Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of Tactical Misconduct

Two instances a trend don’t make, as Yoda might say, but a pair of major league baseball players used the same deplorable tactic to get their respective ways this month, and it’s worth pointing out that their methods, while apparently successful, were unethical. First, Yankee outfielder Gary Sheffield, hearing rumors that he was about to be traded to the Mets, gave a well-publicized interview in which he threatened to make the lives of any new employers a living hell. “You might not want to trade for me, because you’re going to have a very unhappy player,” Sheffield warned, while noting that his unhappiness would only be cured by lots more money. Undoubtedly recalling how Sheffield’s rich history of past orneriness while on other teams made this more than an idle threat, the offers for the surly outfielder’s services dried up. Then Jay Payton, a Boston Red Sox reserve who had been unsuccessful in his efforts to persuade the team to “play him or trade him,” engaged his manager in an angry shouting match in front of the team, a cardinal sin in baseball. This got him his walking papers instantly, whereupon Payton happily admitted that his meltdown was staged rather than spontaneous.

Admittedly most workers can’t get away with these or any variations on the “do what I want or I’ll misbehave” approach. For them, similar behavior would put a serious crimp in their job options. But the antics of Scheffield and Payton are blood brothers of those of lessors who intentionally play their stereos all night to get released from their contractual commitments, airline employees who “slow down” or “sick out” to force their employers to give them what they want lest they have a passenger revolt on their hands, and every one of us who has knowingly done less than our best to make sure that a temporary assignment doesn’t become a permanent one.

It’s a breach of duty. Intentionally behaving objectionably or threatening to in order to coerce employers cannot be defended on ethical grounds. Payton had a contract, and his duty was to fulfill its obligations without disrupting the team. In Sheffield’s case, one of the things his contract gave to the Yankees was the option of trading him. Undermining that by saying to all potential bidders for his services, in effect, “You’ll be soooorrrry!” is a double-cross.

The problem is that, as noted at the outset, this tactic served both players well, and success breeds imitation. Ball-playing millionaires get away with a lot, as we all know, but nobody should think that what these outfielders did is remotely justifiable, fair, or ethical.

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