Category Archives: NFL

All Is Not Well: Responding to the Wells Report on Deflategate

Opening Statement

Let me get this out of the way. I am a life-long Patriots fan. Many will surely dismiss anything I have to say based on this. (See ad hominem). But as a sports fan, as a philosopher of sport, I take this issue quite seriously. I read the Wells’ report closely. I endeavored, as always, to read it objectively, fairly, and charitably. If you know me, you know that I mean that and that I would never try to defend something I didn’t think I had good reason to believe. If you are going to dismiss my thoughts on the basis of my fandom, let me suggest that you are the one failing to be objective.

Overall Response to the Report

I read the Well’s report except for the more detailed scientific appendices. I think the report provides convincing evidence that (1) something more than natural processes affected the inflation of the footballs and (2) that Jim McNally and John Jastremski are the likely culprits for that something.

This is a change for me. Before the report, I didn’t think there was any intentional tampering. But I am now convinced that McNally and Jastremski did tamper. (I should note that some are challenging the validity of the scientific claims or at least the credentials of the scientists used by the NFL. I am not in position to evaluate these claims and so I leave it aside.)

What Brady Knew

I am, however, rather surprised by the report’s hasty conclusion that is more probable than not that Tom Brady was “at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.” The evidence in the report, while not inconsistent with such a conclusion, doesn’t establish this as the most plausible and probable conclusion. It rests on the following claims (in no particular order):

  1. McNally and Jastremski mention Brady in their texts while seemingly discussing matters of football inflation. In Wells’ words “Brady is a constant reference point” (127)
  2. Brady and Jastremski had several phone and in-person meetings following the AFC Championship game. Wells says there was “a material increase in the frequency of telephone and text communications” (127).
  3. McNally received various autographed materials.
  4. Brady didn’t turn over his phone or emails to investigators.
  5. The investigators assumption that McNally and Jastremski would not act alone. (128)
  6. Brady claimed that “he did not know McNally’s name or anything about McNally’s game-day responsibilities” (129). Wells thinks this claim is contradicted by McNally and Jastremski.

Claim (1): Referencing Brady
This is the more salacious aspect of the report and the one most are jumping on. It is also, I think, entirely ignorant of texting norms. It treats texts as sequential and linear conversations. Anyone who regularly texts knows this is not true. Texts are often out of order and can refer to various conversations. I regularly have text sessions with friends and family that can contain 3 to 4 different ‘conversations’ concurrently. In addition, texting is more like casual conversation where people use a lot of hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, etc. It is a little scary to image how the texts my friends and I have sent could be interpreted. Although Wells’ acknowledges that many of the texts where attempts at humor, he doesn’t think this affects the conclusion. But if McNally and Jastremski are referencing Brady in a joking, hyperbolic, or farcical manner, then Wells interpretation utterly fails. Wells doesn’t offer independent reasons or evidence for his view that these should be taken the way he takes him.

But even on Wells’ treatment of the texts, there is nothing in there that implicates Brady or suggests that he knew anything about McNally’s monkeying with the footballs after the officials’ review. The one getting the most attention is Jastremski’s text “Talked to him last night. He actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done…” (126). This is a smoking gun? Jastremski denies that the ‘him’ is Brady, but even if we go with Wells view that the ‘him’ is Brady: this does not support a claim that Brady knew that McNally and Jastremski were engaging in anything untoward or against the rules. Wells suggests that the text “attributes to Brady knowledge of McNally’s efforts to get the footballs ‘done’ and the stress involved” (127). Ignoring the difficulties of attributing to Brady knowledge because of something Jastremski refers to in a text, it can easily and plausibly be understood as Brady referring to the legitimate work in preparing the footballs. This is not evidence that Brady was aware that anyone was violating the rules.

As whole, the texts do not provide evidence that Brady had some general awareness of the wrongdoing. Should it be surprising that two guys who work at Gillette and work with Brady’s footballs often reference Brady? Most the texts seem to be referring and reacting to a time when the footballs were over-inflated. The ones referring at all to deflation do not reference Brady or suggest Brady awareness of the wrongdoing.

Claim (2): Increased Communication
I am not clear why this is at all damning or suspicious. So the Patriots and Brady get accused of deflation and Brady has several conversations with the guy who takes care of Brady’s footballs. Isn’t that what one would expect? Wells writes that the increased communication “suggest that Brady was closely monitoring Jastremski” (127). Well, of course, wouldn’t you? Why is this suspicious? If I were Brady, I would have called Jastremski to find out what happened, what was going to happen in the future, making sure preparations were all on the up and up going forward, etc.

Claim (3): Autographs
Why is this suspicious? It would be suspicious if Wells provided evidence that Brady didn’t provide such materials to various staff members. In fact, quite the opposite is implied in several places (83, 88). By all accounts, Brady seems like a generous guy to the staff at Gillette, so that McNally received some items is not in itself suspicious. The texts between McNally and Jastremski might suggest a quid pro quo arrangement; however, it just as probably that this putative arrangement was solely between McNally and Jastremski with no knowledge on Brady’s part that the items were some kind of payment. The report provides no evidence to rule this out.

Claim (4): Not turning over cell phone
This is by far the most unsettling. To many, this looks like a tacit admission of guilt or having something to hide. At the same time, I don’t think that conclusion is fair or just. Brady has a right to privacy and am I sure that his lawyers said no way! [A constitutional protected right by the way] And when one sees the hash Wells makes of the texts he does get, I suspect Brady was right not to turn over this phone and emails. (Add to this the apparent suspicion on the part of the Patriots organization that the NFL was targeting them: would you think it best to turn over your personal effects to an investigation you thought was out to get you?) Wells sees this as being uncooperative; however, he does acknowledge Brady’s extensive cooperation in other areas of the investigation.

Claim (5): Wouldn’t Act Alone
This is a flatly ridiculous claim. There are no grounds to think the McNally and Jastremski wouldn’t act alone unless you are already believed Brady was involved. It seems quite credible and plausible that McNally and Jastremski, wanting to please Brady so badly (especially after how pissed Brady seemed to be over the 16 psi Jets game), went too far without Brady’s direction or knowledge. The fact that these guys come off as schnooks makes it more likely, in my eyes, that they would do something this stupid.

Many also claim that because Brady is very particular and meticulous about the footballs he uses and his preparation process in general that he had to have known about the tampering. I don’t think this follows. It seems reasonable to conclude based on the evidence available that Brady made clear his preferences for the condition of the football and that he knew that Jastremski and others handled making sure they fit his preferences (rubbing the footballs down, expressing his preference for the low end of the psi spectrum, etc..) But, where is the evidence that he knew they were tampering with the footballs after the officials’ inspection? That is what is at issue and for which we have no evidence.

Claim (6): Brady and McNally
A good chunk of the report is directed at showing that McNally and Jastremski were intentionally and knowingly violating the inflation rule and lying to investigators to cover it up. Yet, it is the statements of these two that are then provided as the evidence that contradicts Brady’s claim. This would be convincing if someone else provided testimony that Brady knew McNally’s name and responsibilities. But as it is, we are asked to take as credible statements by those, if we believe Wells, we ought to think are no longer credible.

So, what do we have that contradicts Brady’s claim? McNally tells an NFL Security that “Brady personally told McNally of his preference” for psi (129). First, this is not inconsistent at all with Brady not knowing McNally’s name or that he knew that the guy he told about this preference was McNally. It is reasonable that Brady told someone he knew to handle footballs his preference without knowing or remembering his name. Second, given the portrayal of McNally in the report, it seems plausible that he could be misrepresenting a relationship with Brady. Wells doesn’t even consider this possibility and just takes McNally’s word.

Then we have the Jastremski text above suggesting that Brady referred to McNally suggesting that Brady knew McNally, his name, and his responsibilities. We have the same issues here. First, the text is ambiguous as to whether Brady brought up McNally by name. It is just as plausible that what Brady said to Jastremski was something like: “you guys are working hard to get the footballs right for me, thanks.” Second, Jastremski could be exaggerating his relationship with Brady by leading McNally to think that Jastremski and Brady were tight (akin to a sort of humble brag). There is evidence for this kind of exaggeration in regards to Jastremski’s misrepresentation of the 50,000 yard autographed ball, yet Wells doesn’t consider this possibility.

It is unclear why Wells takes Jastremski and McNally as credible on these claims. Here are two guys who already seem to be lying about other things and have something to gain by playing up a relationship with Brady. What is Brady’s motive in lying about knowing McNally? What could he gain? Knowing McNally or not is irrelevant to the question of Brady’s awareness of wrongdoing.

In any case, this is a flimsy reed on which to rest a claim of general knowledge of the actions of McNally and Jastremski to circumvent the rule. If I were Brady I would be exploring a defamation lawsuit.

I know many will say I am grasping at straws here or that I am reading these in the most positive and charitable light (which in general seems fairer to me anyway). But let me be clear. I am not suggesting my reading or account is the only one, the right one, or that is “more probably than not” to be the right one. What I am suggesting is that Wells doesn’t meet his own stated standard. His preferred account is as probable as the ones I suggest here. But if this is the case then the preponderance of evidence does not support his conclusion—or rather, it does not support his conclusion better than other plausible conclusions. He rejects these others as “not credible” but doesn’t provide independent reasons for this. That is, these other accounts are, he claims, not credible because they don’t fit his account. But that begs the question. He needs first to establish his account before he can use it to reject the others. But he can’t establish it without rejecting these other ones. But that rejection is based on his account. And we come full circle.

Most in the media seem to have made up their minds (often it seems without having read the report) that Brady lied. I’ve looked at the evidence in the Wells report and see no reasonable basis for such a conclusion.

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Filed under Cheating, Football, NFL, Patriots

Deflate Gate Media Appearances

Who knew under-inflated footballs would cause such a stir! Over the last week, I’ve had a number of media appearances related to this issue. I’m trying to get a post out soon (this coincided with the first of class so I’ve had to attend to my ‘real’ job). Here’s the list of my ‘deflate-gate’ appearances (I will update as necessary):

Reed, Phillip. “Sports Ethics Expert From Rockford University Discusses ‘Deflate gate'” FOX WQRF 39 & ABC WTVO 17. Air Date: January 30, 2015. Web: http://www.mystateline.com/fulltext-news/d/story/sports-ethics-expert-from-rockford-university-disc/25822/NciecHQbjESjevINxOKlTA

Lothian, Dan. “Sports Ethicist Sees Honest Lesson in Deflategate” Heartbeings.com January 26, 2015. Web: http://www.heartbeings.com/sports-ethicist-sees-honest-lesson-deflategate/

ESPN The Classroom, Marist College Center for Sports Communication. 1220 ESPN. January 24, 2015. Web (podcast): http://espntheclassroom.podomatic.com/entry/2015-01-24T09_33_16-08_00

Huffpost Live “The Latest on Deflate Gate” January 23, 2015. Web: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/deflate-gate/54bfe93078c90a13b500019f

CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello. January 23, 2015. Transcript: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1501/23/cnr.04.html Video Archive: http://archive.org/details/CNNW_20150123_150000_CNN_Newsroom_With_Carol_Costello#start/2040/end/2100

Maese, Rick. “Patriots, Bill Belichick walk, sometimes cross, line between competitiveness and cheating” Washington Post, January 22, 2015. Web: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/patriots-bill-belichick-walk-sometimes-cross-line-between-competitiveness-and-cheating/2015/01/22/e4152bf4-a271-11e4-91fc-7dff95a14458_story.html

Spewak, Danny. “Science Claims Deflategate Was No Accident!” WGRZ, Buffalo, NY. January 22, 2015. Web: http://www.wgrz.com/story/sports/2015/01/22/sports-science-for-the-patriots/22184649/

Alesia, Mark. “Sports ethics experts analyze Belichick, ‘DeflateGate’” Indianapolis Star, January 22, 20`5. Print (January 23, 2015) A1; A6. Web: http://www.indystar.com/story/sports/nfl/colts/2015/01/22/sports-ethics-deflategate-bill-belichick-new-england-patriots-indianapolis-colts/22153199/

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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.

Related 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/

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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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