Topic: Society

Michael Bamberger

The toughest of all ethical obligations is reporting wrongdoing: revealing the unethical, illegal, or improper actions of another. In every profession, without exception, doing so requires courage and integrity, because our society deplores “snitches,” and most of us are taught from childhood that “tattling” on our friends and colleagues is wrong. In fact it is not wrong; it is both necessary and right in many cases, particularly when reporting prevents or limits harm, or when it enforces other ethical values, such as fairness.

Sports Illustrated reporter Michael Bamberger raised eyebrows recently when he reported a rules infraction by teenage golf sensation Michelle Wie, who was playing in her first professional tournament. It cost her over $50,000 in prize money as well as considerable embarrassment, and spoiled her much awaited debut in the professional ranks. He witnessed the 15 year-old golf prodigy taking an illegal drop from an unplayable position, an infraction requiring a two-stroke penalty. After thinking about it for a day, Bamberger reported Wie’s error (there is no indication that she was trying to cheat) and because Wie had already signed her score card without the proper penalty, she was disqualified.

Reporters are supposed to report the events they cover, not become parts of them. But Wie’s actions were in public view, and Bamberger had been granted no special access. He was simply an unusually well-informed observer (he once caddied on the PGA tour) and knew the rules of golf better than most. Still, his actions have made him the target of furious criticism from other sportswriters, who feel that the specter of one of their ranks policing a sporting event compromises the athletes’ trust. They are calling Bamberger unethical, a charge he certainly anticipated. Several have suggested that his proper course would have been to alert Wie of her error, so she could have taken the penalty and thus signed a corrected scorecard. Many have opined that he should have simply kept quiet.

Bamberger had four choices, once he noticed Wie’s faulty drop.

  1. He could ignore it, and say nothing.
  2. He could say nothing during the tournament, and reveal it later in his story.
  3. He could alert Wie, giving her a chance to correct her mistake.
  4. He could alert the officials after Wie had completed the course, resulting in Wie’s disqualification.

An ethical analysis of Bamberger’s problem would go like this:

  • He viewed a rules infraction that could affect the results of the tournament.
  • As a journalist, he could not fail to disclose something so critical. He would be deceiving his readers if he opted for choice #1. That would be unethical.
  • Seeing an infraction that affected a competitor’s score and only reporting it in print after the tournament would be unfair to Wie, the tournament, and the other competitors. It could call into question the legitimacy of the final standings, and perhaps trigger retroactive action by the officials. It would guarantee the maximum damage, and choice #2 would therefore also be unethical.
  • He could not alert Wie, which would be giving assistance to a competitor, affecting the outcome. Such a move would compromise his duties as a neutral observer. Option #3 was unethical.
  • Reporting a rules infraction, though constituting proactive conduct that is usually outside the duties of a reporter, is still more neutral than helping a particular player avoid a penalty. It appears fairer to third parties, and its obvious aim is upholding the integrity of the competition, not saving a popular player from misfortune. Though not ideal (ethical dilemmas often have no perfect solution by the time they reach a critical point), choice #4 was the most ethical.

For Bamberger not to act at all would have required him to adopt a version of the rationalization the Scoreboard has dedicated to Paul Hamm: “It’s not my fault!” (See Tool Kit: Rationalizations) Bamberger, through no fault of his own, was the one person in a position to fix a problem. All it required was recognition of the problem, analysis of his options, and the courage to do the right thing despite the likely consequences.

After the tournament, B.J. Wie, Michelle Wie’s father saw Bamberger in the press room, shook his hand, and said, “Good job, Michael.” That’s convincing evidence that Bamberger played it right.

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