Sunday, June 27, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: HAVE FUN ... BUT NOT TOO MUCH FUN

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, based in Indianapolis, is the main organization that governs and sets rules for college sports in the United States and Canada. This has put it smack in the middle of a number of controversies lately - if the issue of whether there should be a college-football playoff system were a matter of ethics, I'd have to get a bigger mailbox - but I hadn't previously had occasion to consider an issue brought to my attention by R.C., a reader from Alabama.

"Is the NCAA's rule governing `excessive celebration' fair and ethical?," he asks.

My reader is referring to NCAA Football Rule 9-2, which specifies that a 15-yard penalty be assessed for any "delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention on himself (or themselves)."

R.C. contends that certain human responses "are innate and therefore uncontrollable." How then, he asks, "can the NCAA expect the very primal instinct to celebrate the accomplishment of a goal, especially one that the individual has likely trained for years to be able to accomplish, to somehow be switched off?"

He further wants to know if it is ethical for the NCAA to profit from the interest in collegiate athletics and then to punish the players for "acting on impulses that are beyond their control?"

After all, R.C. adds, he sees these same impulses played out among the thousands of fans in attendance and untold numbers more watching in homes around the country when they simultaneously throw their hands into the air and scream.

Contending that the "excessive celebration" rule has affected the final outcome of several contests and led to widely publicized outcries from both fans and athletes, R.C. asks: "If the fans, coaches and players have a consensus view of this rule that differs from that of the sanctioning body, is it incumbent upon that body to change the rule?"

R.C.'s question takes on particular relevance given the NCAA's April decision to change its rules so that, starting in 2011, the penalty for taunting an opposing team on the way to scoring a touchdown will include the loss of that touchdown - obviously a potential game-changer. The current taunting rule requires only a 15-yard penalty assessed on the extra-point attempt or subsequent kickoff.

I'm guessing that R.C.'s team may have come out on the wrong side of an "excessive celebration" penalty recently, and I understand his frustration. However, I don't think there's anything unethical about the rule itself.

Fans rarely if ever get to set the rules for organized sports. The NCAA is under no ethical obligation to change its rules simply because the public believes it should. The views of fans - along with those of coaches and players - can and should be taken into account, but ultimately the NCAA's only obligation is to establish the rules that it believes are in the best interest of the game.

Granted, it may be instinctual for a player who scores to want to celebrate his feat or even to rub his opponents' noses in their failure. That doesn't mean that they should be allowed to do so. It also may be instinctual for players to want to poke the other guy in the eye, but the rules don't allow it and that's that.

The ways that players line up, block and tackle are regulated, so why not the ways they celebrate? Particularly since the NCAA rule seems targeted not at spur-of-the-moment exultation but rather at choreographed showmanship that goes beyond the spurs of instinct.

The whole point of rules is to control players' impulses and channel them into sportsmanlike competition. R.C. gives the players too little credit for their ability to do so. Football players control their emotions constantly to avoid penalties, and this is only one more instance of this perennial process.

Coaches make sure that their players understand what's OK and what's not OK when it comes to tackling an opponent. It's up to them to make sure that the players also understand what is and isn't permissible in celebrating a touchdown.

Players who are serious about winning will have no problem mustering the restraint needed to avoid a game-changing penalty.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: TAKE THEMSELVES OUT OF THE BALL GAME?

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 49 percent believe that it would be right for the Major League Baseball Players Association to boycott the 2011 All-Star Game, which is scheduled to be played in Phoenix, in protest against the bill passed in April by the Arizona State Legislature to crack down on illegal immigrants, while 51 percent believe that it is wrong to mix baseball with politics.

Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va., believes that, given that "the Arizona legislation is simply trying to do what the federal legislation says it will do - but doesn't," such a boycott "is just another simple-minded grandstand."

"The union has no business getting into this," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C. "It is wrong indeed for baseball players to propose a boycott of a game because it would take place in a state that is trying to do what the federal government is unwilling or unable to do properly."

On the other hand, one reader writes, "This country has a Constitution, and two of the freedoms it guarantees are speech and association. The baseball folks can speak or associate as they please."

Check out other opinions here, or post your own by clicking on "Comments" or "Post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.


Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.
 
c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

SOUND OFF: FACEBOOK FIRING

Charlie Seng, a reader from Lancaster, S.C., sent me a front-page article from The Charlotte Observer about a waitress who lost her job for having posted disparaging comments on Facebook about a customer who left her a lousy tip. Seng wonders what the readers of the column think of a dismissal based on postings on an employee's personal Facebook page.

Good question. What do you think? Is it fair for a company to fire an employee for online comments that might reflect ill on the company? Or does the fact that it's a personal page make it none of the company's business?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll with this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: THE EARLY BIRD LOSES THE DEPOSIT

In late May a reader from Columbus, Ohio, purchased a house. Because the current tenants had a lease running through the end of August, my reader planned to move in on Sept. 1, figuring that this would give the current renters plenty of time to find a new place to live.

At the closing for the house sale, the previous owner gave my reader a copy of the renters' current lease, plus a prorated share of the rent they had paid for May and their original security deposit of $1,295, one month's rent.

The house had been put on the market in mid-April, and at that time the tenants gave 30 days' notice that they intended to move out by the end of May, which they have done.

The sticking point: The lease stipulates that the renters will forfeit their deposit if they move before their lease expires, but the renters have made clear to my reader that they expect their security deposit returned in full.

The former owner told my reader that, if he still owned the house, he would not return their deposit because they had violated the terms of the lease by bringing in a cat and also by moving before the lease expired. My reader's lawyer agrees.

When the renters told the previous owner that they were planning to move, there was no discussion about the return of the security deposit. Since then, however, it has become a major bone of contention between them and the new owner.

"They are driving me crazy with phone calls and text messages," my reader writes.

He figures that the former renters are responsible for repairs to the house that will cost about $400, which should rightly be deducted from the deposit in any case. The question is, what about the rest of the money?

"Do I have to return the security deposit to them, now that they have vacated?," he asks. "I used to own several properties. Now I remember why I got rid of them.

"What is the right thing to do?"

I have often said, in this column and elsewhere, that what's legal and what's ethical aren't always the same thing. In this case, for example, the legalities are clear: As long as the renters weren't misled and the lease clearly states the terms of the agreement, then my reader has no legal obligation to return the money. It's an open-and-shut case.

For him, though, the ethics are obviously foggier. What's the story?

In my opinion this is a case in which the law and the ethics go hand-in-hand. The renters entered into an agreement without coercion, and their landlord lived up to his side of the deal. They should therefore do the same and, since they moved before the lease expired, write off the security deposit. That a new landlord held the lease when they made their early departure has no bearing whatsoever on their obligation to honor their agreement.

My reader is unhappy that the renters feel that they are being dealt with unfairly, and he admits that he feels inclined to give them something back - but is also bothered by "their attitude of entitlement."

However, my reader is not ethically bound to see that everybody feels that they have been dealt with fairly, only to actually deal with everybody fairly. If he chooses to return some portion of the renters' deposit, it will be strictly out of the goodness of his heart, not out of any ethical obligation to do so. Whether or not it's reflected in their attitude, the renters are not entitled to any of the money back.

The renters didn't ask me for advice. If they had, I'd tell them to reread their lease and acknowledge that, by moving before it expired, they forfeited their security deposit. If they hoped to have this section of the lease waived, they should have taken that up with the previous owner.

As for my reader, he's already doing the right thing, even if he's feeling bad about it. If his compassion moves him to return some of the deposit, I hope he'll at least make sure that he keeps enough to cover the cost of the necessary repairs.

"I have always been on the losing end of these situations," my reader tells me, but in this case he doesn't have to be.

His sympathy for his former renters does him credit, but there's nothing wrong with expecting them to honor the lease they signed.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: A LESSON FROM A TEACHER

A reader of the column tells me that she has "a doozy of an ethical question" for me, one which belongs to that touchy ethical category "something for nothing."

Awhile back she signed up for a teacher-rewards card at her local office-supply company. Every few months she receives a reward check, the amount of which is based on how much she has purchased at the store.

During the past year her rewards have grown significantly - but the growth in the amount she's getting is "not from my personal purchases, because I know I am not spending the kind of money to generate the rewards I often get."

She has cashed some of the smaller rewards checks, she writes, since she figures that they are based on her actual purchases. The larger checks have really thrown her, however, and she isn't sure what to do.

"My purse was stolen last year," she writes, "but I cannot think someone who stole my purse is using my card. If this someone is using my card for educator discounts, especially someone who stole my purse, then I feel I have the right to reap the rewards and have the last laugh."

My reader wonders if her school or school district are somehow tied to her personal account, with her getting credit for the institution's purchases.

"If this is the case," she acknowledges, "the district does not have access to its rewards and it's an obvious error."

Since most of her purchases are for her classroom and students, however, she wonders if it is so bad that a teacher might be benefiting from the district's purchases.

She asked the school's budget secretary, who orders school supplies, about the situation.

"She just laughed," my reader reports, "and said, `Good for you if that is happening. At least someone is getting something for all we spend.'"

My reader assumes that, if she asks the store to investigate, it will probably not care and wonder why she cares.

"Or they will cancel my card, issue a new one and no one will get the checks," she adds. "Am I entitled to spend the reward check on an account issued to me, when someone who spends a lot at the store is tied to my account in error? Or is it unethical?"

There are situations in which it's ethical to accept something for nothing, but they're few and far between, and sadly this isn't one of them.

Unless the store is accidentally crediting my reader for purchases that aren't being made, in which case she's being given the store's money by accident, it seems fair to assume that somebody - let's say Buyer X - is making purchases and my reader is getting the credit instead of Buyer X. In either case, someone is being deprived of what's due, and my reader is reaping the benefits.

It doesn't really matter who the loser is, and the budget secretary's cavalier response doesn't get my reader off the hook if it should be the district. It's not the secretary's money, after all, and I doubt that the district has authorized her to write blank checks at will.

My reader wouldn't even consider withdrawing funds that her bank had credited to her account erroneously - at least, I hope she wouldn't - and this is the same thing. The funds are simply being credited to an account at a store, rather than at a bank. Whose they are is unclear, but they aren't hers and she isn't entitled to make use of them.

The right thing for my reader to do is to alert the store about what has been happening. The store's management should care that the appropriate person gets credited for the purchases, and so should my reader. So too should Buyer X, who is making considerable purchases and having the rewards channeled to the account of a complete stranger.

I agree that it seems unlikely that it's the purse thief who is making these purchases. If it is, though, my reader coming clean might help the store use the information to track down the criminal if he or she uses the card in the future.

General rule, though: We all know what's ours and what isn't. If it's not yours, it's rarely ethical to use it for your own advantage.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: TO FLAME OR NOT TO FLAME?

Is it OK to hide behind e-mail, rather than to talk directly to someone? Does doing so risk escalating a situation that might have been handled more civilly and effectively if done person to person?

Readers were mixed in their responses to an unscientific poll on my column's blog. Of the readers who responded, 43 percent believe it is perfectly ethical to use e-mail to express ideas - and particularly attitudes - that you would be reluctant to express in person, while 57 percent believe that e-mail should be limited to the expression of ideas and attitudes that you'd be comfortable conveying face to face.

As Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va., sees it, the issue is not about ethics.

"It's about manners," she writes. "It's just easier for people to be unmannerly when they have a layer of technology or anonymity - or both - between themselves and the recipient."

Lawrence's observation is well taken, and I generally agree, although my experience with readers who e-mail me has been a notable exception: Even when they write passionately in response to a topic or pose a vexing question to me, by and large they do so civilly. So keep those e-mails coming.

Check out other opinions on the hiding-behind-e-mail question here, or post your own by clicking on "Comments" or "Post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.
 
c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

SOUND OFF: PAY WHAT YOU WANT

Panera Bread Co., a national chain of bakeries and restaurants, has launched a not-for-profit store called St. Louis Bread Co. Cares in Clayton, Mo., that uses a new pricing model: Customers can donate whatever they can and believe is appropriate for the food that they purchase. If this store can be sustained, Panera will open similar stores elsewhere, with the proceeds going to the nonprofit foundation that runs the store.

If you were to visit this store, or one of its branches if it expands, would you pay the full menu price for your purchases? pay a bit more, if you could afford to, in order to support the effort? or pay as little as possible in the interest of getting a good deal? Tell me which and why.

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll with this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com
or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: LYING TO DO GOOD

A reader from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, works on the line in a factory to which, once a quarter, the local chapter of the American Red Cross sends its bloodmobile to collect donations from the workers. During these blood drives, employees are allowed to leave their positions on the line, with their manager's approval, to donate blood.

"The process can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes," my reader tells me. "It's a nice break from work."

My reader is among the many who choose to give blood regularly. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, more than 92 million blood donations are made annually. Roughly 16 million units are collected in the United States each year. To recognize those who donate blood, World Blood Donor Day is held each year in a different country. This year it will fall on June 14 and be hosted by Spain in Barcelona.

The Red Cross asks all prospective donors to answer dozens of questions to determine their eligibility to give blood. Among those excluded are people who spent more than three months in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996, those who have been tattooed within the past 12 months at an unlicensed facility, woman who are pregnant, people who have ever used intravenous drugs that were not prescribed by a physician and "any male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977."

That last provision has been called into question. Researchers have argued, in a recent article in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, that the ban against donations by men who have had sex with other men "no longer makes sense," given the improvements in HIV tests for donated blood. Nonetheless the ban still stands, which presents a challenge for my reader.

"A co-worker confided in me that he is a homosexual," he writes. "He went so far as to tell me that, although he is in a relationship, he continues to `sleep around.'"

Despite the Red Cross guidelines, this co-worker continues to donate blood each time the bloodmobile comes to the plant.

"He told me, when they ask him the qualifying question concerning his sexual activity, he lies so that he can continue the process," my reader reports.

My reader has made repeated attempts to get his co-worker to halt this practice, he says, but his colleague "sees nothing wrong with what he is doing and refuses to discontinue his donations."

My reader is confident that the Red Cross tests the donated blood, and thus that his co-worker's blood is not tainted. Even so, his co-worker is still deceiving the Red Cross and his manager, so he wonders, "Should I discreetly alert someone of this deceit?"

It's no wonder that my reader is torn. Under normal circumstances, "outing" someone as a homosexual is inexcusable. This fact is, quite simply, nobody's business but his or her own.

These are not normal circumstances, however.

There is some merit in the medical researchers' argument that the ban on donations by homosexual men has outlived its usefulness. In March a letter from 18 United States senators asked the Food and Drug Administration, which establishes blood-donation guidelines in the U.S., to reconsider the policy, and the FDA has announced that it will hold an advisory-committee meeting to revisit this ban in June.

For now, however, the ban stands. Neither my reader nor his co-worker is a doctor, and it is not their place to determine whether the rules need to be changed. It's their job to abide by them or, if they cannot or if they think the rules ill-advised, to not give blood.

My reader's co-worker is wrong to lie in order to give blood, and my reader is right to have made every effort to convince him to be honest with the blood collectors. Because those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, he must take the next step.

The right thing for my reader to do is to let his co-worker know that he plans to tell the Red Cross representatives that his co-worker does not qualify as a blood donor under the current rules. He doesn't need to explain exactly why, merely to tell them that his co-worker has misrepresented himself in filling out the form for past donations.

Hopefully the prospect of having his lie exposed will be enough to cause his co-worker to stop giving blood, until such time as the ban may be revoked. If he does not, however, my reader should carry out his plan and talk to the Red Cross.

It's a pity that this will almost certainly cause friction between the two men. I see no reason to doubt that the co-worker's desire to give blood is motivated strictly by generosity, and it's unfortunate that he finds himself in a position in which he can't do good without lying.

The safety of the blood supply must be paramount, however, and it's my reader's responsibility to see that his co-worker is held accountable for his actions.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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