The Long And Messy Ethics Saga Of Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Medals Continues

Jim Thorpe

Whatever it is that is being sought for the late Native American athlete and icon Jim Thorpe, justice isn’t the right word for it.

My father told me about Jim Thorpe in one of his dinner table discourses when I was about 8. The story sure seemed unfair to me then. Thorpe (1887 – 1953), a full-blooded member of the Sac and Fox Nation, had finished first in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics pentathlon and decathlon events, becoming the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States. Thorpe also played collegiate and professional football and professional baseball to earn a still current reputation as the most versatile great athlete in U.S. sports history. But Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic titles after it was discovered that he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the strict amateurism rules that the Games then embraced.

How technical of those mean Olympics people. This misfortune for Thorpe has always been represented as a horrific injustice and an example of anti-Native American bigotry, but neither is true, and was never true. Thorpe wasn’t eligible for the Olympics under the rules then in place, and in place for what was then believed to be good reasons: the Olympics were for amateur athletes only. Thorpe wasn’t one. All of the arguments for why it was unfair for him to lose his medals (the silver medal winners in both events were bumped up to gold and the official records altered), including the way the story was told in the film biography of Thorpe starring Burt Lancaster, are based on sentiment and flawed ethical reasoning.

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/14/17: Too Much Liberty, Too Much Precision, Too Much Success, Too Much Posturing, And More

Good Morning!

1 Today I’m going to have to waste several hours responding to a vexatious and retaliatory lawsuit by an Ethics Alarms commenter. It’s remarkable I’ve been able to avoid this annoyance for so long, I suppose, but annoyance it is. I’ve been threatened with a few lawsuits, and served once before, in that case by a lawyer who was angry that I described his ridiculous law suit against a Hollywood film as ridiculous.

The misuse of the legal system to harass and extort is an expensive price we all pay for living in a democracy that agrees with Clarence Darrow that in order to have enough liberty it is necessary to have too much. Our prices are higher, our medical expenses are inflated, and other rights, like freedom of expression, are constrained by the nation’s commitment to let common people, and often common people with unethical motives, have easy access to the courts to address their grievances, real, imagined or manufactured. I support this without reservation, , but it is no fun being the victim of it.

2.  It is a common refrain in resistance circles and the social media echo chambers that President Trump “isn’t doing anything.” That is hardly the case, and like a lot of anti-Trump rhetoric, is intentional disinformation. Since the anti-Trump collective spends all of its time trying to devise ways to somehow un-elect him—the 25th Amendment nonsense in back in the news—-while focusing on his tweets, his boorishness,  his feuds, and what he hasn’t done, they ignore the fact that Trump’s administration has been remarkably productive in addressing the issues that helped elect him. The U.S. is no longer wink-winking about illegal immigration. It is undoing the Obama policy of issuing restrictive energy regulations to signal concern over climate change that won’t have any measurable effect on climate change. The disastrous “Dear Colleague” please start assuming all male college students accused of sexual assault are guilty letter is gone and unlamented. We are not being bullied by little North Korea any more. Regulations of all kinds are being cut back. He is remaking the judiciary, pointing it away from judicial activism. Consumer confidence is high, and the stock market is soaring.

All of this has taken place in less than a year. The wisdom of many of these measures can be debated, and progressives hate all of it, but that’s irrelevant. There is much to criticize President Trump for, and much to deplore about his long and short-term effects on his office and the culture. Not accomplishing his stated goals, however, is not one of his flaws.

3. The Washington Nationals, who have morphed into the post 1986 Boston Red Sox as the team that always finds a way to miss winning the World Series, were eliminated in the National League Division Series with the assistance of many flukey plays that went against them. Particularly galling was when an 8th inning Nats rally was cut short in the fifth and decisive game against the Chicago Cubs because Washington’s second-string catcher was picked off first base with the potential game-tying run in scoring position. Jose Lobaton—now a name that will live in D.C. infamy–looked safe on TV and was called safe by the umpire when a snap throw to first by Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras caught him taking too big a lead. A slow motion review of the instant replay, however, showed that Lobaton’s  foot came off the first base bag for a nanosecond while Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo still had the tag on him. The naked eye would never have caught it. Still, if a runner is tagged while not on a base, he’s out.

On the NBC Sports website, blogger Bill Baer argued that this was a misuse of instant replay, writing in part,

“I]t feels unfair to use replay review in this manner. Both teams’ success or failure hinged on Lobaton’s foot coming off of the bag for one-sixteenth of a second. It’s a technicality, like coming back to your car at 10:01 only to see the meter maid walking away and a ticket on your windshield.

The spirit of replay review wasn’t about microscopic technicalities, it was about getting certain calls right: home run/not a home run, fair/foul, safe/out (in other areas, obviously, given this argument). Major League Baseball should greatly consider amending the rules to make it so that a player simply returning to the bag is grounds to be called safe, ending the pedantry of these types of reviews.”

This reminds me to add “It’s just a technicality” to the rationalizations I haven’t gotten around to adding to the Ethics Alarms list. (This makes four.)  It may feel unfair to enforce the rules, just like it feels unfair when you flunk the written test to get a license by one question, or get a ticket when you were driving just a little over the speed limit, or win the popular vote and still don’t get to be President because of the Electoral College. The “spirit of replay review” was to get calls right based on what really happens, not based on what the umpire saw or what he thought happened. Not “certain calls”: there’s no virtue in a wrong call that was just a little wrong. The difference between safe and out isn’t small or technical in baseball. It is everything. Lobaton was out, and it isn’t anything but a benefit to the integrity of baseball that he was finally called out. Continue reading

Once Again, Fairness vs. Integrity In A Baseball Controversy

George Brett was a bit chagrined when his home run was disallowed...

George Brett was a bit chagrined when his home run was disallowed…

It has happened again, as it has thousands of times since the great game of baseball was invented. A result that is permitted by the rules violates the sense of fairness of  objective observers, who thereupon demand that the result be “fixed,” after the fact, by baseball’s powers that be. The most infamous recent example of this scenario was in 2010, when umpire Jim Joyce robbed a deserving pitcher of the perfect game he had pitched (27 batters, 27 outs) by calling the final batter safe at first on a close play, when the player was obviously (to all but Joyce, that is), out. The umpire quickly and openly admitted his error after the game, but there is no provision in the baseball rules for the League or Major League Baseball reversing an umpire’s judgment call after the fact, no matter how bad it was or how unjust the results. Baseball’s Commissioner Bud Selig, to his credit, refused to yield to the popular outcry to give the unfortunate Detroit Tigers pitcher, Armando Galarraga, the achievement and place in baseball history that should have been his. The rules say that unless umpires have actually misinterpreted the black letter rules of the game, there is no remedy. Umpire errors, like player errors, are part of the game.

Last night, what should have been a game-winning home run was called a double by umpires, and what was worse, they held to their mistaken call even after the mandated video review MLB now allows for disputed home run calls. The umpires viewed video that clearly shows the Oakland A’s Adam Rosales’ hit clearing the wall, but crew chief Angel Hernandez bizarrely claimed that the video wasn’t conclusive enough to justify a reversal. Since the A’s lost the game by one run, this altered the result, and there have been calls for an official reversal with the game being replayed. Continue reading

The Twins and the Amazing Hockey Shot: the Public Flunks Its Ethics Test…Badly

Lets's face it: twins are trouble.

I am depressed today, for it is increasingly likely that I am wasting my life.

I began writing about ethics on-line after being stunned by the letters to the editor and calls to C-Span, not to mention the articles in the press, regarding President Clinton’s conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The commentary was virtually ethics-free, and I realized that the vast majority of the American public had no idea how to apply ethical analysis to an event or problem. Their judgment regarding who was right and who was wrong appeared to be based entirely on rationalizations, biases, and non-ethical considerations.If they liked Clinton, he did nothing wrong. If they opposed his policies, he was scum. Objectivity and fair analysis only occasionally surfaced in the discussion at all, and the media coverage, if anything, was worse.

Now I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, and the verdict is clear: nothing has changed. In fact, the situation may have worsened. The sad proof at hand is the public’s reaction to The Tale of the One-in-a –Million-Hockey-Shot Scam, a feel-good story from last month that just turned sour. Continue reading

Ethics Challenge: the Fisherman and the Pole Vaulter

Many readers disagreed with Ethics Alarms on its verdict in the women’s track and field tournament story, where the championship-winning pole vault was disqualified after the opposing coach complained that the vaulter was wearing a bracelet, which was specifically banned by the rules. I argued that the rule was clear and unambiguous, that the coaches had the duty of making sure each competitor followed it, and that simply pretending that the rule didn’t exist because the result of enforcing it was harsh was not an ethical option for the referees. The coach who flagged the rules was well within ethical limits by making sure that his team, which obeyed the rules, wasn’t defeated by a team that didn’t, even if the rule violated didn’t help it succeed.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to explain why this recent scenario, in a very different sport, should be looked at differently from the track meet, or not. Continue reading

Pine Tar Redux: the Pole Vaulter, the Bracelet, and Technicalities

Sports Illustrated is crying foul over the story of a female high school pole vaulter whose jump in the final event had apparently won the meet and the league championship for her team  until the opposing coach called a rules infraction:  she was wearing a friendship bracelet, which was prohibited, and according to the rule book, grounds for disqualification.

SI says this is bad sportsmanship. Nonsense. Enforcing the rules of a sport cannot be poor sportsmanship. The objective is to win within the rules. A team that wins without following the rules cannot claim that “good sportsmanship” requires that the rules be ignored for its benefit. Continue reading