Topic: Society

The Reclaimed Gift and “The ‘Field of Dreams’ Principle”

From the Virginian-Pilot comes this ethics drama:

John Miller gave about $75,000 for an indoor batting facility at Nansemond River High School and then paid for the equipment to fill it. His stated goal was to help out the school’s baseball team, for his son was one of the players. When the team’s coach made lineup changes, moving Miller's son from catcher to designated hitter, the father unlocked the batting facility and took home the batting cage nets, a pitching machine, the indoor turf, a golf cart, trash cans with "NR Baseball" printed on them and more.

The facility, which also received funding from another sponsor, had become a community resource since opening in early January of this year, used by other local schools and serving the site for a hitting camp. Miller claimed that his re-possession of the donated equipment had nothing to do with displeasure over his son’s fate on the team, but rather that he was concerned about personal liability because the building was inadequately inspected.

The city, Suffolk, Virginia, insists that the building received all proper permits and passed all inspections, and that the school had sent Miller documents assuming all responsibility for the building and equipment. Miller was unapologetic. "They still have over $100,000 worth of donations from me," he said. " I don't think they have anything to cry about."

What’s going on here?

Because the story was in a local paper, many of the on-line comments came from those who knew Miller, his friends and less-than-friends, and people involved with the team. Many of the comments, as is always the case, reflected rationalizations for unethical conduct. It seems clear that John Miller’s liability explanation was disingenuous. Even his defenders don’t believe this was the reason he took back the equipment. He had no liability, and knew it. It is clear that Miller was upset at something or many things involving the school and the team.

Some of the commenters, saying they wrote from direct knowledge of the situation, said that Miller didn’t feel that he had received proper “gratitude” and “thanks.” Based on other comments, it is fair to conclude that we are not just talking about thank-you notes. Miller had made major contributions, and felt that he was entitled to having some influence over the baseball program. Maybe his concept of gratitude included special regard for his son; certainly the timing of his raid on the facility raises that suspicion. Miller himself jumped into the on-line fray, saying,

“…Not once has there ever been any type of gratitude from the school or the coaches for any of my time and hard work, or any one else who worked on this building and field for that matter, that I put in while they were out golfing and spending with their families. It wasn't until a week ago I received a bat signed by the ball players and coaches showing gratitude. That is three years too late for me.”

True generosity is a rare thing indeed. Many gifts come with strings attached, and many favors are granted in the manner of Don Corleone: “Maybe some day you can do something for me in return, and heaven help you if you refuse.” By definition, a gift is not a bargain, though many givers assume that they have, in fact, bought something—future considerations, access, benefits, or just credit and praise. The beneficiary of a gift has an obligation to say thank-you, but beyond that, it is a matter of style, manners, common sense and practicalities. If you don’t keep your donor happy, he or she may not give again.

Some donors want too much, like the infamous Mafia Don. They believe that what they call a gift is really a down-payment on power. In such situations, the donee has several choices: accept the dominance of the gift-giver; tell the giver to back off, and then live with the resulting anger and displeasure; or return the donation. The first of these usually involves compromising the recipient’s integrity. The second is unpleasant. The third is painful.

All the various justifications for Miller’s displeasure cited by his defenders—that the school was inept, that the coach was incompetent and favored other players, including his own son, that Miller had been uncommonly generous and that even after the equipment was taken, the school still had a lot to thank Miller for—may be true. Nevertheless, Miller’s taking back his gifts was unequivocally wrong. Expecting special treatment for making the contributions was also wrong—human, but wrong.

When we perform an act of genuine generosity and kindness, it is important to realize that the act is complete when we have done it. Expressions of gratitude or other benefits accruing from the gift are entirely separate: it isn’t an equation. This is what I call the “Field of Dreams Principle.”

In the classic fantasy-baseball movie, the character of Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, listens to a Voice in his corn field and builds a baseball field (with lights!) so the spirit of the tragic banned slugger Shoeless Joe Jackson can return to Earth and play ball again. Ray risks everything to make this miracle happen, but when it appears that the ghostly ballplayer’s own gift of giving the chance to witness what is out in the Great Beyond is going to be bestowed on someone else, Ray is indignant. I’m the one who built this field, Ray protests. “What’s in it for me?”

“Is that why you built it, Ray?” the ghost responds. “Because there was something in it for you?”

We all think that our generosity and kindness should pay off for us somehow, but this is a non-ethical (not unethical, just unrelated to seeking the right thing to do) thought and an unrealistic expectation. It is difficult, but we need to let our good acts be their own reward, or our gifts are neither truly generous nor kind, nor even gifts. If the beneficiaries of our gifts don’t show us the gratitude we think is appropriate, we may choose not to be generous the next time, though that too is a non-ethical response. (In another classic movie, “Groundhog Day,” the hero (played by Bill Murray) gradually learns ethical values by reliving the same day over and over. He finds himself saving a child who falls from a tree every day. Even though the boy never once says “thank-you,” Murray keep catching him, day after day.) Still, it is always wrong to take the gift back. If we do that, we never truly intended to be generous at all.

We thought there would be something in it for us.

[Special thanks to Chase Schneider for alerting the Scoreboard to this story.]

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