Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Ethics Test at Fenway Park

Baseball leads all other sports in ethical dilemmas and conundrums, and, in only the second week of the 2005 season, there was a spontaneous ethics test at a Yankee-Red Sox contest at Fenway Park. It challenged the ethical instincts of all the major groups that define the game: players, management, media, and fans. Not surprisingly, all of them flunked.

The key hit of the game, won by Boston with an eighth inning rally, was a triple by Sox catcher Jason Varitek on a line drive over first base that hugged the curved wall in right field. There the fence separating the fans from the playing area is only about four feet high, and several individuals reached over the barrier and attempted (in flagrant violation of Fenway’s rules) to swipe the ball as it rolled by. One of them managed to swipe Yankee right fielder Gary Sheffield in the process, as he was chasing down the ball. After he felt contact with his face, Sheffield paused to shove the fan before he threw the ball back to the infield, whereupon another fan apparently tossed a half-cup of beer in his direction. The Yankee player appeared to be moving menacingly toward the stands when a Fenway security employee rushed over from the Yankee bullpen, vaulted the right field fence, and restored order.

Sheffield, as it turned out, had been startled but not injured. Nobody seemed to be able to tell whether the fan’s contact with him had been accidental, though from the video of the incident that seemed to be the case. But because of the increased sensitivity to the threat of fan-player violence in the wake of the NBA game brawl that erupted in Detroit between beer-throwing fans and the visiting Indiana Pacers, the sports talk shows were buzzing, and multiple investigations were launched by Major League Baseball and the Boston Red Sox.

We’re sure they will sort it all out. But here are the Ethics Scoreboard’s grades of the conduct of the various participants. Acting ethically when one has time to reflect and consider consequences is important, but the real mark of an ethical individual is ethical instincts…the ability to act ethically when circumstances don’t allow careful thought. This is a tough standard, but it also the most important standard. Do we naturally consider the welfare of others? Are we sensitive to the negative consequences of our acts? Do we recognize our biases and subordinate them to our obligations and duties?

The report card:

The arm-waving fan: F

We now know his name is Christopher House. He’s from Dorchester, a suburb of Boston and presumably a Red Sox fan. As most Red Sox fans actually know the rules of the game, House had to know that interfering with a ball in play by touching it or grabbing it would have converted Varitek’s triple into a ground rule double, allowing only one run to score rather than two. This could have cost the Sox the game, a game which could make the difference between a championship and also-ran status in the competitive American League East. That difference would mean the loss of millions for the team, the Boston’s businesses and the players, and the emotional devastation of the millions of fans in “Red Sox Nation,” who, it is true, take baseball a little bit too seriously.

Still, House knows that, but when the chance came to get his paws on a souvenir, he didn’t care. Nor did he consider that his waving his arm over the wall might harm a player, or precipitate an ugly incident that could be the one that forces Fenway Park officials to distance fans from the playing field, thus ruining one of the great joys of being a baseball spectator in Boston. House had downed a few too many “brewskies,” you say? No excuse. You don’t drive drunk, because you know your judgement and reflexes will be impaired, and you don’t sit drunk in the seats a short, thin wall away from a baseball game for the same reason. Being close to the action requires responsible conduct, and if you’re not up to it, sit in the bleachers. House reportedly has six season tickets to Sox games. He knows this.

The beer-throwing fan: F-

We don’t know this moron’s name yet, but the Red Sox say they do. Like every other sports fan on the planet, he must have seen the endlessly re-run video of Pacer star and hot head Ron Artest leaping into the stands after a Detroit fan threw beer on him. Yet he chose to do the same to Sheffield (also a certified hot head), and risk the same kind of violence, which easily could include injury to children and others in the vicinity.

Gary Sheffield: D

The only thing that stopped Sheffield from becoming baseball’s Ron Artest was Fenway’s crack security personnel reacting so quickly. Had he actually brawled with the fans (and as it was, the entire Yankee bullpen and dugout emptied to run to his aid), he would have been suspended for a long time; Artest, you may recall, was suspended for the season. Any Yankee players who attempted to support their team mate also would have risked suspension. And there easily could have been a riot, given the natural (or un-natural) intensity of fan involvement in the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. People hurt, the Yankee season jeopardized, baseball embarrassed, and why? Because a fan may have inadvertently swiped Gary Sheffield’s nose? Sheffield is a veteran and a super-star; he is paid extremely well to be a professional and role model, and to keep his emotions in check. Fighting with a fan (other than in self-defense) is an absolute taboo in professional sports, like gambling on your team. There are no exceptions, and Sheffield’s job is to know and respect this. He reacted in the heat of the moment? Too bad. A lawyer who slugs an insulting opponent in court is going to be disbarred, whether it is in the heat of the moment or not. A policeman who shoots an unarmed suspect in the heat of the moment is going to be disciplined, suspended, or perhaps even indicted. Professionals are paid as professionals precisely because we expect high standards of conduct from them in the situations their jobs entail. Handling hostile or annoying conduct by fans is part of Sheffield’s job; triggering riots isn’t.

ESPN broadcasters Chris Berman and Rick Sutcliffe: D

After the incident occurred, what did ESPN color man Rick Sutcliffe (and a truly awful and inept color man he is) offer to viewers of the game? He told us that “you can’t blame Sheffield.” Anyone would respond that way, he opined. Berman, either because he agrees or because he doesn’t have the guts to call his former big-league pitcher colleague on an irresponsible statement, simply says, in the grand tradition of Ed McMahon, “Absolutely!”


Did we not all see, in the Pacers brawl, the consequences of a professional athlete going after a fan who has actually assaulted him? In these situations, the player’s good judgement is usually the last barrier to violence. At the moment when the incident in Fenway occurred, it was Sheffield’s duty to behave like the professional he is, and decline the invitation to fight. But he was ready to accept, and that was wrong. Sutcliffe and Berman, whose job it is to clarify the action, botched the reporting of unethical conduct, and thus confused the issues on a grand scale. You can blame Sheffield for his response, and the ESPN team should have.

The New York Yankee Brass: C-

The reason for the less than stellar ethics grade for Yankee management has a history. The Yankee brass made all the predictable public responses to the incident, defending Sheffield, condemning the fan interference, bemoaning the climate of violence in the stands. But the fact, apparently forgotten, that takes the gloss of the Yankees’ indignation is that George Steinbrenner, during his ownership of the team, has actively encouraged fan interference with play when it has happened to help his team win.

In a famous incident in the 1996 American League play-offs, a young fan named Jeffrey Maier reached over the Yankee Stadium outfield wall and caught a ball that was about to drop into Oriole right fielder Tony Tarasco’s glove for an out. Maier’s interference was missed by the umpires (although caught on videotape), who ruled the ball a Yankee home run…a home run that, as it happened, won the game and turned the tide of the series. While this week Red Sox security took House into custody, ejected him from the game and may well ban him from the park for his interference, in 1996 Steinbrenner rewarded the misbehaving young fan by feting him in the owner’s private box for the remainder of the series. It wasn’t the first time the Yankee owner did this sort of thing: in 1993, a fan who interfered with play while a fly ball was in the air that would have been the final out of a Yankee loss was rewarded with gifts from Steinbrenner, after the umpires ruled that the out couldn’t count and Yankees rallied for a come-back victory when play resumed.

The unofficial New York Yankee policy toward unruly fans has been to wink at it, as long as it was directed at opposing teams. They share responsibility for encouraging the environment they decry now, and nobody should forget that.

In this potentially explosive incident, when ethical instincts were needed they were nowhere to be found…except in Steven Chin, the Fenway Park security employee who reacted with lightning speed and with considerable courage to do what Sheffield, the offending fans, and the ESPN duo didn’t do: the right thing, his duty. And that one individual doing the right thing in a timely fashion managed to trump the failure of judgement and ethics all around him.

If there is a positive lesson to be extracted from baseball’s latest ethics test, this is it.


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