Scapegoating Ethics


Meet Rick Eckstein. He understands. Really.

As it does predictably and constantly, the daily drip-drip-drama of baseball has given us another ethics quandary to ponder, arising in the context of the sport but with far more significant applications. The issue: is it ethical for an organization to deal with a crisis by firing someone for symbolic value, rather than for cause?

I have written about this traditional phenomenon in baseball before, but the current example is far less defensible on either tactical or public relations grounds. Last season, the Washington Nationals accumulated the best record in the sport, and though they flopped in the play-offs, were almost unanimously expected to be strong pennant contenders in 2013 by baseball prognosticators and more importantly, their fans. So far, at least, those expectations have been dashed. The season is almost two-thirds done, and the Nationals have been uninspiring at best. They have won fewer games than they have lost, and are trailing the Atlanta Braves by an alarming margin. Their pitching has been worse than expected, and their offense has been atrocious.

As is often the case in baseball when teams have a disappointing season after a good one, there is no obvious way to fix the problems mid-season, other than to hope the players start playing better. Unlike the other major team sports, baseball team performance is notoriously quirky, just like the game they play. Excellent players have down years frequently (though not the same players, or they would no longer be considered excellent). Team chemistry evaporates; the ball bounces funny ways. In the case of the Nationals, the most obvious problem has been a flood of sub-par years from almost all the starting position players, with an unhealthy serving of injuries.

The team’s response to its frustration and, really, lack of any substantive way to address it was to fire the team’s batting coach, Rick Eckstein, last week. Continue reading

Ethics Quote of the Week: Prof. Glenn Reynolds

“A 20-year-old lunatic stole some guns and killed people. Who’s to blame? According to a lot of our supposedly rational and tolerant opinion leaders, it’s . . . the NRA, a civil-rights organization whose only crime was to oppose laws banning guns. (Ironically, it wasn’t even successful in Connecticut, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation.) The hatred was intense. One Rhode Island professor issued a call — later deleted — for NRA head Wayne LaPierre’s “head on a stick.” People like author Joyce Carol Oates and actress Marg Helgenberger wished for NRA members to be shot. So did Texas Democratic Party official John Cobarruvias, who also called the NRA a ‘terrorist organization,’ and Texas Republican congressman Louis Gohmert a “terror baby.” Nor were reporters, who are supposed to be neutral, much better. As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg commented, ‘Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever. ‘Calling people murderers and wishing them to be shot sits oddly with claims to be against violence. The NRA — like the ACLU, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers or Planned Parenthood — exists to advocate policies its members want. It’s free speech. The group-hate directed at the NRA is ugly and says ugly things about those consumed by it.”

—- University of Tennessee law professor (and conservative blogging icon) Glenn Reynolds, in a USA Today op-ed piece called “Reflections on Newtown.”

Stop the NRAI’m tempted to go further than Prof. Reynolds and suggest that this also says ugly things about what the extended recession has done to our culture, which once was characterized by the initiative, determination and innovation to solve problems, but now increasingly resorts to the useless strategy of  pointing fingers. The tradition of picking out convenient public scapegoats to blame and demonize in response to complex societal problems is a long-running historical phenomenon around the world, but it seems to me that the United States has never before embraced it with the fervor we are seeing now.

“Legally Blonde” Life Lessons at Loveland High

"I am also high school principal!"

“I am also high school principal!”

As a frequent stage director of musicals, I am so glad this didn’t happen to me in my more excitable days. I may have done something rash that would have had me running ethics seminars from inside a jail cell.

When school administrators combine laziness, absence of diligence and common sense, ignorance, blatant disregard for fairness and abject stupidity, it is remarkable the amount of damage they can do. The administrators at Loveland High School in Cincinnati fired the teacher, Sonja Hanson, who directed its student production of the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde” and cancelled the show because her staging was “too racy.” I have not seen the production, obviously, but I know the Broadway show and the movie, neither of which has material in it that would corrupt the morals of any high school student not home-schooled in Carlsbad Caverns. Similarly, the staging that appears in a YouTube video of the show indicate nothing inappropriate for a high school in 2012.

The many students who labored long hours on the production saw their efforts go to waste; the parents and friends of the performers, techies and orchestra members never had the chance to see the musical performed; and the teacher lost her job. All of this was for one reason and one reason only: the principal who initially approved the show had neither the courage nor the integrity to stand up to critics when they began their attacks, and rather than accept responsibility for the production that had been approved and stand by the students and their teacher, the pusillanimous administrator allowed the show to be cancelled and the teacher to be made a scapegoat. Continue reading

In the Wake Of The BP Disaster, Another Andersonville Trial

Someone has to be held responsible, even if nobody is to blame.

Someone has to be held responsible, even if nobody is to blame.

I don’t know about you, but I was certainly surprised to discover that in the view of the Justice Department, two men I had never heard of, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, were the ones responsible for the April 20, 2010 explosion of a BP oil rig that caused millions of barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico for months, polluting the waters and the shores and causing billions of dollars of damages. That is the clear implication of the decision to prosecute the two rig  supervisors for manslaughter in the deaths of the eleven BP workers who perished in the blast.

Obviously, this makes no sense at all. Other government authorities have treated the BP spill as resulting from a complex series of errors, misjudgments, and regulatory violations on the part of several companies and their management teams. The allocation of responsibilities and damages will take years to unravel. How then can Kaluza and Vidrine, who are accused of disregarding abnormally high pressure readings that according to the government should have alerted them to the danger of a  blowout at BP’s Macondo well, be the ones facing criminal charges and prison time? How can this be fair, just, or even possible?

It isn’t fair or just. It is possible because it is easier to finger the two middle-managers who inherited the flawed well equipment that was a ticking time bomb than to put a whole company, or many companies, behind bars. As the F.B.I. agent investigating the theft of the Declaration of Independence keeps telling Nicholas Cage’s treasure hunter in the Dan Brown rip-off  movie “American Treasure,” “Somebody has to go to jail.” Kaluza and Vidrine may be the designated villains for the BP spill. Their only crime was one of moral luck: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the final links in a tangled chain of incompetence, corruption and miscalculations. Continue reading

Punishment for Color Blindness: ESPN’s Unfair and Cowardly Suspension of Max Bretos

What Max Bretos means by "chink in the armor." Not that ESPN cares.

The headline “Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-stopping Loss to Hornets” appeared on ESPN’s mobile web site last week, and it was quickly removed. ESPN apologized, then fired the over-night headline writer who thought it would be cute to make a racially-offensive play on words between the derogatory slur for a person of Chinese descent, and the old, respectable, and the completely non-racial phrase meaning “a flaw or weak point.”

ESPN’s response to the tasteless headline was appropriate.

But it wasn’t enough for ESPN, which was under a full barrage from the  political correctness police and race bullies as well as Jeremy Lin fanatics. So the station also decided to make a victim of  innocent anchor Max Bretos, suspending him for 30 days because he used the expression Wednesday when he asked New York Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier on air about Lin.

“If there is a chink in the armor, where can he improve his game?” Bretos asked. Continue reading

Terry Francona, Accountability, and Moral Luck

Good job, Terry. 'Bye.

Barack Obama, and indeed all leaders, current and future, have reason to heed the results of meeting to be held today between the ownership of the Boston Red Sox and the traumatized team’s manager of eight years, Terry Francona. Francona will learn whether his tenure—he is beyond question the most successful manager in the team’s century-plus existence—will end as a consequence of his squad’s historic and inexplicable collapse, robbing it of the play-off spot that seemed guaranteed less than a month ago. Continue reading