Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Ethics Lessons at the Little League Play-offs

One important reason to study and think about ethics is to ensure that a warning bell goes off in our brains in time for us to stop and consider whether an action is right, and not merely natural, easy, profitable, fun, pleasant, traditional or popular. Too often the flow of life threatens to stifle those bells so we never consider the true consequences of our actions until later, when it is too late, if we consider them at all.

I thought about this, of all places, in the stands of a Little League baseball field where my 10 year-old son was competing along with his championship team in the Triple A region play-offs. During the long, hot afternoon of kid’s baseball, several situations developed that called for an ethics alarm. Sometimes the bell went off, and sometimes it didn’t.

The organizers went out of their way to give the play-off game an aura of importance with special thrills for the kids: there was a public address announcer who gave the name of every player as he stepped to the plate, and the rosters of both teams lined up along the foul lines, just like the pre-game ceremony in a World Series, with each child running out to the field as his name was announced. They played the National Anthem; the umpire shouted “Play ball!” And right away, the game turned into a slaughter of alarming proportions.

My son’s team was leading 12-2 after two innings, 22-3 after three. Our cheering section of parents and friends, egged on by one unusually vocal mother, screamed loudly for each successive run in the rout, adding foot-stomping on the metal stands for emphasis and producing a noise that probably could be heard in Peru. Though the players on the opposing team looked more and more disconsolate as the score against them rose, the vocal encouragement for further heroics by my son’s team intensified in volume with each new hit, stolen base, and opposition error.

This was clearly wrong. A wonderful moment of achievement for the other team…winning their league championship and making the play-offs…had become a nightmare of humiliation, and the over-exuberant cheering was now simply magnifying their pain. Reflection on the Golden Rule would have reminded the celebrating partisans in our section that they would want a little mercy shown to their children if the score were reversed. Now that victory in the game was assured, it was time to stop the stomping and reduce the cheers to a moderate and respectful level.

Finally, about an inning too late, I turned around and pointed this out to the crowd, and immediately the din fell to acceptable levels. Nobody argued; all it took was for the crowd’s attention to be diverted momentarily from the competition so that it could focus on ethical considerations. Then, but only then, they chose to do the right thing.

Little League Lesson #1: It’s hard to think about ethics all the time. All the other things that make life interesting, challenging, difficult and hectic will tend to pull our attention away from considerations of right and wrong. People often do unethical things because they are completely focused on their own needs, interest and desires, even though the harm they may be causing others is right in front of them, in plain view. And this is why, when any of us see a wrong that someone else may be missing, it is our obligation to point it out. This is not meddling, judging, or “imposing moral views.” It is what we should want others to do for us.

A little later in the game, an ethics hero emerged. The massacre had continued, and the score had climbed to 25-3. With two outs in the inning and three runs in, yet another line drive had split the other team’s outfielders, and the speedy runner on first attempted to score run number 26. The relay throw was caught by the catcher, and he applied the tag as our player slid across the plate…obviously safe, but just barely.

The umpire, with a significant split-second hesitation, signaled “out,” ending the rally, the inning, and the other team’s agony. For the first time in over an hour, a cheer erupted from the opposition’s stands, and their beaten team ran off the field giving “high-fives” to the participants in the inning ending play. Meanwhile, the umpire’s expression was unmistakable: he knew the runner was safe, and had willfully breached his official duty to be objective, straightforward and absolutely honest in interpreting the rules. And he had been absolutely right.

Little League Lesson #2: There are situations in life when following the rules is unethical, when the harm and injustice will far outweigh the benefits of consistency and integrity. Knowing when to break a rule takes courage and judgement, as well as the self-control to avoid letting it become a habit. But nobody will ever be so wise as to come up with laws, rules and principles that work 100% of the time. Some situations are special and don’t fit the circumstances that a particular rule was developed to address. We all have to try to be prepared to improvise when such situations occur. Part of that preparation is understanding that the mere fact that a rule exists doesn’t exempt us from the responsibility of considering whether its effects will be jus, fair, and humane in a particular instance.

After the game was over, my son’s team’s jubilation was quickly dampened by the revelation that the team’s scheduled starting pitcher for the next game in the play-offs would be unavailable. Assuming that the team would lose, his mother had planned a trip to a local amusement park for the day when the next play-off game was scheduled, and her son made it clear that he didn’t want to give up rollercoaster rides for another baseball game. With the starting pitcher in the game just completed ineligible to pitch two games in a row, and the Number Two pitcher ill, his absence would mean almost certain elimination for his team. None of this dissuaded the 10 year-old from his determination to go to King’s Dominion, play-off or no play-off. “It’s his choice,” shrugged his mother. “It’s only a game, after all.”

But there was much more than a game at stake, an important ethical principle. A moment had arrived when the needs of eleven team mates had diverged from the player’s own desires, and they depended on him to meet his obligations as a team member. The fact is that the rollercoaster was going to be available to ride the next day, and the next, and the day after that. In contrast, the Little League play-offs were a special opportunity that the team had been practicing, playing, and hoping for all spring and summer. The pitcher’s coaches, team mates and their families deeply cared about this competition. Even if he did not, he had a responsibility to them. The fact that it was “only a game” was irrelevant.

Little League Lesson #3: Parents have to recognize ethical teaching opportunities when they arise. In this case, the mother of the pitcher completely missed the significance of what was occurring, and inadvertently re-enforced an unethical instinct in her young son. Meeting obligations to others often requires sacrifice. But show me a boy who chooses to go to King’s Dominion when his Little League team needs him, and in 30 years I’ll show you a father who plays golf when his child is giving a piano recital. Being ethical isn’t easy, and parents have a major role to play in teaching their children how to recognize ethical dilemmas and make good decisions about how to deal with them.

Sometimes the bell goes off, and sometimes it doesn’t. After a long, hot day of Little League baseball, it has seldom been so apparent to me that keeping that warning bell in working order is the key to ethical conduct.


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