Category Archives: unwritten rules

Why Lance Armstrong isn’t the “Bernie Madoff of cycling”

On another blog, at the end of the summer, I spent far too much space trying to figure out what we should think about Lance Armstrong after his quasi-implicit-wink’n’nudge-pseudo-confession. That statement from Armstrong came as he announced his decision to, in essence, plead “no contest” to the US Anti-Doping Agency’s public hearing of his case. My colleague Chris MacDonald follows up on the case on his Business Ethics Blog — and does so much more concisely, and with special attention to the “adversarial ethics” angle.

On Wednesday (October 10), the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.

The comparison with Madoff is to be expected. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.

But the comparison is also off target in important ways….

 

American Politics: Are We Still Playing the Same Game?

Of all the rhetoric that we have heard during this Republican primary, it is perhaps this comment from Rick Santorum that is the most perplexing:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.  What a snob.  I understand why he wants you to go to college.  He wants to remake you in his image.”

While Barack Obama’s intention behind the comment was not explicitly to promote a liberal education – but merely to suggest that education, whether it is technical, vocational, preprofessional, or liberal is, on balance, a benefit – Santorum’s disgust for ‘liberal academia’ is quite transparent.  Is this attitude antithetical to the foundations of our democratic society?  Or, to put it another way, are American politicians still playing the same game?

Politics, if it is a game, should be played according to a set of tactical, regulative, and constitutive rules.  Tactical rules are the strategies that are employed by a team or player in an effort to win the game.  For example, if I am playing chess, my opening move won’t be white pawn from h2-h3, since that doesn’t make any strategic sense whatsoever within a normal chess game.  Regulative rules are those guidelines that keep each side from gaining an unfair advantage, or exploiting loopholes that might exist due to the way the constitutive rules are described or set.  It is possible to break regulative rules and still be playing the same game.  The constitutive rules, by contrast, are what defines the game itself, and changing them entails playing another game altogether.  You are not playing chess if, for example, you declare that your winning the game is a result of you, yourself, being checkmated.

To see whether or not American politicians are still playing the same game, it is helpful to get an idea of what the goal of politics actually is.  Is the goal simply to win — to be elected President, for example — at all costs?  Probably not, since we wouldn’t want a presidential candidate to win by intentionally sabotaging the country, for example.  Indeed, this strategy would be contrary to the very purpose of the office for which the candidate is running.  We might say that the point of the political process is to elect someone into a position of public power who promotes the general welfare of the people.

Is this goal consistent with the de-valuing of, or hostility towards, a liberal education?  Historically, a liberal education was a privilege of the elite, or landed gentry – when one’s income was secure, it was appropriate to be educated in rhetoric so as to become an active, engaged citizen, who could not only make arguments, but listen and assess the arguments of others.  In contemporary civil society, it seems like education supports the democratic process, insofar as it exposes individuals to different points of view, and teaches them to critically assess those views, both for their strengths and weaknesses.  In this way, a liberal education promotes tolerance and recognition of divergent values; and so also promotes other-regarding virtues that are necessary for solidarity, and, by extension, the flourishing of a democratic society.  The major difference, of course, is that in our contemporary context, a liberal education is generally democratized among all classes; it is no longer a privilege of the few, nor should it be.

Even if President Obama’s point was to encourage a liberal education (which it was not), would this be so terrible?  I do not see what is so offensive about cultivating a population comprised of well-informed, educated citizens.  Santorum, however, seems to want to foster a climate of distrust and intolerance of opposing views, which might be fine if the goal of politics is to win at all costs.  However, insofar as the solidarity necessary for well-functioning democratic societies is secured best through education, then it seems that conservatives like Santorum would benefit from remembering the constitutive rules of the political game.  Sometimes a win for a particular candidate is a loss for American society, and I do not think that such a loss is consistent with the point of the political process.

I think we’d all do well to remember James Madison and Federalist #10 here, where Madison talks of factions and their threat to the common good.  Of course, to remember lessons from the Federalist Papers, we have to have read them, and what better place than within the academy itself?

Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten is bad gamesmanship

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on academic redshirting, the practice of holding kindergarten age-eligible children back in order to allow extra time for socioemotional, intellectual, or physical growth. The segment also included an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, who articulated a similar phenomenon in the case of older hockey players in his book Outliers (Gladwell calls the phenomenon “accumulative advantage”). In the many adversarial institutions these parents want their children to excel in (little league sports, elementary academics, and the cafeteria social hierarchy), there is a significant advantage for students who are older. The 60 Minutes segment showed a lot of eager mothers who adamantly claim they were not breaking any rules, but just doing what was best for their children.

Within current confines, those parents are not breaking any official rules. But, there is a sense that eager parents are gaming the system. This sort of gamesmanship also signifies a paradigm shift in extracurricular activities. Little league sports are no longer just for fun—they are institutions that cultivate talent and personalities prone to success. Most interestingly, it also appears that the process of raising children has shifted from a once inherently rewarding practice to an adversarial institution where the benefits of winning are permanent.

Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

Extemporaneous speaking (extemp for short) is a competitive event in high school speech and debate where competitors are given thirty minutes to come up with a seven-minute speech on a randomly selected topic. Competitors are judged on their analysis of the topic, their use of sources, and their oratorical presence. A video of the 2004 National Champion in Domestic Extemp can be found here. By putting a non-competitive activity (public speaking) into a competitive arena, students find a fun and engaging way to hone their skills.

In addition to their own knowledge, competitors are allowed to use and cite sources from a tub of evidence they prepare before selecting their topic. All other factors being equal, competitors who cite more sources in their speeches win more. In the past, the standard number of sources for a good speech was three. Three sources in a speech works because most speeches are structured to have three separate points, and while three was not a written rule, it was a known convention. However, competitors over time have defected from this collective agreement in order to improve their chances of winning. In a classic race to the bottom, other competitors deviate from the three-source standard to keep up with their opponents, and over time, the average number of sources per speech has risen to nine.

How is this different from any other race to the bottom? In thirty minutes of preparation, a competitor has to scour mounds of newspaper clippings to find relevant sources, incorporate those sources into a speech outline, memorize the speech, and practice it a few times. Simply, it is impossible to write and practice a speech with nine distinct sources in thirty minutes; so, competitors choose to cite fake sources. Judges rarely check if competitors are citing real sources—one could spend more than the entire speech’s seven minutes back-checking nine sources. In a competitive event that teaches students how to persuasively and eloquently convey information, students are also learning how easy and convenient it is to lie.

Lying in a public speech is not unique to high school forensics—politicians regularly lie in debates, because the short-term benefits of making a seemingly valid point outweigh the long-term effects of a lie. Rep. Michelle Bachman, in the recent Republican Primary Debates, was notorious for this—she regularly misrepresented the views of her opponents (check it out at 2:00 here). Many news organizations, notably the New York Times, try to ‘live fact-check’ these debates, but there is little damage to the liar if they come out of the debate unscathed.

Having nine sources in your extemp speech does not necessarily mean you are citing fake sources. Some competitors craft universal sources for every speech they could possibly give by memorizing a citation for a popular book or study. While these ‘canned sources’ are successful, they defeat the extemporaneous nature of the competition.

Bubbling up in the Ethics-for-Adversaries lab…

In this blog we have spent a lot of our time with case studies drawn from the “Big 4” large-scale deliberately adversarial institutions: markets, electoral politics, sports, and the justice system. But some of the most illuminating analyses are sparked by adversarial activities in other realms, or in peculiar corners of the Big 4.

Based on an initial brainstorming session with this year’s team of bloggers, here are a few of the realms of structured competition you can expect to see future posts on:

  • University Student Politics (ought we to expect an emphasis on certain unwritten democratic norms that have fallen by the wayside in big-money national politics?)
  • Debate Club (how is it like a sport? what is its function? is this a better way to develop public-speaking and logic/rhetorical skills than other pedagogical or social means? what formal and informal rules and norms surround the competitions?)
  • Academic Philosophy (similarly, what can we learn by contrasting student and professional academic philosophy communities that place greater or lesser emphasis on aggressive argumentation?)
  • Job Hiring for Non-Adversarial Institutions (there are formal and informal competitions going on all the time in even the most non-adversarial institutions. E.g., competitions for student placement or job hiring. How do otherwise non-adversarial institutions best handle and constrain these competitive moments?)
  • Ballet-Company Politics (one such non-adversarial institution — after all, its purpose is to put on a show that is evaluated on its own terms by aesthetic criteria — is the ballet company. And yet at all levels, we are told that the competition between dancers, and their parents, is like a blood sport.)
  • Animal Mate-Selection (what can we learn from the mostly genetically-encoded norms that govern mate-selection in different parts of the animal kingdom? Robert Frank has recently written that  Darwin, not Adam Smith, is really the father of modern thinking about market economics. So what can we learn from Darwin about the social benefits of a well-designed adversarial practice?)
  • International Relations, Diplomacy, Espionage, and War.  (At the limit: surely one of the oldest, and most ritualized, deliberately and inherently adversarial practices.)
  • Scientific Research (a cooperative community in a common search for the Truth, or red in tooth and claw? What kinds of tactics and strategies are justifiable in the competition for grants, patents, and publications?)

Expect this list to grow over the coming weeks. If you have suggestions for other  adversarial realms we should be working on, please let us know in the comments section, below.

Unwritten rules in the sweet science [updated]

In the 8th grade I finished second in my country county in wrestling (in the 99-pounds-and-under category). In the semi-final match, the referee neglected to invite me and my adversary to shake hands before the match began. He just signaled for the match to start. But since a handshake was the usual protocol, the other kid reached out to shake my hand. I grabbed his hand, performed a standard wrestling move (I don’t remember much of the jargon now), and took him to the ground. It was perfectly legal, and I was a total 99-pound asshole.

Recently, with much more than bragging rights on the line, WBC World Welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather did essentially the same thing. Here’s an account from Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor and boxing trainer, writing in the Huffington Post:

Boxing took a pounding on Friday night. The too-much-hyped championship contest between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz went down in pugilistic infamy at the end of the fourth round.

With only seconds remaining in that stanza, Ortiz had “Money” Mayweather on the ropes and intentionally head-butted him. Referee Joe Cortez deducted a point. The embarrassed Ortiz literally kissed and hugged Mayweather to express his regret. Though Ortiz claims he did not hear him, Cortez instructed the boxers to resume the action and once again “Vicious Victor” went to touch gloves. Mayweather leaned forward as if to do the same and then turned over a left hook. In that instant, a shocked Ortiz made the mistake of turning his head to the ref in protest and just as he did, Mayweather hammered him with a booming right to the chin, turning the black lights on the young fighter and ending the contest.

Most of the crowd at the MGM booed in protest at the advantage that Mayweather had taken. Debates raged all over Las Vegas and I suppose throughout the nation. No one, including Ortiz, questioned the legality of Mayweather’s stealthy move. The new champion defended himself saying that he had been fouled and that fighters are endlessly told “protect yourself at all times.”

And so the standard question: What are the best examples of this kind of gamesmanship in other deliberately adversarial contexts like business, politics, law, war, etc.?

UPDATE: there was, not surprisingly, a LOT of chatter about this move by Mayweather. Consider, for example, this piece by a blogging pastor in the Huff Post entitled “Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and the Death of the Gentleman, Sportsmanship, and Class in American Society.”

Unwritten rules in football

Deliberately adversarial institutions are highly regulated, and closely monitored. But for a variety of reasons there can’t be an effective or enforceable rule against every kind of behavior that seems “just wrong.” So there are generally a lot of “unwritten rules” and various written and unwritten “codes of honor” that participants expect each other to adhere to.

Last week the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, Tony Romo, took the unusual step of accusing his opponents of violating one of those rules. Here’s a quote from the NFL.com story, “Romo accuses Redskins of cheating on snap count“:

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo blamed the Washington Redskins for the problems he had fielding snaps from center Phil Costa in Monday night’s sloppy 18-16 Dallas victory. Costa snapped the ball a number of times before the quarterback was ready.

Romo accused Redskins defenders of yelling out their own snap count, attempting to fool Costa, according to ProFootballTalk.com.

“We’ve got to get the snap thing worked out,” Romo told reporters after the game. “We’ll get that worked out. We’ll tell the league and see if that’s something that can be fixed because you’re not supposed to be able to do that. So we’ll see. But we can’t have that happen. We shouldn’t have been in that situation.”

Now, as it turns out, the NFL does have a rule against this behavior. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the NFL, more than any other major sport, is prepared to try to solve any problem with a new rule and close monitoring. But this is clearly one of those rules that’s difficult to enforce. It relies on players recognizing that this is “not cricket,” as they say.

With any post on “unwritten rules in sport/institution X” we will finish with the same general questions: What examples are there of unwritten rules in other deliberately adversarial institutions that are similar to defensive players in football mimicking the offensive quarterback’s snap count? And why, exactly, is this kind of tactic unseemly?

(Incidentally, there are plenty of examples in nature of predators mimicking signals its prey species uses in order to lure them to their demise. So much for natural justice.)