Ethics Quiz: Honoring The Dead and Deadly Team Mate


When they take the field in Spring Training and for the rest of the 2015 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals will be wearing a memorial patch reading “OT” in honor of outfielder Oscar Taveras, the 22-year-old budding star outfielder who died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic last October. Such mourning patches have become common since 1972, when the Pittsburgh Pirates moved beyond the traditional black armband to a personalized patch following the tragic death of the team’s Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente in a plane crash, as he was flying humanitarian aid to Nicaragua.

Taveras, however, unlike Clemente, died in an act of reckless stupidity that took not only his own life but that of his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, as well. Toxicology tests showed that his blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit before the crash. situation is more complex because toxicology tests showed that his blood alcohol level at the time of his death was five times the legal limit. Moreover, Taveras’, also was killed in the crash. If Taveras had lived and Arvelo alone had died, he would have been prosecuted for manslaughter.

And thus your first Ethics Alarms Baseball Ethics Quiz of 2015 is this:

Is it ethical for the Cardinals to publicly honor Taveras with a uniform patch?

ESPN’s Paul Lucas frames the issue this way:

“Should a person’s character have any bearing on whether he’s memorialized with a patch? Does the fact that Taveras was only 22 at the time of his death make a difference in this case? Is a memorial patch an endorsement of a person’s entire life or a gesture of mourning?”

NBC’s Craig Calcaterra, in his sensible discussion of the matter, notes that drunk driving has long been a problem in professional baseball. So has reckless driving generally: just this off-season, Washington Nationals star Jayson Werth was sentenced to 10 days in jail for driving over 100 MPH on the Capital Beltway. Whether a drunk or reckless driver kills himself or others is a classic example of moral luck, for whether such a driver ends up dead, a criminal, in jail, or home safe in bed and still an upstanding member of society often comes down to random factors beyond his control.

This question is interesting because it is a perfect illustration of an ethical conflict, where two or more valid ethical values are in direct opposition. A team is like a family, and loyalty, empathy, kindness and compassion argue for a family mourning a premature and untimely death of a family member, whatever his mistakes, misdeeds and flaws may be. A young man with a bright future is dead, and mourning is healthy for his team mates and friends. However Taveras died, and regardless of his own complicity in that death, one can’t deny that this was a tragedy, and that his end was exceedingly sad.

Yet a big league baseball team is also on constant public display, and the Cardinals’ uniform patch goes well beyond private mourning. It will be a constant gesture of remembrance and honor that arguably reflects on the team, St. Louis, Major League Baseball, the sport itself, and the culture. Is it responsible, under such circumstances, to honor Taveras with a patch?

Let me address Lucas’s questions first:

1. Should a person’s character have any bearing on whether he’s memorialized with a patch?

Any bearing? Sure: if the dead player was a serial killer, a virulent racist or a criminal mastermind, I think he loses the right to a patch. I wouldn’t make a blanket judgment about a man’s character, however, based on a single instance of drunk driving, even a fatal one. He was 22, and men do really stupid things at 22. If they are lucky, it doesn’t kill them. This is not signature significance.

2. Does the fact that Taveras was only 22 at the time of his death make a difference in this case?

I just answered that question. It also gives us more to mourn. His youth makes a difference, yes.

3. Is a memorial patch an endorsement of a person’s entire life or a gesture of mourning?

It depends. A patch is communication. What does it communicate? Would an objective observor see the patch and think, “Look, Major League Baseball is endorsing drunk driving,” or conclude, “Look, the Cardinals are wearing a patch in honor of that young outfielder who died”? I think the intent of the patch is obviously the latter, especially since Taveras didn’t live long enough to have much of a life to endorse.

My answer to the quiz is yes, it’s ethical. We’ve seen black armbands and patches on baseball uniforms for a hundred years, always honoring the passing of team mates or baseball greats, and I’ve never assumed that they were anything more than gestures of mourning, honoring what the players did on the field.

In 1986, the New York Yankees retired the uniform number of Billy Martin, the fiery player and manager who finally died driving drunk after a lifetime of it, and other awful behavior too. Nobody has ever suggested, that I know of, that the retired number 1 hanging in the stadium endorses being a virulent asshole, which Martin undeniably and defiantly was ( great manager, though). My suspicion is that the controversy over Taveras is mostly fueled by anti-DUI activists, who sense an opportunity to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. That’s fine; the conversation and debate is healthy.

The Cardinals, however, should wear the patch.


Sources: ESPN, NBC Sports


7 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Honoring The Dead and Deadly Team Mate

  1. A person who drives drunk is playing Russian Roulette with the lives of others. They should be prosecuted with the same vigor and penalties that you would prosecute someone who was shooting into the air to celebrate JoeD appreciation week. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be right to memorialize this person if he and his girlfriend got hit.

  2. If the original gesture was a black arm band, that has slowly evolved into something more overtly indicative of the person being mourned, then surely a compromise can be reached-

    The team can wear black arm bands for this kid. He doesn’t get the full endorsement of image and everything, yet is still mourned.

  3. I have no problem with the Cardinals memorializing their teammate. To me, this is more of a mourning for the loss of the person, not an endorsement of his off-the-field lifestyle. Many police line of duty deaths used to leave me contemplating similar conflicts. Officers who are killed in auto crashes during reckless pursuits, responding with unnecessary speed to calls, or even after crashing while just driving too fast for no particular reason, are accorded the same hero’s funeral as the officer who is killed in a hail of bullets while defending the helpless or apprehending a dangerous felon. In many of these instances, officers are violating agency policy and usually state law, not to mention their duty to uphold public safety and the laws of common sense. If an officer survives such a calamity, serious disciplinary action often results, but if he or she actually dies, then the fatal behavior often fades to virtual insignificance. I have even heard such officers eulogized as though the ill-considered action that caused their death was in some way heroic. Is this the right thing to do? As a young officer I used to wonder, “Does everybody who dies ‘on the job’ deserve a hero’s funeral, and if so, then are true heroes getting their due in recognition?” I never felt good about the possibility of honoring carelessness or stupidity, but I long ago resolved this with the need to recognize their service to the community apart from the careless or stupid act that got them killed, and to demonstrate appreciation for that service to their family. We give the more honorable heroes their due by remembering them in a much different way, and by holding them in a higher place in our hearts.

  4. Would it be OK to honor him with a patch if he had shot his girlfriend and then committed suicide? If this has nothing to do with the conduct, then this should be OK.

    Now, he didn’t intentionally kill her, but how reckless does the conduct have to be? I think the argument that such a gesture isn’t an endorsement of drunk driving is as valid as a sports star who says “I am not a role model”. If you are honoring him for his death by drunk driving, you are saying that that behavior is honorable in the eyes of children everywhere. Only if you make this a shameful death will society treat this behavior as shameful.

    • I guarantee you that if he had shot his girlfriend and then committed suicide, there would be no uniform patch or arm band.One is a tragic and foolish mistake, the other is an intentional and monstrous crime.

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