Ethics Quote of the Week: Sportswriter William Rhoden

“What is character? In the N.F.L., character is need.”

New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden, explaining how teams seek to draft players “with character,” a.k.a. “who don’t commit felonies off the field,” unless, of course, the player is especially talented and they need what he has to offer on the field in order to win.

This intellectually dishonest standard is not restricted to pro football. Voters want ethical and honest elected representatives, unless they keep taxes low and deliver goodies to their neighborhoods. Corporations want executives with character too, unless a manipulative, deceitful, scheming whiz makes the company’s profits soar. The student with great promise will be excused or merely admonished for offenses that a school will suspend lesser students for.

The well-documented human tendency to endure unethical conduct from high-level performers while holding less gifted and accomplished individuals to higher standards of character serves to undermine ethics generally, confirming as it does the principle that the prettier, smarter, richer, more powerful, more famous you are, the less obligated you are to care about others, do the right things, or obey the rules.

For this is the Star Syndrome. In the coming months and years, Ethics Alarms and its readers will encounter it often.

This establishes an ethics class system, with an individual’s character being measured on what Rhoden describes as “the sliding scale”: the more valuable an employee is in other respects, the more others are willing to ignore misconduct in judging his or her character. The phenomenon is especially destructive because the truth is exactly the opposite: prominent and successful individuals do more damage when they behave unethically, because they are role models and leaders, and influence others.

Examples for reflection and debate: Ben Roethlisberger, William Jefferson Clinton, Ted Stevens, Charlie Rangel, Manny Ramirez, David Letterman., and more to be discovered.

3 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: Sportswriter William Rhoden

  1. This is one of the greatest problems in our culture in my opinion. We have placed achievement above character in almost every arena. And if you place achievement above character, you will encourage bad character.

    Think about it this way: I have three kids. Imagine that one is an A student, one is a B student, and one is a C student. Is it possible that my C student could have just as much character as my A student… and still be just a C student? Of course! In fact, she could have even more character. Because achievement is based upon two factors: character and competence. And in the competence arena, all things are not equal.

    If I praise my kids for achievement, and achievement alone, which one gets all the praise and recognition? The A student of course. And which ones are getting more frustrated and depressed as time goes on? The other two students…

    Now here comes the principle. If I focus on achievement to the exclusion of character, what am I encouraging the other two to do to make the grade? Answer: Cheat!

    Do you want to know why cheating is so prevalent in our school system, why athletes take performance enhancing drugs, why applicant lie on job applications or in job interviews? It’s because we have placed achievement ahead of character and now we are reaping what we have been sowing.

    Our grandmothers warned us about this. They said, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game…” It was true then and it’s true now…

    Sheriff Ray

  2. Although it is hard to keep arguing that it is true when children see that the exact opposite principle applies. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are millionaires; they obviously feel that they can weather the hit to their reputations in exchange for all the benefits. In America, people who lose “the right way” are still losers. How do we combat this? The New England Patriots owner gave Bill Belichek a huge raise the same week he was revealed to have cheated repeatedly. What message does this send?

  3. As I get older, I feel more and more strongly that athletics is completely unethical. I would really, really like to see it out of our schools.
    Sports, as practiced today, does nothing but subvert the academic mission and corrupt any ethical standards left. Politicians and corporate leaders may be corrupt, but they get still are skewered in the news and people don’t hold them up as heros the way they do athletes. There also aren’t any school structures that mirror those fields. Athletics, however, is right there in school at every level. The athletes are held up as the role model of what students should be, they are given special privileges, special grades, special consideration in disciplinary actions, etc.

    Academics, doesn’t have anything comparable in the schools to match athletics. As such, academics is not given much value in the schools. People cheat in droves, not because education is valued, but because it is worthless. This leaves grades as hollow requirements. Who respects a paper requirement? This leads to the seeming dichotomy of the athlete who cheats in school, is proud of his 4.0 GPA, but who would be offended if anyone called him smart.

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