Sunday, October 03, 2010

Is Acting Your Way Onto Base Off-Base?

Last August, my wife and I took our two grandsons, Evan and Lucas, to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees. Evan, then 10, was already a die-hard Red Sox fan. Lucas, then 8, was not as sure of his allegiances.

On the first pitch of the night to leadoff Yankees batter Derek Jeter, Jeter smashed a home run to right center field off Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett. Lucas immediately turned to the three of us and announced: “I think I’m a Yankees fan.” He has been one ever since.

That Derek Jeter was the impetus for Lucas’ newfound allegiance is no surprise. For years, Jeter has been viewed as an antidote to the number of stories of professional baseball players who took shortcuts to performance by taking steroids. He’s widely viewed as a leader respected by his teammates, competitors and fans.

A little more than a year after Lucas’conversion, I started receiving e-mails in my inbox from friends and readers of my column with variations in the subject line of “Jeter’s a Cheater.” All were asking whether I believed Jeter had crossed the line on that Wednesday night in mid-September when he acted as if a pitch by Tampa Bay Rays’ Chad Qualls had hit his arm. The umpire ruled that the ball did indeed hit Jeter and awarded him first base. The Rays manager argued the call with the umpire and was ejected from the game.

The Rays went on to win the game 4-3, but Jeter’s seventh-inning performance had the sports blogs buzzing. Jeter later admitted that he knew the ball had hit his bat and not him, telling reporters “He told me to go to first base. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to first, you know.”

My readers wanted to know whether I believed Jeter did the right thing by acting his way onto base.

A bevy of sports analysts weighed in to say that what Jeter did was simply part of the game. “Gamesmanship,” sportscaster Bob Costas called it, arguing to The New York Times that it was of an entirely different ilk than taking steroids or “stealing signs with a pair of binoculars.” Feigning getting hit was, most analysts argued, a long-accepted part of the game.

If ethics is “how we behave when we decide we belong together,” as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers argue in their book, A Simpler Way, then Jeter’s actions don’t appear to cross the ethical line in baseball. Cheating outside the park may not be acceptable, but by the norms of the game inside the park, what Jeter did could be seen as both acceptable and emblematic of his tenacious desire to win.

But Jeter had the opportunity to do more in this situation. Just because fudging or feigning is accepted as part of the game, he’s a strong enough player that he shouldn’t need to act his way onto first base by forcing a bad call by an umpire. It’s the rare coach or player who will point out a bad call if it goes against their team’s favor.

The right thing in such incidents as Jeter’s is for a player or coach to decide if they want to win on the merits of their play rather than their ability to cheat the truth. Deciding to win on the merits is a decision that I hope Lucas, who remains a Jeter fan, will make as he advances in his own athletic career.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing(at)


1 comment:

Cindy Davis said...

As kids we idolized sports figures as people we wanted to emulate. It seemed so innocent then. However if we really look back -- Babe Ruth (I am not that old) was certainly not someone to look at as a role model but the memory of him has been edited by many. In addition there weren't as many media streams.

I not only worry about our kids making better decisions as they grow older, but understanding that there are not gray areas to cheating.

Parents today have a greater challenge teaching kids between right and wrong because it has become accepted to have a loose interpretation of ethics vs. how the game of sports, politics and business are "played." It is not okay to say, "Well that's politics," or "It's how the game is played," or "It's just business." Is this going to be the new norm for how we conduct our lives? I think this new code of gray-ethics has already become pervasive.

Thankfully, Lucas and Evan have parents whom have a strong code of ethics. Hopefully their young minds will not be too confused by shifty acts in a seemly innocent game of baseball which they might not yet see as Big Business. They shouldn't have to see that yet just yet.

As they get older hopefully they will know how to quickly react when their boss tells them to do something that is not ethical because it is better for the "team," and be able to discern which politicians are speaking "to the audience," and massaging their message (Dems or Reps -- after all -- it's politics).

How ironic that the first comment to this article was left by a spammer: "Buy Steroids Online." Talk about ethics violations.