Scapegoating Ethics


Meet Rick Eckstein. He understands. Really.

As it does predictably and constantly, the daily drip-drip-drama of baseball has given us another ethics quandary to ponder, arising in the context of the sport but with far more significant applications. The issue: is it ethical for an organization to deal with a crisis by firing someone for symbolic value, rather than for cause?

I have written about this traditional phenomenon in baseball before, but the current example is far less defensible on either tactical or public relations grounds. Last season, the Washington Nationals accumulated the best record in the sport, and though they flopped in the play-offs, were almost unanimously expected to be strong pennant contenders in 2013 by baseball prognosticators and more importantly, their fans. So far, at least, those expectations have been dashed. The season is almost two-thirds done, and the Nationals have been uninspiring at best. They have won fewer games than they have lost, and are trailing the Atlanta Braves by an alarming margin. Their pitching has been worse than expected, and their offense has been atrocious.

As is often the case in baseball when teams have a disappointing season after a good one, there is no obvious way to fix the problems mid-season, other than to hope the players start playing better. Unlike the other major team sports, baseball team performance is notoriously quirky, just like the game they play. Excellent players have down years frequently (though not the same players, or they would no longer be considered excellent). Team chemistry evaporates; the ball bounces funny ways. In the case of the Nationals, the most obvious problem has been a flood of sub-par years from almost all the starting position players, with an unhealthy serving of injuries.

The team’s response to its frustration and, really, lack of any substantive way to address it was to fire the team’s batting coach, Rick Eckstein, last week. Nobody saw the move coming, because nobody—literally nobody—believes that Eckstein is responsible in any way for the team’s poor play. Hitting coach (unlike pitching coach) is an amorphous role on a major league team. The players all know how to hit, and if a coach helps a player or two end a couple of protracted batting slumps (or, more likely, help a player think that he did, because slumps are usually just a streak of bad luck) and get a young player to start taking more walks, that coach has had a career year. Many veteran players reject assistance from coaches, and since the players are earning about 20 times more than the highest paid of them, and since many hitting coaches (like Eckstein) can hardly point to equivalent major league success as that of their potential students, you can hardly blame the players who choose to trust their own instincts.  Every decade or so there is a hitting coach with a novel  theory who gains the reputation of being a guru—-Charlie Lau was the most famous example—but that is rare. Most of them are like Eckstein—hard working, diligent men who study videotapes and take notes during games, who come up to players, say quietly, “You’re dropping your shoulder when you swing” or “see what happens when you lay off the high stuff?” and hope they pay attention.

Firing a coach mid-season is like arresting a criminal suspect while he or she is being honored at a reception—it’s an intentional slap in the face. It suggests that the coach is so detrimental to the team’s performance that he has to be jettisoned immediately, just not renewing his contract after the season isn’t enough. It is the equivalent of saying, “This is all your fault!” And it isn’t his fault.

Still, from an organizational standpoint, there are utilitarian arguments for what the Nationals did, and what other teams have done before them (the Kansas City Royals fired their batting coach earlier this year when the young offense it had crowed about to season ticket holders was late to materialize).  Nothing is so dispiriting to fans and destructive to a team’s support as the perception that it isn’t trying to improve. The truth may be that there is nothing better to do than to wait for everyone to play better, but that tactic looks terrible when, as can always be the case, things don’t get better. Leadership is in significant part psychology, and leaders faced with this problem in other fields often resort to symbolic changes that amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. CEO’s fire Marketing VPs. Presidents fire Chiefs of Staff, or shuffle cabinet positions. In baseball, a manager may change the line-up, which statistically is as meaningful as chewing a new flavor of gum. It feels like something, though, and more material changes, like benching stars or wholesale personnel changes, are as likely to make things worse as better. So the team fires the poor hitting coach, demonstrating that it cares, that it isn’t complacent, and most of all, sending the message to everyone else on the team that they could be next. And, of course, hitting coaches are fungible, cheap, and barely noticed by fans until they are fired. What’s the downside?

The downside is that it is unfair to Rick Eckstein. Kant inveighed against ever using a human being as a means to an end, and that is exactly what the Nationals did to their hitting coach. But Eckstein himself, in his remarks to the press after his surprise dismissal, suggested the ethical justification for his now ex-employers’ conduct. This is the game, he said; this is how it has always been. He knew why he was being fired, and knew that this was a possible scenario when he took the job. He accepted the role of a sacrificial lamb, or, scapegoat, if you like that hooved stock analogy better, when the situation demanded it, and, in the assessment of management, in July of 2013 in a dispiriting season, it did. Being there to be fired, in short, is part of the job.

That is why, whether it was wise or not, firing Rick Eckstein was ethical.


Sources: Washington Post 1, 2


21 thoughts on “Scapegoating Ethics

  1. Well put.. Coaches, especially assistant coaches, know they are the most expendable members of a team.. They also don’t have a union, and they also aren’t paid nearly as much.

    The Miami Heat have won 2 NBA titles in a row under their Head Coach Erik Spoelstra. If they have a slow start next year, or if Lebron James is unhappy for any reason, would anyone be surprised to see Eric dismissed before any player?

  2. Also, I think he will certainly get another job in baseball very quickly, Field managers and their assistants aren’t unionized, but they are a fraternity. He’s a “baseball guy.” He’s “paid his dues.” And I suspect they really do their job because they love the game, their fellow coaches and their players. And they’re probably nowhere near as good at anything else. Fortunately, they know it. Good luck Eric.

  3. Is this not simply an example of respondeat superior, one of the well-established example of ethical scapegoating?

  4. Didn’t we just determine or, more accurately, reassert, that the improper scapegoating of Zimmerman to notionally appease a subset of the larger concerned group for non-factual reasons is unquestionably wrong? Regardless of if it makes other people feel better about themselves or helps the organization carry on?

      • Well, if by analogy you want to contend that “black” America and America are wholly separate entities, which they aren’t, but my assertion that any scapegoating is wrong.

        It’s meant to appease people’s notions by linking someone non-factually to a problem and pretending like their removal is progress towards solving the problem.

        It’s not fair to the individual, it’s lying to the ‘appeased’ group, and it perpetuates unfair treatment for future victims of the practice..

        • No, by analogy I meant there is no nexus between Zimmerman and America’s racial issues whatsoever, so designating him as a scapegoat is unjust, irrational and indefensible. At least a team’s hitting coach is formally responsible for seeing that the team can hit, even though everyone recognizes that no hitting coach as that much influence. If we are going to pick a scapegoat, then the hitting coach is a good choice. Zimmerman is a terrible choice.

          • I see your analogy’s point now. But I don’t see scapegoating as ever ethical.

            If there is a legitimate reason to hold someone accountable (that doesn’t concentrate other people’s failures on him as well) then it can’t really be called scapegoating.

            • I respect absolutists, but they are always, ultimately, wrong.

              Allowing bad things to happen without assigning blame and consequences leads to moral rot. It was true that Captain Jakob Wirz had in fact no authority or wherewithal to do anything about the inhumane conditions at the Andersonville prison, but he was the only possible person who could be held responsible (other than Lincoln and Grant), so the choice was to execute a poor middle-management patsy or to shrug off a prison full of starving prisoners of way. The military gets this principle, and it is a valid one. It is utilitarianism at its toughest, but it draws lines that have to be drawn.

              • Allowing bad things to happen without assigning blame and consequences leads to moral rot.

                Assigning blame without regard to fact leads to moral rot, and destroys any reasonable foundation for the concept of accountability.

                It was true that Captain Jakob Wirz had in fact no authority or wherewithal to do anything about the inhumane conditions at the Andersonville prison

                If your interpretation is true, then the Andersonville prison trial was a grave injustice in our history.

                The Sixth Circuit, in fact, rejected your claim that someone should be held responsible merely because something bad happened. See Chicago v. Matchmaker, 982 F.2d 1086 (6th Cir. 1992)

                • Of course Wirz’s trial was a miscarriage of justice. He had no control over the situation at Andersonville, and the El Mira Union prison camp was as bad or worse. Lincoln and Grant knew they were condemning union prisoners to starvation when they stopped the prisoner exchanges. Wirz was a perfect scapegoat— a German immigrant with a thick accent who was left holding the bag when his superior was killed. He didn’t have enough food to feed the prisoners, and he didn’t have enough guards to keep them inside, so he devised a brutal “deadline.”

                  Harper’s had published the horrible photographs of the living skeletons in the camp, as well as horrific survivor stories about men foraging through other prisoners’ droppings for kernels ofundigested raw corn…and worse. Somebody had to pay, and Wirz was the guy.

                  Then the trial was used as the only legal precedent for Nuremberg!

              • You are correct that not holding people accountable for negligence or ineptitude perpetuates cultural rot. Also, I certainly won’t disagree that holding the most immediate person accountable for a systemic failure may teach a greater lesson to the outside world and to the organization in question.

                But in systemic failures OR failures that included the ineptitude of negligence of others, piling all those errors on the head of one to punish may have it’s benefits. It allows a leader to generally maintain the composition of the organization, no need for massive shakes up. But with that comes the moral luck bestowed on everyone else who is equally culpable, those people continue to rot the organization, even more so, their behavior, going unpunished, is emboldened.

                In the short run, it appeases those who are demanding action. Nevertheless it is a dishonest appeasement by telling them the cause of the problem has been solved, when only part of the problem has been possibly been solved.

                What it boils down to is a leader has taken the easy road out by unfairly piling all the blame on a single individual, who although may be a major source of the problem or only the most visible source related to the problem, isn’t the whole problem.

                Sure, there are benefits to holding just one or two accountable for the actions of many or a systemic failure, do they outweigh the wrongs of unfairly assigning blame? do they outweigh the wrongs of allowing unpunished individuals to perpetuate cycles of rot within the organization?

                I don’t know. I would think not. I would think an effective and dynamic leader would be bold enough to explain to the action-seekers precisely the breakdown leading to failure, be just enough to hold each source of error to their appropriate level of accountability, explain to the action seekers that devastating punishment would only annihilate any cohesion that did exist.

                I know we have enough sources to point to to say ‘well they do it effectively’, but isn’t that just the “Everyone Does It” rationalization? Isn’t that just a rationalization for leadership using ends justifies the means? (An means so temporary and unfair that it can’t even guarantee the end?)

                Scapegoating boils down to a leader getting himself off the hook of actually having to buckle down on cultural issues, or issuing more detailed punishments, or even worse, keeps the leader from having to admit that the leader is at fault.

                Military examples of scapegoating may seem to justify scapegoating. But there is a great deal of utilitarianism society allows the military so it can effectively execute it’s mission–that is, the imposition of the national will on foreign entities. Of course we have wide leeway for certain ethical decisions, even the most basic decision of the military: “Is the objective of this particular mission worth the X quantity of personnel we project will be lost achieving it? Yes” is purely utilitarian.

                When the military internally polices it’s problems there is occasional scapegoating, but that is tolerable. To perpetually ransack entire chains-of-command or formations because a cluster of soldiers, or cluster of subordinate or subordinate leaders made grossly neglectful decisions would leave the military leaderless and non-functional. Even on that point, I submit that the military does it’s best to ensure that as many people in error are held accountable as possible without the witch-hunt becoming a detriment to the mission.

                Because of the leeway we allow the military, I don’t think it is appropriate to parallel the military to civilian sports leagues, let alone pretty much anything in civilian life. They don’t deal in life/death or the lethal pursuance of national foreign policy.

                As for the Henry Wirz scenario. That isn’t an example of a military internally scapegoating it’s own out of a practical need. Additionally, the short of it: I don’t think a grave injustice was done to him. He personally murdered several of the POWs, the only injustice there was that others were NOT held accountable.

                But, the Wirz case can’t be viewed as a standalone example. It has to be considered in the greater scope of the Civil War (which I think makes it completely unparalleled to the firing of a hitting coach for all of its complexity). Lincoln sought to reconcile the secessionist states to the Union, fairly holding the entire chain of command accountable for the atrocities committed at Andersonville wouldn’t have done much for that, seeing as how it was a short chain of command:

                Wirz reported to General John Henry Winder, who died in February of 1865 (and was also listed as culpable in Wirz’s charge list).

                Winder reported to General Samuel Cooper, but even then, that link was established late in the war after the grossly ad-hoc prison camp organization appealed incessantly to Samuel Cooper (the CSA Inspector General) and finally in the last year of the war the insurrectionist president Jefferson Davis actually detailed Samuel Cooper to be responsible for the prisons (too late for anything to occur).

                Cooper himself reported directly to Jefferson Davis. There are reports that the Andrew Johnson wanted to seek to hold Jefferson Davis accountable for the atrocities at Andersonville, but that Wirz refused to implicate him directly. Although the evidence would have supported holding Davis accountable for at least allowing the conditions to exist, there was no direct link worth pursuing in light of the more complex campaign for reconciliation.

                Without anyone else in the chain of command to ALSO hold accountable, sure that is unfair. Wirz did plenty wrong himself to warrant his punishment.

                I think you’ll find scapegoating more often than not occurs not as an appropriate reaction to recently discovered problems. It generally occurs after systemic (but known) wrongs have been allowed to perpetuate or multiple combined wrongs have occurred but were ignored until finally they either come out public or they lead to a catastrophic failure of some sort. The scapegoating allows leaders and individuals to avoid accountability (wrong) by pinning it all on one individual.

                I don’t see how you can stomach a utilitarian justification of that. It boils down to “Everyone Else does it” and “Ends justifies the means” in order to allow the majority of the sources of problems to go unchecked while punishing one source of the problem.

                • Forgive the occasional sentence fragment or run on or other grammatical error. Responding while also attempting to manage the 5 month old proved distracting.

        • How does that apply to this case? Rick Eckstein was the coach, he has has some measure of blame.

          Or are you going to argue that the doctrine of respondeat superior is immoral or unethical?

          • If it is within someone’s responsibility to achieve X standard and due to their negligence, ineptitude or miscreance, then firing them for that isn’t scapegoating.

            If achieving X standard requires getting subordinates to behave a certain way then of course it is within their role to do that.

            What would seem to be unethical is even creating a role whose purpose requires a certain level of authority and then not giving the person in the role the authority they need.

  5. Reblogged this on Garlicfriesandbaseball's Blog and commented:
    GFBB Note: If ever a losing team was in need of a scapegoat, the SF Giants would surely be in the race. I mean, there’s just no reasoning why pretty much the same guys on last year’s World Series Championship team are the starters for this year’s team. And yet, the results have been disastrous. Thankfully the head honcho’s in the Giants organization are not prone to reacting to such drivel and have managed to maintain a period of status quo. So be it. We’ll see what the trade deadline will bring, but no matter what happens, I don’t see management firing just for the sake of firing. Hang in there fellows, and that goes for all the MLB teams that are struggling this season.

  6. More important than their woeful hitting (24th out of 30), which given random bounces of the game may be a regression to the mean, is their abysmal defense. They are 26th in the league in team defense. Since the team manager is generally responsible for baseball “fundamentals,” it would seem that Davey Johnson should be the next to go. Or higher.

    If you are going to assign blame for the season, I’d start with Mike Rizzo, who did nothing much in the off-season except sign Adam LaRoche (.235 14 HRs) to a 2 year 24 million dollar contract, acquire Dan Haren for 1 year at 13 million (5-11 with an ERA of 5.49), get Denard Span for 2 years for 9 million (.266 2 HRs 30 RBIs .319 OBB), and sign closer Rafael Soriano for 28 million for 2 years (the closer had to be pulled Thursday). Rizzo lost a first round pick for that; but with all the first round picks that he was handed over the years, which he allowed agent Scott Boras parlay into lucrative deals for his clients – Jason Werth being one of the worst at 126 million for 7 years – he won’t have a lot of room to maneuver for a long, long time.

    But don’t feel sorry for the Nationals. The franchise with the new ballpark (paid for by taxpayers) is a moneymaking engine. Even if they finish out of the running for the next 10 years, they’ll make boatloads of money for the owners, just like the Redskins. Until the fans stop coming out and the sportswriters and broadcasters quit saying they are a great team playing below their potential, just on the verge of winning it all, the Woebegone Nationals will remain right where they are – average at best mediocre at worst.

    • Boy, did you get jaded fast!

      I prefer to think that this is a classic example of Bill James’ “Law of Competitive Balance,’ when a good team with weaknesses looks at its record and says, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” while other teams are aggressively trying to fix everything, because they weren’t as successful. Then all those little cracks and potential weaknesses start dragging the team down, and they think,”But we were so good last year!”

      The Nats fiddled around with strengths rather than being realistic about weaknesses. Young players are often unpredictable…guys like LaRoche can be pegged being ready to make up with a great year with an off one. They weren’t 98 wins good, and convinced themselves that they were. Meanwhile, over in Boston where the wheels fell off, they did an overhaul that was much needed, but wouldn’t have occurred if the team has just eked into the play-offs. But the Boston fans and sportswriters actually believed that the team would be lousy. (For the record, I didn’t)

  7. For the record I never supported Rizzo’s campaign with the fans and the media to shut Strasburg down when they had a chance to go deep and maybe win it all last year. My lasting image of the Cardinals series was Drew Storen being sent in by Johnson to mop in a blowout in Game 3. He had to come to close in the Game 4 victory and Game 5 (where he had nothing) is history. Rizzo hasn’t shown me anything so far. Also I think the Boras situation – he’s almost a minority owner with his cadre of players – is a big COI. He’s not answerable to the fans.

    Boston fans and media like Philly will not tolerate poorly run or performing teams – they raise hell. Around here everyone’s either trying to make nice or afraid of having their access limited. Washington fans of the Redskins and Capitals have had a long track record of futility here, the Nationals being the latest chapter in the area’s sports mismanagement. .

    I don’t think they needed to be aggressive in the off season. They just needed to make better decisions. You’re right: they played above the abilities last year. But they didn’t recognize it then and don’t now.

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