An Ethics Lesson From the All-Star Game

It really is one of the most enduring sports deja vus—every year, sportswriters and fans engage in thousands upon thousands of words of complaint regarding baseball’s annual All-Star Game, the 2011 edition of which will occur tomorrow night in Phoenix. This year was no exception, and as is always the case, no consensus or conclusions were reached, except that everyone agrees that the game is mishandled, mismanaged, unfair and illogical in every possible way.

I have been thinking of the game’s plight as an ethics case study that proves a core truth: you can’t do the right thing if you don’t know your objectives, stakeholders, and how to prioritize them. In the All-Star Game as it has evolved, there are competing interests and stakeholders with no clear agreement regarding which takes priority over the other. It is literally impossible to do be fair: somebody always will be disadvantaged, and because there is no single objective either, utilitarian balancing doesn’t work.

It was not always this way. When the All-Star game was first conceived in 1935, it was intended to raise money for the players’ pension fund, the players then being generally paid little more than grocery clerks.  Since the game had to draw as much of a paying crowd as possible to make money, the rosters and starting line-ups were constructed to include the biggest stars and most popular players. It didn’t matter whether Babe Ruth was off to a great start or not: it wouldn’t be an All-Star Game without him in the starting line-up, so he was the right-fielder. Managers picked the team that they thought would both be the “starriest” and that would give them the best chance to win the game.

The players played if asked to be on the squad, because 1) they benefited directly, 2) their colleagues needed the pension money, and 3) it was an honor. As for the game itself, the #1 objective was to give the crowd a good show. The biggest stars tended to play most of the game. The two teams played hard, because the two leagues were to some extent competitors: they were organizationally distinct, and there was real perceived value in showing league superiority by beating the other league’s stars.

Little by little, all the priorities and consensus objectives got mixed-up and degraded. Starting in 1946, fans voted for the starting line-ups, which skewed the choices toward the bigger fan bases, added local loyalties to the mix, and opened the door for critics to argue that the game’s rosters measured popularity rather than quality. Then the leagues expanded, from 16 to 20 to 24 to today’s 30. While it was once easy to include a star from every team when the team rosters were 26 and there were only 8 teams per league, 14 and 16 teams per league meant that either really deserving stars would be left out of the game, or whole cities would have nobody to root for in a nationally televised event. The “have the best teams” and “attract the biggest audience” objectives, once in perfect sync, now were in opposition.

Meanwhile, the players no longer needed the revenue from the game for their pensions, since the new union contracts got millions for the purpose from the team owners, and the players were all millionaires anyway. Thus the game had become less of an obligation than a chore to many players. At the same time, the leagues had merged organizationally, and Major League Baseball had opted for limited interleague play.  The All-Star Game was no longer important to establish league superiority, not with the leagues playing over a hundred games against each other during the season.

With the players now having to be cajoled into playing, managers of the team began feeling an obligation to get every player who showed up into the game and on the field. This made the All-Star Game seem less like a contest and more like a parade. Player weren’t substituted for to get a tactical edge; the changes were for the benefit of the players’ egos, and often weakened the team. Add to this a terror of injuring a rival team’s star by playing him too long, and the manager’s role became that of a social worker, baby-sitter, and events coordinator. Now the game didn’t have the best players on the roster, didn’t feature the starters predominantly in the contest, wasn’t played in such a way as to give spectators a good game, and wasn’t deemed important enough by the players or managers to take seriously.

The inevitable result of all this was the horrible 2002 All-Star Game, in which both managers blithely used up all their players even though the game had gone into extra innings, which was something neither of them would dream of doing in a real game, and resulting in a travesty, with the contest being called a tie and the fans loudly booing the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig. Major League Baseball’s remedy was to make the exhibition game “mean something” by decreeing that the result would determine home field advantage in the World Series. Now there was another objective of the game to clash with the rest.

This confusion guarantees that the All-Star Game can have no integrity, because it has no established values:

  • Is the goal to honor the biggest stars in the game and have the teams that feel like truly the “best teams” to the typical fan? Then let managers choose the teams; forget about the one player from each team requirement, and go for the most famous names. Among the ten active players with the most career hits, for example, only one is playing in this year’s game.
  • Is the goal to make the game a popularity contest that ensures widespread interest? Then let the fans vote, insist on one player per team at least, and forget about the integrity of the “All-Star” concept.
  • Should the game have the absolute best players in fact, rather than perception, taking into consideration both first-half performances and career value? Fine: then let statistics alone determine the roster.  A computer can pick it, and again, if all the stars are from one team, so be it. And nobody can complain of bias, or dumb voters.
  • Is the game supposed to be a good baseball game for  maximum entertainment value? Then stop trying to get as many players into the game as possible. Play to win; use the best of the best. Make playing in the game if chosen mandatory, a part of the standard player contract.
  • Or is the game being played for the players rather than the fans? Well, it shouldn’t be. Is it being played to determine home field advantage in the Series? That’s a ridiculous reason to have an All-Star game, and it seems hardly likely to make the players want to play harder or the manager want to really manage.

The fact is that the All-Star Game now has no clear purpose, except for the TV networks to make money selling ads for it. Everything else is muddled and confused. It is impossible to decide what the right course of action is before baseball’s rulers identify whose interests are most important, and what objective will best serve those interests. Arguing over those issues and reaching a conclusion is important and crucial. Arguing over the choosing of the rosters and handling of the game  when those issues haven’t been clarified is a waste of time.

Hmmm.

What other controversies are like this?

One thought on “An Ethics Lesson From the All-Star Game

  1. Dwayne’s Truth Of Life ™ #[insert random number here]:
    “All disagreements, if both parties are being honest, can be distilled down to a difference in priorities.”

    This article is an excellent analysis AND demonstration of this principle.

    –Dwayne

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