Note to all you baseball haters and National Pastime illiterates: This case study arises out of baseball, but it’s not a baseball ethics post. I’m in Boston, it’s Spring Training—give me a break.
A clear-cut rules violation by the Boston Red Sox has been nearly universally dismissed by fans and media alike by one of the most egregious uses of #2 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization list. In case you don’t have your rationalizations memorized yet—and you should, because when you hear them in your head, you are about to do something unethical—this is the one, and it’s second on the list only to “Everybody does it” for good reason. It’s one of the most popular and destructive rationalizations of all:
2. The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse,
or “They had it coming”
The mongrel offspring of The Golden Rationalization and the Bible-based dodges a bit farther down the list, the “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse is both a rationalization and a distraction. As a rationalization, it posits the absurd argument that because there is other wrongdoing by others that is similar, as bad or worse than the unethical conduct under examination, the wrongdoer’s conduct shouldn’t be criticized or noticed. As a distraction, the excuse is a pathetic attempt to focus a critic’s attention elsewhere, by shouting, “Never mind me! Why aren’t you going after those guys?”
Its other familiar, equally absurd but even more corrupting manifestation is the “They had it coming” variation. This argues that wrongdoing toward a party isn’t wrong because the aggrieved party doesn’t deserve ethical treatment because of its own misconduct. But the misconduct of a victim never justifies unethical conduct directed against that victim.
The case study arose out of a spring training game last week between the Boston Red Sox and the Florida Marlins, in Jupiter, Florida, where the Marlins train. Seven of the starting nine position the Sox sent by bus to play in the game had no big league experience, in clear violation the league’s rules that specify all spring lineups must feature at least four regular players or players competing for regular playing time. The Marlins are National League bottom dwellers while the Red Sox are the 2013 World Champions; this is the only game between the two teams in Jupiter, and the ticket purchasers for the game paid premium prices to see what they thought would be some semblance of the team they watched in a thrilling World Series last October. There were extenuating circumstances besides the long bus ride that today’s player-millionaires detest, like a storm warning—and the game was, in fact halted by rain. Nonetheless, the Marlins had a valid complaint, and voiced it.
That’s not how everyone saw it, though. Of the more than 50,000 baseball fans who voted in an online poll, nearly three-quarters felt that the Red Sox were blameless. Here’s ESPN’s Jon Taylor in a snark orgy:
“The Marlins, meanwhile, had a lineup that featured seven of their likely Opening Day starters, including (Rafael) Furcal, who has not played in the majors since 2012; third baseman Casey McGehee, who spent all of 2013 in Japan; and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who was the worst player in baseball last season by WAR (-1.9)… the Marlins had instigated “super premium” pricing for tickets to Thursday’s game against the defending World Series champion, only to watch “organizational filler in Red Sox batting practice jerseys with numbers befitting an offensive line” face a team that, in 2013, charged its fans to watch Ed Lucas compile nearly 400 plate appearances for a team that finished 34 games out of first place in the National League East.”
His not so subtle point: the Marlins field a team during the regular season that is hardly superior to Boston’s minor leaguers, because they have a cheap and incompetent owner, and they have no standing to criticize the quality of any other team’s line-up, during Spring Training or any other time. Taking advantage of the vox populi aligned against the Marlins, Red Sox owner John Henry tweeted,
“They should apologize for their regular season lineup.”
Funny. But wrong. The Red Sox violated the rule, and the Marlins had every right to complain about it. Using Florida’s problems to deflect legitimate criticism is a pure #2: it doesn’t matter that the Marlins stink, or how badly they are run, or how outrageous it is that their fans pay major league prices for a sub-standard product. None of that entitles Boston to break the rules, or to treat the team badly.
Henry’s tweet should have said, simply, “We’re sorry.”