Sunday, August 28, 2011

He shoots, he scores, he comes clean

[UPDATE TO STORY: "No $50,000 prize for boy who made 'miracle' shot." (THANKS TO READER WILLIAM JACOBSON FOR THE LINK.)

On Thursday, Aug. 11, 11-year-old Nick Smith's name was called out during half-time at a charity hockey game in Faribault, Minn. His father had paid $10 for the chance of a lifetime. If Nick could shoot a 3-inch-diameter hockey puck 89 feet into a target whose opening was 3.5 inches wide by 1.5 inches high, he would win $50,000.

The trouble was that Nick was hanging around with his friends at the time his name was called. So his identical twin brother, Nate, heeded the call, took to the ice and made the long shot long shot.

To most everyone's surprise -- including the professional hockey players who witnessed the shot -- Nate got the puck through the goal. But everyone -- except for Nate and his dad -- still thought that it was Nick, the brother whose ticket had been selected, who had made the shot.

Because the brothers are identical, it was unlikely the promoters would notice that the brother was the one called to make the shot.

Later, the twins' father, Pat, called one of the hockey promoters to let him know that it was the other twin who had made the goal, not the one whose name was on the ticket.

"You've got to do what's right," the dad told a reporter from Reuters. "You don't want to teach kids to lie no matter how much money is involved."

An old friend of mine, Dr. Rick Kenney, an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who teaches media law and ethics, alerted me to the Smith saga shortly after it was reported. Kenney, like most everyone else, would like to see the insurance company still pay out the $50,000.

But for this situation not to be unethical, Kenney says, at least two conditions must exist. First, there was no intentional walking out of the arena to dodge the challenge by the original ticketholder. And second, there was no intent to deceive by their "twinness."

It doesn't appear as if anyone left the arena to avoid taking the shot. But it does seem like the twinness was taken advantage of.

The right thing would have been for Nate to have simply said to those who called him (or for his father to say on his behalf): "My brother isn't here, but I have his ticket. May I take his place?"

If the organizers agreed, they might have run into issues with their insurer who was paying out the money, but Nate and his dad would have been in the clear ethically.

"After he had time to think about it, the father figured out it was wrong," Kenney says. "Still, there's no taking back the original deception."

Does the family deserve to keep the $50,000 because the father decided to come clean after the fact that he has fudged on the rules of the game? He may have sent a strong message to his sons that you need to do what's right even when there are consequences, but it doesn't negate the fact that one brother pretended to be the other. The organizers may decide to pay the family some prize for the amazing shot or for the honesty after the fact or for all the publicity the incident is garnering them.

But there's no ethical obligation for them to do so. Sometimes it's just doing what's right that is the feel-good part of the act.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

I can't see where "ethics" is involved in any scenario here. Unless the "hockey" shot in question was taken by a professional hockey player, whichever one of these kids (twins) took the shot it was still a miracle accomplishment and the shot was made by the boy. I'm not sure what bearing having a "media ethics professor" weighing in on this has on this situation. The shot was made and the boy who made it should be awarded the prize. Denying the prize on the basis that the "wrong" boy made the shot seems to be the unethical thing to do.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

William Jacobson said...

Sorry, Charlie, but the shot was fraudulent - the insurance company making the payout ensured against the boy picked making the shot, not a ringer sent in in his place. The kid is entitled to his 15 minutes of fame but not to the $50k. Indeed, this was the same conclusion that the insurance company backing the payment came to...

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...