Some employers are troubled by the avocations and outside activities of employees, a concern that often deserves a defiant “none of your business” in response. However, sometimes the concern is justified, such as when the avocation adversely reflects on the individual’s reputation to the extent that it harms his or her ability to perform, or when the avocation actually interferes with the job, such as a when a recreational rugby player keeps missing work because of injuries. Another problem is when the avocation creates a conflict of interest in which conduct that may be good for the avocation undermines the job.
The latter is exemplified by Major League Umpire Joe West, who fancies himself a country music singer and songwriter when he isn’t calling balls and strikes. As nicely narrated on the blog “It’s About the Money,” West has long been the most flamboyant and combative of umps, as proven by the fact that a lot of people know his name. Umpires aren’t supposed to be stars, celebrities or personalities: if you notice a particular umpire, it is almost always because he has made a mistake. They are important, however. Their acuity of sight and judgment are called upon many times in every game, and can make a significant difference in scores, standings, championships and careers. Like judges, they have to be trusted, and their integrity above suspicion. “The Common Man,” who wrote the blog post, believes that West’s singing career, such as it is, creates a conflict of interest that undermines that trust, and worse, warps his judgment on the field.
He is correct. West has a publicist, which means that he puts a high value on people knowing his name, as it helps record sales. This season, West has ratcheted up his newsworthiness by making gratuitous and controversial comments to the press and, most recently, by calling two highly dubious balks on Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle, precipitating a spectacular rhubarb with the pitcher and Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, and a full-throated rant by White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson. The Common Man says:
“…How many of you knew Joe West was a terrible country singer/songwriter before this? West is apparently not shy about seeking this publicity, and the more often he gets mentioned, the more often he and his band can book gigs in the offseason. Indeed, while I would not go so far as to accuse Joe West of being insincere in his beliefs, it’s his willingness and desire to share those impartial beliefs with the media that is problematic. Also, when Joe makes controversial decisions on the baseball field, like decisions to eject managers and players, and takes steps to ensure that the exchanges are heated and drawn out (and will thus appear on highlight shows and be discussed on blogs like this one), we fans are left to wonder whether he is deliberately altering the course of baseball games in order to garner additional publicity for himself and his music career.”
Exactly. The usually astute baseball analyst Rob Neyer, commenting on the West situation, writes, “I don’t know whether Joe West has a conflict of interest or not.” This is a misunderstanding that reflects the public confusion about conflicts engendered by our corrupted and conflicted public officials’ self-serving double-talk on the topic. The Common Man’s blog post proves Joe West has a conflict of interest, not by its arguments, but by the fact that it was written at all. Persuasive as The Common Man is, his arguments don’t prove that West is shooting off his mouth or making controversial calls because of that conflict, but if the requirements of his dual careers raise any legitimate doubts about his integrity and trustworthiness, then West has a conflict of interest. If every time he has an argument with a manager or makes a game-changing call, some fan wonders, “Gee, is West doing this to sell more records?,” then West has a conflict of interest.
Baseball can’t tolerate that, and there’s only one way to solve the problem. Conflicts of interests must be waived, or they have to be eliminated. This one won’t be waived, in part because it would have to be waived by all the teams and everyone who cares about the integrity of baseball. Either West puts his country music career on hiatus, or he should stop being an umpire.