Sunday, February 19, 2012

The goal is integrity in the game

Several months ago, a reader emailed me a link to a story in his local newspaper about a high school football team that had been headed to the regional playoffs, but ended up forfeiting two games because an ineligible player had been in the game. His transgression was that he hadn't turned in a required documentation for a physical examination.

Somehow, the coaches missed the fact that his paperwork was not in order until just before they were to head off to the regional playoffs. The school's athletic director, who caught the mistake, knew the rules and decided to report the incident. In spite of appeals to forgive the transgression, the team was forced to forfeit two games - which gave it a record that dropped it from contention.

"The issue, as I see it," my reader writes, "is this: Is it always ethical to be so ethical?"

He wonders where our first ethical loyalties lie.

"Certainly it was the athletic director's responsibility to make sure that all the paperwork was in order, but his mea culpa over the error had results that were described in the newspaper as 'getting jail time for jaywalking.'"

My reader believes it's a "splendid thing to be so honest." But, he wonders if "maybe it's better, sometimes, to keep your mouth shut when exposure of your error affects so many people who had no hand in it."

The story reminds me of a disagreement I once was asked to referee between a segment producer on a local news program and her news anchor. She had told him about the time she was playing field hockey in an important college game and a goal was scored by her team illegally (something to do with accidentally kicking the ball in the goal rather than striking it with the field hockey stick). The referees didn't notice that the goal was scored illegally so they initially ruled it a goal. The segment producer had hesitated a moment, but then pointed out that the goal, which would have put her team up by a point, was illegal. The referees reversed their ruling and the goal did not count.

The news anchor, a former sports anchor at a different station in town, thought she was wrong to point out the referee's mistake. She thought she was right, even though her team suffered as a result.

I sided with her. She showed real integrity by recognizing an error, taking action to correct that error, and articulating why she did what she did. She wanted her team to win fair and square, not on what she believed to be a violation of the rules of the game.

Her team went on to win the game.

The high school football team's athletic director also was right to point out the error once he caught it. His team didn't fare so well. Still, he acted with integrity by ultimately not turning a blind eye to what he knew was a violation of the rules.

Of course, the right thing would have been for the athletic director and his staff to have been more scrupulous about making sure all of their players' paperwork was in order in the first place. Given the outcome of the experience, it's a mistake he and his staff are likely never to make again.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, 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) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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