Topic: Society

Fairness Conundrums: the Pitcher, the Blogger, and the Runner

Of all the ethical virtues, fairness is both one of the most commonly discussed and also the most difficult to define. Does being fair mean treating everyone the same, come what may; does it mean adjusting treatment to take special circumstances into consideration, or does it mean treating everyone differently to make certain that nobody ends up better off than anyone else because of luck, bad choices, or the capriciousness of the cosmos? Does being fair begin with acceptance of the condition observed by John F. Kennedy, that “life is unfair,” or does it require ameliorating that condition? Are all of us required to be fair to everyone, or only those to whom we owe a duty of fairness?

Most of all, does the fact that conduct is unfair to someone mean that it is wrong, or is unfairness sometimes necessary for a greater good?

The answer is…it depends. Three recent news stories, two of them from the world of sports, illustrate how hard it sometimes is to decide what is “fair.”

The Pitcher: Daisuke Matsuzaka is a highly-paid major league pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, and a national sports hero in his homeland of Japan. He was the best Red Sox pitcher last season, with a 2.90 ERA and an 18-3 record, despite his annoying habit of putting many runners on base, usually overshadowed by his uncanny skill at wriggling out of such perils. In 2009, however, “Dice-K” has been unable to pitch very much, the byproduct of an arm injury and poor off-season conditioning. For months, he has been working his way back to the majors through rehabilitation, and he’s almost ready to return—a good thing, because the Red Sox are running out of starting pitchers, and those pesky Texas Rangers are nipping at their heels in the race for the post-season.

In preparation for Matsuzaka’s return and to give him a tune-up, the Red Sox sent Dice-K to the mound for their Single-A Salem affiliate in one of their play-off games, meaning that he was pitching to young minor-leaguers ( he was opposing the Winston-Salem team) who had never faced a big league pitcher. Not surprisingly, Dice-K mowed them down. Blogger Craig Calcaterra was not impressed, and sniffed unfairness on the ball field.

“I know the minors only live to supply the majors with players,” Calcaterra wrote, “but it does seem rather unsporting of everyone involved to send out a guy like Dice-K in a freaking playoff game. It's like Adam Sandler playing dodgeball against those kids in one of those movies he made back before he became intolerable. Most of the guys on the Winston-Salem team will never sniff upper level ball, so you should at least give them a chance to win something on their own merits, shouldn't you?”

He’s right: this IS unfair to the Winston-Salem team and its fans. In fact, if we focus just on the play-off game, it is indistinguishable from cheating, a real-life version of “The Simpsons” episode in which the evil industrialist Mr. Burns hired major league players to ensure that his company’s ball team would win a championship. What the Red Sox did is also permitted by the rules of professional baseball, which allow big leagues clubs to add or subtract players from their minor league teams whenever the whim strikes. But the fact that it is permitted doesn’t govern the fairness question. Was it wrong to have Dice-K pitch in the low minors play-off game?

No. Everyone—players, management, media and fans— in the minors understand that the lower teams exist solely to support the success of their parent team, and all other considerations are secondary. That means the MLB team rehabs stars wherever and whenever it may be most beneficial to the big team's plans and prospects, and if the result is turning a Single-A play-off game into a farce, so be it. If they don’t like the system, they have the option of not playing, running, covering or watching minor league baseball. They don’t have to be part of it. A soldier who enlists in the U.S. army may think it’s unfair that he will risk his neck while the policy-makers who send him into battle get to stay safely away from the battlefield, but that’s how it works; life is unfair. Ethically, the Red Sox brass have no obligation to be fair to the Winston-Salem team. Their primary duty is to get the Red Sox into the World Series, and if throwing Dice-K into a small town play-off game helps do that, then it's the right thing for them to do. Being fair to the Winston-Salem team would require defaulting on another ethical duty to their primary stake-holders, the players and fans of the Boston Red Sox. There is no getting around it, though: if you are on or rooting for the Winston-Salem team, you have been treated unfairly.

The Blogger: Andrew Sullivan is a well-known political commentator and blogger who appears frequently on national TV. He has made his opposition to America’s recreational drug laws known, but of course that doesn’t excuse him from obeying them. When Sullivan, who owns a home in Provincetown, Mass., was caught by a park ranger while enjoying some pot at the Cape Cod National Seashore, he was guilty of a federal misdemeanor. The ranger issued Sullivan a citation, requiring him either to appear in U.S. District Court or pay a $125 fine.

Visitors to the National Seashore are prosecuted for such infractions routinely, but Sullivan wasn’t. He is an immigrant from Great Britain and currently seeking citizenship; the U.S. Attorney's Office insisted on dropping the charges so Sullivan would not have a criminal record that might get him shipped back to England. This annoyed and outraged the federal judge who usually sentences people like Sullivan when they aren’t famous political pundits. Judge Robert Collings argued that "a dismissal would result in persons in similar situations being treated unequally before the law. … persons charged with the same offense on the Cape Cod National Seashore were routinely given violation notices, and if they did not agree to [pay the fine] were prosecuted by the United States Attorney … there was no apparent reason for treating Mr. Sullivan differently from other persons charged with the same offense."

Really? If this is an instance of a compassionate prosecutor recognizing that sometimes the consequences of a prosecution are too severe for the crime, and that stopping someone from becoming an American citizen is too harsh a punishment for an act that has been decriminalized in the state where it occurred (but is still a misdemeanor on federal lands), it is ethically admirable. To be consistent, and thus fair, he should take the same approach when a student’s conviction of this same offense would stop him from going to college, or when a law student would be blocked from being admitted to the bar. He is definitely being fair to Sullivan.

One could forcibly argue that balancing the nature of the offense with the negative consequences to Sullivan isn’t the Attorney General’s office’s concern. The immigration authorities are the ones who should make the call. That is true, but it is also true that many injustices occur in the legal system and other bureaucracies because everyone in the system “goes by the book,” never applying discretion, because discretion invites criticism. The Scoreboard advocates fixing ethical problems while you have control over them, even if someone else might—might—address them later on. The Attorney General’s office acted consistently with this principle.

At least, I hope that’s what they were doing. If it turns out that the policy immediately reverts back to strict and indiscriminate enforcement when an apprehended pot user doesn’t write for the Atlantic and chat regularly with Chris Matthews on NBC; if it turns out that political pressure was brought to bear to spare a reliable Democratic ally in the blogosphere, then Collings was right. Being only fair to Andrew Sullivan is being unfair to everyone else in his situation, a serious breach of integrity as well as fairness.

Now for the really tough situation…

The Runner: South African runner Caster Semenya has been running away with women’s races, but her unusually masculine appearance and husky voice has spawned accusations that Semenya is cheating, that she is, in fact, male. (Someone even figured out that her name is an anagram for “A secret man? Yes!,” which is, if nothing else, an amazing coincidence.) The International Association of Athletics Federation is doing tests on the runner, and it has been widely reported that they have determined that she is a hermaphrodite, an individual born with some of the sex organs of both genders.

If that is true, what is the fair course? She is both female and male, due to no misconduct of her own. She is a gifted runner, and should be able to compete, but against whom? She has a genetic advantage when competing against women, not an illegal or unethical advantage, like using banned steroids, but an advantage nonetheless. It is unfair for normal women to have to run against her…isn’t it?

Well, I’m not so sure about that. Serena Williams is unusually strong and muscular for a woman: how different are her genetic advantages from Caster’s? Is the fact that Caster’s genetic quirk is more rare the distinctio? I don’t see why. Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimming champion, was born with elbows that hyper-extended, giving him extra power in his strokes. This is extremely rare. Was it unfair to let him into the pool? All athletic contests involve competitors with special advantages. Wilt Chamberlain was the most agile, strongest tall man anyone had ever seen play basketball—was his NBA team cheating by playing him?

Is the correct analogy for a hermaphrodite runner the so called “blade runner,” Carl Pistorius, who ran with springy prosthetic blades in place of his lower legs, which were deformed at birth? I don’t think so. Pistorius’s blades were a mechanical, non-human contrivance, opening the door to all manner of future flesh-and-mechanical hybrids. He was (I believe wrongly) ruled eligible for the 2008 Olympics, but only because the Olympic committee determined that his prosthetics did not confer an advantage over competitors with normal legs. Caster Semenya’s double gender undeniably gives her an advantage over normal women.

In short, being fair to Semenya, allowing her to express her gift for speed in competition, requires being unfair to the women who compete against her. That, in essence, is what is so difficult about the value of fairness. It is often impossible to be fair to everyone.

JFK was right.

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