The new star San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is tattooed all over. Does this mean that he is unqualified to be a leader, a role model, an ethical exemplar, as NFL quarterbacks are supposed to be? The Sporting News’ columnist David Whitley argued in a column that indeed Kaepernick’s tattoos do mean that, and as you would expect, the number of coherent points he could mount in support of that position equaled exactly zero. He did, however, give everyone a terrific example of how people who don’t comprehend ethics make what they think are ethical arguments.
His column is about ethics, because ethics is central to leadership. Whitley believes that Kaepernick’s tattoos undermine his ability to lead by compromising the values he represents to those who must follow him. And those values that tattoos undermine are??? Well, Whitely doesn’t really explain that. He says that tattoos on a quarterback send the wrong message because prisoners get tattoos in the Big House. This is a man who is hostage to cognitive dissonance. Presumably if Stephen Hawking or Barack Obama showed a tat, he’d be fine with Kaepernick’s decorations. When I was kid, it wasn’t prisoners but sailors who we identified with tattoos. I knew a Pearl Harbor survivor with a big one—this neither convinced me that he was a rotter instead of a hero or made me want to get a giant anchor needled into my arm. Popeye had a tattoo, and we all loved Popeye. He also ate spinach. We didn’t.
Whitley can pack a lot of faulty logic into a small space. He writes, “NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.” Presumably you don’t want your CEO in spikes and shoulder pads either. A quarterback is like a CEO in that he is the leader of an organization, and needs to represent the very best values and virtues relevant to what that organization does. Tattoos, at least for the nonce, carry stigmas in the business world at certain levels and certain industries, and thus it can be fairly argued that a CEO may be acting irresponsibly by encouraging those who follow him or her to defy the norms of the business world. But playing NFL football isn’t like running Bank of America. On the football field, where you work, literally nobody cares what you look like. Does Kaepernick’s body art have any impact on his performance at all? Would any team in the NFL reject a quarterback of his abilities because they didn’t like the picture on his chest? No.
Whitley tells us that he doesn’t have a tattoo, and doesn’t like them. Good for him: he admits his bias. But why should the opinion of a man about that which he is negatively biased about make any difference to anybody? He has stated that he is incapable of objective thought on the topic. Great. Then shut up.
“Did Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Doug Williams or Joe Montana have arms covered in ink?” he asks, as if this matters in 2012, when those people are dead, in diapers or retired, and virtually every popular actor, actress and singer under the age of 45 has a visible tattoo. “Do Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers?”
Did John Wayne have a tattoo? Clark Gable? James Dean? Rudolph Valentino? Edwin Booth? George Washington? Robin Hood? Joan of Arc? John the Baptist? So what? This is an “everybody does i”‘ argument with an anachronistic twist: “Everybody used to do it.” That’s not ethics. That’s nostalgia.
The “Ick Factor,” which we encounter on Ethics Alarms with some regularity, occurs when conduct that is just different or strange is designated as unethical out of fear or stupidity. It is an echo of how societies governed by religious or strict moral codes react when they encounter new ideas or conduct the original code writers didn’t think of. That dance is weird—it must be evil! That music is different—it must be the work of the devil! Tattoos are fashion, that’s all. They are no different than eye-liner, lipstick, hairpieces and clothing. Before Jack Kennedy refused to wear one, hats were required of respectable men and dignitaries in public. JFK had great hair, and said to hell with it. You know what happened? Men stopped wearing hats. If Colin Kaepernick shows great leadership ability on the football field, the significance of his tattoos will be that kids who admire and want to emulate his legitimate leadership qualities will want to get tattoos, too, and if they emulate their hero by showing courage, sacrifice, diligence and responsibility, what their backs looks like at the beach shouldn’t make any difference at all. Then, after a few generations, some dim-witted sportswriter will write that a new star quarterback with bare arms and no pictures on his neck is a disgrace.
And no, my opinion on this issue has nothing to do with the fact that my son just got a full calf tattoo this week.
I hate tattoos.
Pointer: Fox News
Graphic: SF Gate
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