Topic: Sports & Entertainment

All-Star Ethics

Baseball’s annual All-Star game exemplifies a controversy that only exists because people care about it, and not because it really matters. An annual exhibition game that has long outlived the original reason for its persistence (it used to be a crucial device to raise funds for the once-paltry pension fund of the then-underpaid players), it nonetheless ignites annual arguments among fans, journalists and sports commentators about what is right…ethics, in short. Though the object of the ethical analysis is trivial, the principles involved are not. Most of the controversies boil down to one of the essential tasks of ethical analysis: deciding what is “fair.”

For example, sportswriters always work themselves into a lather over the “unfairness” of a long-time star getting more fan votes for the All-Star team than a less well known player having a better year. Yet in real life, long term performance counts: we don’t consider it just or fair to demote a worker who has excelled over a career in favor of a less senior worker who has had a couple of productive months. It makes logical sense to vote for the proven, established stars; the odds are that by the end of the season they will have caught or surpassed the accomplishments of the mid-year upstarts. It also makes ethical sense because the established stars have earned the fans’ loyalty. Nevertheless, years of being derided as “uninformed” and “biased” by the supposedly astute sportswriting establishment have brow-beaten the fans into voting more and more for one year statistical front-runners over the true stars, the players who have excelled year after year. And, year after year, the choices of less-proven players riding hot streaks over tried-and true veterans look silly after the season is over and the cream has, predictably, risen to the top. As statistician Bill James once pointed out, it is an All-Star game, not a “Best First Half of the Season” game. Merit does not mean “what have you done for me lately.”

This year’s hot complaint concerns the long-standing rule requiring that both the American League and National League All-Star squads contain at least one representative from each team. Back when there were only 16 teams, this rule was a no-brainer; it worked to prevent a so-called league All-Star squad that would be made up primarily of members of one stand-out team, typically the New York Yankees. But 45 years after the leagues gradually started to expand from 16 teams to today’s 30, the size of the All-Star roster has grown only 25% while the pool of players has nearly doubled. The requirement that each team have at least one representative now virtually guarantees that some deserving players will be denied an All-Star spot just because another relatively mediocre player is “lucky” enough to be the best of an otherwise crummy roster. Unfair!

Or is it? There is nothing logically or ethically amiss about awarding the best player on each Major League team a guaranteed All-Star invitation. After all, the designation “star” is always relative. In other spheres, we applaud a “thumb on the scale” approach to compensate for systemic disadvantages that make it difficult for certain individuals and populations to compete. Well, the Kansas City Royals and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, representing small media markets, necessarily have budgets that are about 85% less than that of the Yankees and 65% less than the Red Sox. Is it “fair” for those teams’ fans to be robbed of the enjoyment of having at least one hometown hero to cheer for in an All-Star game? Sure, some players on the richer teams may lose a chance to play in the game, but if that was really so important to them, they always had the option of accepting a few millions less to play for disadvantaged teams where they could be a “big fish” All-Star in a little pond. They chose the cash over the honor.

Fair enough.

A recent rule change, one that gives the league whose All-Stars win the mid-year exhibition game a home field advantage in the far more significant World Series has also become the topic of hot debate. The rule was instituted after the All-Star game degenerated into a farce a few years ago, with both managers paying so little attention to the game’s outcome that the teams ran out of players before the contest was resolved. Now, with the new rule, there’s a tangible benefit for the league that wins, but most players and many in the sports media complain that the system is “unfair.” Former pitching great Tommy John, holding forth on ESPN2’s morning show “Cold Pizza,” summarized the argument like this: “If a team like the Nationals or White Sox have a great season and win, say, 115 games, why should they lose the home advantage when it would be their turn just because of what happened in the All-Star game?”

That would be a better argument, Tommy, if the previous method of deciding the home field advantage (which really only matters if the best-of-seven Series goes to a deciding seventh game) was based on comparing the records of the competing teams, but it wasn’t. The leagues simply alternated the home field advantage; one year it went to the American League, the next year it went to the National. “Arbitrary” is not a synonym for “fair” accept in situations where two parties that will benefit from a decision have exactly equivalent qualifications. But this can never happen in a World Series. The team that has the best record over the course of the season can argue that the “fair” thing would be to give it the home advantage. But what if the other team can justly claim that its competition was tougher, based on the record of the two leagues in inter-league play? What if the two teams played each other in inter-league play, and the team with the less impressive record over-all won the season series?

With baseball’s play-off system, a team can make the World Series as a “wild card” with even winning its own division. Shouldn’t a team that finished the season in first warrant a home team advantage over one that only finished second? But what if the second place team still had a better record overall than the other league’s champion? Hmmm…..

Tommy John talks about a deserving team missing its “turn,” but under the old system, it was only the league’s turn that mattered. The Boston Red Sox, for example, lost four World Series in a row between 1946 to 1986, each time with a seventh game being decisive. In three out of the four, they ended up without the home field advantage. Was that “fair”?

Using the All-Star game’s outcome is no more fair or unfair than any other method of determining the World Series home field advantage, and it has the added benefit of adding interest to an otherwise meaningless exhibition.

And, of course, controversy.

Finally, this year’s game has a novel ethical issue: what do you do with Kenny Rogers? Rogers, a Texas Ranger starting lefty who has had a great season so far, just got himself suspended for 20 games after he inexplicably attacked two TV cameramen, injuring one. Despite the fact that this decidedly un-starlike conduct was caught on videotape and replayed repeatedly for the world to see, Rogers was named to the American League All-Star team based on his performance on the field, ignoring his unsportsmanlike conduct off it. Because his suspension won’t kick in until later, he will be eligible to play. Is that right?

It may not be right, but it certainly is fair. Baseball has never before had any behavior requirements for All-Star team membership. Pitching great Juan Marichal once clobbered a catcher with a bat during a game, but that didn’t stop him from playing in later All-Star games. Barry Bonds was elected to last year’s team though it was becoming more and more obvious that he had broken baseball’s rules and quite possibly the law by using prohibited “performance enhancing drugs.” Because baseball stars do become role models for America’s youth, the sport could justifiably establish good behavior standards for All-Star game participation (good luck, by the way, to whoever tries to define what they would be). But because it hasn’t yet, Kenny Rogers, bad-tempered bully though he may be, should not be treated differently than anyone else.

The ideal resolution, of course, would be for Rogers to acknowledge his misconduct by voluntarily withdrawing, a course he is said to be considering.

That would make him an Ethics All-Star.

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