Ethics Dunce: Buzz Bissinger

It took about an hour after the  Barry Bonds verdict for the first ethics-challenged national sports writer to write something outrageous about it. Not surprisingly, it was Buzz Bissinger, a the member in good standing of the Daily Beast’s stable of annoyingly hypocritical, biased or appallingly cynical writers, Bissinger belonging to the last category.

His post, which pronounced the Barry Bonds conviction “a travesty” in the title, contained one ethics howler after another, any of one of which would have justified an Ethics Dunce prize.

Here they are:

“It is true that the case of Barry Bonds does hit a new low, a new low in the waste of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, a new low in the witch hunt of a player who, because he was considered surly and arrogant and unlikable, is now having intimate details of his life revealed (such as testicle shrinkage), a new low in outrageous abuse of government power.” Continue reading

Hall of Fame Ethics: The Jeff Bagwell Dilemma

Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have been turning in their ballots for the Hall of Fame, their collective totals eventually determining which retired major league baseball stars will have plaques in Cooperstown. If you follow baseball closely, you are aware of the big debates this year: Is Tim Raines worthy? Will Bert Blyleven finally make it? Has Alan Trammel been unfairly neglected? What about Jack Morris and Roberto Alomar? If you don’t follow baseball, you couldn’t care less, and I pity you. One controversy this year, however, should be of interest to non-fans as well as fans, because it involves the proper application of the ethical principles of fairness and equity in an environment of doubt. It is the Jeff Bagwell dilemma. Continue reading

Thomas Boswell’s Outrageous Ethical Breach

In the first installment of Ken Burns’ latest addendum to his epic documentary “Baseball”, there is a considerable discussion of baseball’s steroid problem, and its effect on the game, its image, and integrity.  Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell is one of those interviewed, and caused quite a few PBS watchers, including me, to drop their jaws when he volunteered this:

“There was another player now in the Hall of Fame who literally stood with me and mixed something and I said ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘it’s a Jose Canseco milkshake.’ [ Note: Star outfielder Jose Canseco was widely believed to be a steroid user from early in his career, and he finally admitted it after retiring.] And that year that Hall of Famer hit more home runs than ever hit any other year. So it wasn’t just Canseco, and so one of the reasons that I thought that it was an important subject was that it was spreading. It was already spreading by 1988.”

Boswell, who knew exactly what the player meant by “Jose Canseco milkshake,” never reported the apparent use of steroids—illegal in 1988, as it is now— to the team, Major League Baseball, or the public. Continue reading

“The Ethicist” and His Definition of “Unethical”

Eureka! Bingo! At last!

While explaining in this week’s column why he hesitates to label a manifestly unethical practice unethical, The New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, Randy Cohen, clarified a couple of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while. Why do so many people react so violently to my conclusion that they have done something unethical? And why does Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist” so frequently endorse unethical conduct, especially dishonesty, when he believes it is motivated by virtuous motives? Continue reading

Gift or Bribe? Barry Bonds’ Generosity to the NABJ

Barry Bonds, the retired baseball slugger who used banned or illegal performance enhancing drugs to fuel a late-carer transformation that allowed him to grow from merely great into Superman, breaking every home run record in sight as a result, has adamantly maintained his innocence despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence, positive drug tests, and the verdict of common sense. He has also played the race card when it seemed convenient to his cause. Bonds’ cheating ways have made him rich beyond belief, and his only real problems now are 1) the likelihood of a Federal perjury trial next year in connection with his Grand Jury testimony that he never knowingly took steroids, and 2) the fact that few of the sportswriters who vote for the Hall of Fame seem inclined to enshrine steroid cheats, based on their rejection, so far, of Mark McGwire, whose steroid-assisted single season home run record Bonds broke while he was especially pumped-up.

Both of these problems could conceivably be helped by some positive press opinion, something that Bonds has never cultivated, being inclined to treat all journalists as if they were something he had to wipe off the bottom of his shoe. Thus it raised eyebrows when  it was announced that the charitable foundation created and controlled by Barry Bonds has donated $20,000 to The National Association of Black Journalists. NABJ president Kathy Times told the Associated Press that the money will be used to fund an annual award promoting entrepreneurial spirit. Continue reading

The Ethics of Giving Up on Ethics

Paul Daugherty, a sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer,recently wrote a column expressing a theme I hear all too often regarding politics, government, education, and society generally. Motivated by the steroid allegations against yet another hero, Lance Armstrong, Daugherty penned his surrender to a culture that doesn’t seem to care about ethics. Daugherty wrote:

“Everyone wants sports to be equitable. We all desire the level field. No one wants sports to be as drugged up as Woodstock in 1969. But it is. We’ve fought the ethical fight. We’ve lost. It could be time to let it go.
Even the athletes who lose still win. Mark McGwire got his, Barry Bonds got his, Brian Cushing got his. If you wait enough, deny enough, then rationalize believably, you get yours. Disgrace fades. Only Olympic athletes wear the stink of doping longer than the average 5-year-old’s attention span. In one respect, it’s not unlike the fight against legalizing marijuana. It has lasted so long, and now seems so pointless, I can’t even remember what we’ve been arguing about. We’ve become numb to it….It’s only a little outrageous now to suggest that a professional athlete be allowed to use performance-enhancing substances to his (enlarged) heart’s content, as long as he’s doing it legally….So what’s the point?”

“What’s the point?” Continue reading

Unethical Questions, Anti-Semitism, and Greenberg’s Chase

I first encountered the device of the unfounded accusatory rhetorical when, as a teenager, I became fascinated by the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. A best-seller at the time was Web of Conspiracy, an over-heated brief for the theory that Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and others were in league with John Wilkes Booth. The author, a mystery writer named Theodore Roscoe, was constantly suggesting sinister motives by asking questions like “The sealed records of the official assassination investigation were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Was the War Department afraid of what the documents would prove? Would they have implicated Stanton? We will never know.”  This tactic is on view regularly today, used generously by the purveyors of modern conspiracies, but it is also a regrettably common tool of journalists and historians. Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Posthas found a new use for it. His question: “When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish?” Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: New York Times Sportswriter Ken Belson

I fear that I am becoming a broken record on this (Note to those under the age of 40: the phrase “becoming a broken record” refers to the archaic devices called “records” which once were used to convey music via another archaic device know as a “phonograph.” If a record was broken, as in cracked, the phonograph’s needle, which…oh, never mind. We really need a new phrase for “saying the same thing over and over again.”), but the popular position that only the pure and blameless have the right to condemn misconduct by others threatens our culture’s ability to discuss and distinguish right and wrong. It has to be refuted, discredited, and buried. For subliminal support for this  unethical stance to be injected into a supposedly straight news item—in the sports pages, of all places—is alarming, for it shows how our cultural attitudes can be warped without our even being aware of it. Continue reading

Mark McGwire’s Steroid Confession, Part 1

Former slugging first baseman Mark McGwire finally admitted yesterday that he indeed was a steroid-user while playing.  Telling the truth, even, as in McGwire’s case, when it is done too late and in a self-serving manner, is a good thing.  Nevertheless, his admission should have no bearing at all on the judgment of him as unworthy of  post-career honors. McGwire cheated, and his use of steroids damaged his fellow players and the game.  Nothing he said changes any of that. Continue reading