one would likely praise Bob for taking his neighbor Suzie to work when her car broke down. But given that Suzie’s office is thirty minutes in the other direction from Bob’s work, one probably wouldn’t think (separate some special connection or commitment) that Bob is under any sort of obligation to do this for Suzie.

Given the anecdotal responses and reactions to the Klose and Tate events, most people appear to regard an athlete’s reporting an error to the officials as supererogatory. While Klose is widely praised for his act of sportsmanship, the outrage at Tate’s “touchdown” is directed almost entirely at the replacement referees and their incompetence. No one seems to expect Tate to own up to his non-catch. And the media attention given to Klose’s handball correction suggests as well that Klose was going beyond the normal expectation.

I think this conventional view raises some moral concerns. Primarily, my concern is the sense that winning because of a play you know to be prohibited or called incorrectly is not an honorable victory. It is not the way I would want to win were I an athlete and it is not the way I want my team to win as a fan. The joy and value of winning comes from achieving and succeeding according to a prescribed set of rules against opposition that is worthy of the contest. Scoring a goal or preventing a goal with a handball is not succeeding according to the set of rules of soccer, and diminishes the personal value of the win. How much satisfaction can the Seahawk players and fans take in their win over Green Bay? (This story gives an account of how some of the Seahawks felt about the victory after seeing the replays )

What, then, are some of the reasons offered for the supererogatory viewpoint? Two views seem most common.

1)   The “a win is a win” view

2)   The “let the ref make the call” view

The “a win is a win” view regards winning is the highest and most important goal of sport.  The win is all that matters and, short of outright cheating, it doesn’t matter how one wins. If a bad call puts you in a position to win, that is to be regarded as a gift that ought not be challenged.

I don’t regard this view as morally justifiable. Winning is certainly important, but it is not the only valuable thing about sport. Further, how one wins is morally important and cannot be discounted. This view would justify all unsportsmanlike behavior that doesn’t qualify as cheating.

The “let the ref make the call” view fairs much better. It distinguishes the roles of the athlete and the officials. The officials have the job of officiating and making the calls. The athlete ought not, on this view, interfere with the officiating: either by trying to get the official to rule in his or her favor or by owning up to an incorrect call.

There are sports, such as golf, where the athlete has partial responsibility for enforcing the rules, and the conventions regarding this issue are different. In most professional and elite sports, however, the enforcement of the rules is explicitly removed from the athletes’ purview and vested in officials. For an athlete to be put into the position of making the call muddies the waters of adjudicating the rules fairly and equally. The officials and the athletes have their roles to play, and we ought to endeavor for the sake of fairness to keep these roles clear and distinct.

This view goes a long way in justifying the view that an athlete is under no obligation to report to the official incorrect calls. However, it might prove too much. This view suggests that the obligation runs the other way: the athlete ought not to correct the referee. In other words, this view would seem to lead us to say that Klose was in fact wrong to tell the referee about the handball. That goes too far.

So where do we draw the line? My tentative answer is that generally the “let the ref make the call” view is correct, but that in situations where the athlete is clearly aware of an egregious error with a game-changing impact, the integrity of the game and his or her own integrity demand that the athlete speak up. The athlete is not making the call; he is merely providing some data to the official. The official, in accepting this data or not, is still the one to make the call.

Klose clearly knows that his hand makes contact with the ball on a scoring play, so he seems to have an obligation to inform the official of what he knows. Tate, on the other hand, likely is not in a position to know if he has caught the ball. The rules of possession in the NFL are complex, so Tate cannot be sure that the officials have made the wrong call. Thus, Tate has no business telling the official anything regarding the catch. The case of Tate’s offensive pass interference is similar. In the course of a play such as a Hail Mary, it is hard for the athlete to know if his contact with the opponent is sufficient to trigger an interference call.

I am not entirely convinced by this, however. It has an ad hoc feel that rationalizes the status quo. I think we could do with more athletes acting like Klose. And I think we could do with a better account of why.

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Filed under Football, NFL, Officiating, soccer

The 700 Club: NFL Roster Cuts

By this evening (Friday, August 31, 2012), NFL teams have to cut their rosters down to 53 players. For NFL fans, this is an exciting time: debates over who will make the team and who will not; the impatience for the start of the season; and the eagerness to see what the make-up of your team is going to be.

The often unseen, darker side of this deadline is the more than 700 athletes who will be out of job by the end of the day. Of course, for many of these guys, this is only a temporary situation. Other teams will pick up them, either for their rosters or for the practice squad. But for many, both veterans and rookies, the end of this preseason is the end of their professional football career.

As fans, we often get caught up in the specifics of the games and in the performances of the players. We get upset at poor play; call up radio stations to call for a player to be benched or cut. Or, maybe, we call for a coach to be fired. And maybe we are right to do so.

But we can easily forget that these are individual human beings. They have mortgages and families to support. They have dreams and goals in their professional and personal lives. They are working and training harder than most of us can even imagine—and have been doing so their whole adult lives and for a good chunk of their childhood.

For the veteran, the dreams of one last chance, of one more year in a long career, come to an unceremonious end. For the rookie, it is the realization that the dream of stepping onto an NFL field during a real game is just that: a dream. (This article by a former NFL player provides an account from the player’s perspective)

This is a sad moment; and ought to be acknowledged as such. The end of a career is the end of something of great value. The loss of that value should be mourned.

Nevertheless, it is good that it is like this. The rookie and the veteran get a chance to compete for positions. They got further along than most aspiring athletes. And many do make it, at least for a little while. More than that, the extraordinarily competitive environment of the NFL preseason allows for the best, most able players to emerge. Rookies don’t make it just because they were high draft picks, and veterans don’t make the team because of what they have done in the past. The primary test is of one’s ability and capacity to perform in the here and now. This is to the advantage to all: fans, teams, and players alike. It is even to the advantage of the players that get cut: for them it offers a system that allows them to compete and have a chance to prove themselves.

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