January 24, 2020

Baseball's Integrity Crisis:  The Houston Astros' Veil of Convenience, and ours.

The sign-stealing scandal involving the Houston Astros is a stark reminder of how poorly our culture manages the delicate balance between two of its most cherished values: winning and playing fair. More deeply, it reveals the huge gulf between the ideals we proclaim and what we actually honor.

Anyone who considers themselves a person of integrity endorses the virtue of fair play. Yet a veil of convenience permits us to ignore our professed values when a compelling, yet improper, advantage can be snatched with minimal risk.

The veil of convenience is why we tell white lies so breezily, accept free dinners on a friend’s expense account, buy hot goods on a big city street corner, duplicate copyright protected material and use a relative’s handicap permit.

Our culture of small but enfeebling hypocrisies allows broad use of clichés that equate selfishness with virtue, like “no harm no foul,” “you snooze you lose,” and “just looking out for number one.” Service providers tell us our calls are very important to them, business associates tell us they’ll “get back to us,” politicians promise not to run for more than two terms,  advertisers make outlandish boasts, and airlines fail to inform us of the cause of their delays.

Promises of truthfulness, express and implied, are breezily breached because embarrassment, not keeping promises, is the common measure of integrity: Think about the rule that Warren Buffet offers his employees at Berkshire Hathaway to act ethically:

“Ask . . . whether [you] are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of [your] local paper—to be read by [your] spouses, children, and friends.”

Buffet’s prescription, although a thoughtful rule of thumb, misses the true meaning of integrity. Instead of pointing the needle of our moral compass outward toward the responsibilities we owe others, the needle deflects inward toward self-interest. Integrity then, is measured not by duty but by the risk of getting caught.  

The Astros, assessing the likelihood of getting caught as small, dismissed the huge duty they had to a game that has enriched them beyond the wildest dreams of the fans they play for. Even as many players were implicated—caught—they have not been punished.

An insight into the smugness of unwarranted advantage to which baseball players are accustomed is revealed by the recent deployment of instant replay to appeal calls by umpires on the field.  Since the protocol was initiated in 2014, calls have been overturned nearly 50 percent of the time. That means that before replay appeals, legions of players, knowing an umpire had just blown a call, said nothing.  And, because umpire challenges are limited, the practice continues.  No commentator has ever publicly criticized players for it. They say the team just got “a lucky break.”

Is that just the way the game is played?  Not a big deal?  Well, consider this:  In 2010, before the advent of replay appeals, in a game between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers, umpire Jim Joyce blew a close call at first on what would have been the last out of the game. In the 26 plays that preceded it, not one man had reached first base. The blown call cost Cleveland pitcher Amando Galarraga a perfect game, a feat achieved only 23 times in more than 210,000 major league games played.

Many might protest that the runner, Cleveland shortstop Jason Donald could not have been sure he was out when the umpire called him safe, but that is unlikely. He was in front of the play and in the best position to see the ball arrive ahead of him, as all the replays showed. And, he said nothing, denying Galarraga his prize of baseball immortality.

Should Donald have stepped up and said, “Hey, ump I was out?” Should the Astros players have protested the sign-stealing scam before it got rolling.  Wouldn’t we all see in such an act, a refreshing reminder of the durability of truthfulness in a culture starved of it? Instead, the pundits now argue, echoing the reasoning of the Baseball Commissioner, that resisting the ethical breaches of a group, and the will of your bosses, is too much to ask of any player.

History yields horrid examples of people who just went along, and also of individuals who stood up, ennobling us all.  Don’t we all know, innately and truly, that if justice is going to be done in the world, it is up to each one of us to do our part?

The veil of convenience—the illusion that improper gain is permissible so long as you’re not caught—threatens to replace what we know is just.

It is well to remember the example set by Bobby Jones, the legendary golfer who called a stroke on himself after noticing that his ball had moved slightly, even though no one else did. The stroke cost him the 1925 US Open.

One of the reasons Jackie Robinson’s legacy is so compelling is that it portrays an eventual, if long-delayed, recognition that the game of baseball was corrupted by racial prejudice. By honoring Jackie Robinson, we acknowledge that nothing is more important than the duty of fairness to the game. Stealing of signs may not threaten the integrity of the game as seriously as systemic racial bias, but a line has been crossed, another step down the slippery slope of untruthfulness taken, and the credibility of the game permanently marred.

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The Law of Small Things

Most of us take our integrity for granted. As a result, a false confidence distorts our decision-making as individuals, in business and in our nation. The big breaches of integrity we see all around us—that we tend to blame on others—can be addressed by the “practice” of integrity as a learned skill, in our individual relationships, our workplaces and in our nation.

But first, we have to let go of the illusion that we “have” integrity as a matter of intuition and that we are innately ready for big things without practicing on small things.

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