An Ethics Incompleteness Principle Challenge: The Mutant Kid

Jeremiah Johnson, a 12-year-old running back from Fort Worth, Texas, is already 5-foot-11 and weighs 198 pounds. He has facial hair (the tattoo is fake—he just wanted to look older), and all of his photos look photoshopped, but that’s a real child in that picture.

Dallas Dragons Elite Academy (DEA) team won the 2022 Youth National Championships in Miami—big surprise there—and he was selected as the Most Valuable Player in the division, which is even less of a surprise.

The ethics conundrum is: what do you do about a mutant like Jeremiah?

The Ethics Incompleteness Principle holds that no system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing absolutely to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a predetermined formula for determining what is right breaks down. Sometimes the only way to be ethical is to decide that a rule, law or principle just doesn’t apply, and to make an exception. There are no rules in junior sports that cover a player like Johnson. Kids develop differently and grow at different rates; many have unusual talents out of the presumed range of their age group. Nonetheless, there are limitations to the effectiveness and fairness of every rule.

Jeremiah’s case resembles the perplexing issues in the matter of Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner. Limitations on the permissible hormone levels a female competitor may naturally possess caused her to be banned from international competitions. She is biologically female with an unusual male hormone presence in her body, all natural, and the international authorities ruled that she could only compete if she used hormone suppressing drugs to eliminate that advantage.

I wrote in one of several pieces here about the athlete,

“We can’t have special leagues and categories for however many gender categories science identifies and activists fight to have recognized, and there is no justification for creating artificial standards to eliminate outlier performers. The “solution” imposed on Caster Semenya—force her to take drugs that eliminate her natural advantage—is horrifying. How is this different from banging brilliant kids on the head until they have brain damage and no longer dominate their less gifted fellow students in school? What right do the sports czars have to declare an unprecedented, unique competitor unfit to compete because her, or his, unique qualities are advantageous? Why are so many woman condemning Caster as a cheat, when they should be defending her as a human being with as much right to compete as she is as anyone? Because she’ll win? Because it’s unfair that God, or random chance, or her own dedication rendered her better at her sport than anyone else?”

Try as I might, I can’t think of any way this argument shouldn’t apply to Jeremiah as well, unless he is that unique anomaly that requires an exception to the rule.

Is he?

Thank goodness he doesn’t identify as a female….

16 thoughts on “An Ethics Incompleteness Principle Challenge: The Mutant Kid

  1. We wouldn’t exclude an especially precocious child from the school’s “Quiz Bowl” team because he has a greater natural talent than other kids. It’s the luck of the draw here. Some schools get a kid here and there who is particularly brilliant, particularly talented or, in Jeremiah’s case, particularly big. Do these kids not get to participate because they have a natural advantage over others?

    In the end, he is still a child.

  2. At 12 It is unlikely for him to play on a school football team. If he wants to play in organized sports he should be allowed to compete where his size reflects the age group of those with whom he is competing.

    With that said, you asked what to do with him. Other teens can get him to buy their beer. 😝

    • What are you talking about? My kid was able to play middle school football at age 11, in 6th grade. Some schools allow them to play in 5th (with 8th graders) due to lack of players.
      My child is the opposite of this one, he’s 12 and not even on the chart for weight, which I assume is true for this child too. We won’t let him play football. What about those kids, should they be able to play with the younger ones? They’re the same size… sometimes smaller than the younger kids. Should it be more like wrestling with weight and height requirements and sort accordingly?

      • I am simply unaware of elementary/middle/ Jr High schools having inter-scholastic sports teams. I am aware there are privately organized PeeWee football teams. As I said, if other opportunities exist let him compete in his height and weight class and not focus on age.

        My only question is why do we want to expose developing brains to concussive trauma?

        • All middle school, league, and Pewee sports are age or grade based, except wrestling. It’s unfortunate for people who fall well above or below the average height and weight norms. How would that poor kid feel if he severely injured someone playing ball? He’ll have to constantly perform with restraint until the other kids catch up and even then it’s likely he’ll hurt someone by accident. It might be best for him to try to find a town league of mixed ages, if that exists nearby it doesn’t here tbh, like they have coed softball sometimes in the summer, open to anyone, or simply not play competitively until high school, in 2 years. Plus being that big, he’s a target for all the other kids. They’ll all go after him, at once, because… middle school boys will do that. The rules will not allow him to play high school football and the coach and school would have all sorts of liability for doing it. They won’t. It’s not just the game, it’s a child much younger than their peers, mostly unsupervised before and after the game. Travel time that doesn’t collaborate with his regular school session. You don’t simply show up and play. A 12 year old constantly with older teens when he looks like an older teen is a bad idea.

        • Chris,

          I get your concern about TBI in contact sports, and yes, a 5’11”, 198 pound 12 year old is going to be a threat to the other players. I don’t know about kids’ sports where you live, but here in Texas, sports – especially football, baseball, and basketball – are frickin’ ‘uge! This fellow would be the talk of the proverbial town, with every junior high and high school coach salivating to recruit him. He shouldn’t be excluded from playing, though, when his odd biology is not a thing of his own making.

          Perhaps his height and weight advantages at 12 years old will even out when he gets to high school, but, here, he should be allowed to play. I do suspect there any competitive leagues he can play in, as well. I didn’t read the story but I pretty much guaranty that he is in every sports league allowable.

          jvb

        • My only question is why do we want to expose developing brains to concussive trauma?

          For some reason, I read that as “why do we wait to expose developing brains to concussive trauma?”.

  3. I’d hazard to guess all high-performance athletes are outliers. Andy Cobos was in grade school with me. By the time we were in seventh grade he was already shaving. He was 5’8″ and muscled. He was a miniature Oscar Robertson. The Big O. He had basketball moves like a panther. But by eighth grade, Andy was done growing. He was middle aged by the time we were in high school, over the hill. He died young. Most successful jocks are simply men among boys.

    I’ve often thought lesbians should be banned from women’s sports. If you’re a lesbian, you have a distinct physical advantage over more feminine women. It’s just the way it works.

  4. Since he is so much larger than those in his grade level, why not simply shift him to playing with older students at a local High School who are roughly the same size as he is. There will be huge advantages down the road for his student if he advances to playing at a senior High School level now, he will be playing at that level far longer than other players. If he continues to play, and advance his skills, his experience could lead him towards a Heisman Trophy candidate later and a profitable professional career, that is if the abuse of playing the game doesn’t completely destroy his brain first.

    • Open age try-outs with weight guidelines would be a “free market” approach. If a freshman is better than half the varsity aged kids – let him join varsity. If a 7th grader is better than half the 9th grade kids – let him join the freshman squad.

      • I’m trying to remember the name of the touring pro golfer who played on and lettered for, and led, the high school team … as an eighth grader.

  5. A fairly easy fix to the situation is the use of weight classes in junior league football up until 8th or 9th grade. While not perfect, this at least mitigates the differences in physical maturity.

  6. I don’t see how he could be penalized for a natural (the key word) physical advantage. That’s usually a large part of what contributes to success in sports.
    However… At this age level the schools have a heightened duty to ensure the safety of all participants. A weight limit might be in order to protect other players.
    But this is football, and that hasn’t always been a priority.

  7. You let him play. 6,000 years of human athletic competition has always been conducted between people who are generally randomly endowed by nature to be a little bit more physically developed than the general population. It’s always been an exposition of nature’s rarities. Sometimes those rarities are even more rare and more physically capable and a particular generation gets to see a real spectacle of athleticism.

    To put a stop to someone like Jeremiah Johnson, you establish some sort of a ceiling. Then all you’ve done is made the guys who hit right at that ceiling, the safe winners. Nah. No ceiling for someone who is naturally this way.

    No, there isn’t wiggle room in here for letting men dominate women’s sports by pretending their mental illness (however increasingly accepted by a sick society) is a natural thing.

  8. Agree that under the current rules he should be allowed to compete.

    Now, if we could magically change the rules, could we make them any fairer?

    I think the only reasonable proposal would be using height/weight limits instead of age limits… but they are in many ways equally arbitrary. And do you enforce them at every game (making kids jump categories mid-season) or just at the beginning, opening the door to a well-timed bloomer who is suddenly 30 pounds heavier and stronger than the competition?

    I think the current rules are one of many acceptable attempts at fairness and going out of the way to make an exception damages respect for the principle worse than any “injustice” done by having to compete with this giant.

    Disclosure: thanks to some genetic luck I was about 3 inches taller than the rest of my weight class when I was doing competitive martial arts and no one ever tried to shift me a class up because of that.

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