Today got an e-mail from an Ethics Alarms participant who hasn’t been by in a while. He commented that he was finding the blog too depressing. Almost immediately after that, another reader sent me this story.
In Iowa, Davis County High School runner Zach Hougland had already won his race, thereby becoming district cross country champion, his school’s first. As he was taking congratulations from his coach and track team mates, he saw another school’s runner stumble and fall, then remain motionless. Hougland rushed back on the track, scooped him up and tried to help him to the finish line. He said, “It was about 15 meters from the finish line. I did it for seven meters, so he had about eight left. I knew I couldn’t help him finish so I just gave him a push and told him ‘You can do it!'”
Hougland kind gesture lost his personal championship, however. He was disqualified for helping a runner, and the runner he helped, Garrett Hinson, was disqualified for accepting help: Iowa state athletic rules are very clear on both points. Zach was devastated,
“I didn’t want anyone to see me break down because I couldn’t take it, all that work for nothing. But if I could do it all again I wouldn’t change a thing because I did what I thought was right,” the boy said.
He showed great instincts, and an understanding of the Golden Rule. Luckily (remember that word), the rest of the Davis County Mustangs scored well enough to finish third overall and qualified for state as a team. It is not entirely clear to me that he made the right choice, however. He’s an ethical kid, no doubt about it. I’m not going to criticize him, but as I have written before about similar situation, he had an ethical obligation to his school and team as well. If the other runner appeared to Zach to be in danger and no one was trying to help him, then absolutely he did the correct thing. If, however, he was just helping a rival complete the race, sacrificing the welfare of his team and team mates without their permission, he prioritized his ethical duties incorrectly.
If he was a high school football player and the other team’s half-back was sprinting to the goal line with what would be the game-winning touchdown, then fell just short of the goal line with snapped tibia, writhing in pain, would Zach be praised for dragging the player, hugging the ball, over the line for a touchdown?
That’s not sportsmanship, it’s betrayal. What if Iowa’s rules permitted such help, Hinson crossed the line, and in doing so got just enough points to allow his team to pass Zach’s so the Mustangs didn’t qualify for state. Would he be a hero then? The fact that this wasn’t the case is just moral luck, after all. Yet by Zach’s ethical compass, this possibility should be irrelevant. His compass, however, is not compatible with sporting ethics, even in high school. One’s first obligation is to win for your team, not to be kind and compassionate to adversaries even at your team’s expense. If Zach were just an individual competitor, the calculus is different. Then helping Hinson is pure altruism.
Ethics points are due to the Iowa High School Athletic Association, which properly resisted the predictable entreaties to give Zach special dispensation. In a statement, it announced”An athlete who receives or gives assistance to another runner in the same race is disqualified. While it was a sportsmanlike act to help someone in distress it remained a violation and the official had no choice but to enforce the rule.”
I’ll think I’ll stick with calling Zach an ethics hero. I wonder if he would have been regarded by his team as a hero, however, if his kind act cost it a shot at a championship.
Pointer: Alexander Cheezem