What Baseball Can Teach Us About Ethics

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BaseballBy Matthew Kastel and Jordan Kobritz
From ethikos magazine

Every era has its own fads and crazes, such as the hula hoop, hush puppies or seer- sucker suits. Today’s favorite flavor seems to be schooling future businessmen on ethics. Try earning a business degree—at any level—these days without taking at least one class in ethics. For those whose formal education may have preceded the Enrons, WorldComs, and AIGs, mountains of man hours have been devoted and millions of dollars spent by corporate America in an effort to educate employees on what constitutes ethical conduct.

You may be among the majority who are inclined to believe that this is a good thing, signaling a path to a more ethical future. But the skeptic may ask, “Where is the return on our investment? Show me quantifiable evidence that suggests the new-found focus on ethics is having a positive effect in the real world.” Superficially, the evidence appears to be to the contrary. The daily business news suggests that not only is there a decline in ethical behavior but an acceleration of improper conduct. What are we to make of this?

It’s self-serving to hold oneself out as an “expert” in ethics, so you’ll be disappointed if you expect us to do so here. Unlike law, which is a set of rules enacted by society, eth- ics is a rather amorphous set of unwritten “standards” or “precepts” to live by, difficult to codify, easy to criticize. At its core, ethics can be defined as, “do the right thing.” But what may be right for one person may not satisfy someone else’s standards. The task of defining ethics is reminiscent of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s comments in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio. The exasperated jurist opined that defining pornography was like “trying to define what may be indefinable,” but confidently stated, “I know it when I see it.”

In this gray haze, let us examine business ethics from the perspective of an industry that lived through a real-life ethical scandal. There is much that businesspeople in any industry can learn from how that business dealt—or not—with the challenges it faced.

The industry is professional baseball, and the scandal was players’ use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Why use baseball—a sport—as a model for busi- ness? The best answer is that professional baseball has historically reflected our country’s broader business culture. While that statement may come as a surprise to some readers, there are numerous examples to support it.

Take Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in 1947, which was a precursor to a workplace diversity drive that American business is still engaged in. The multi-purpose and domed stadiums with artificial turf of the 1960s were symbolic of the postwar search for efficiency and productivity. It may strike you as an odd coincidence, but the era of free agency in baseball came at the same time that the term lifetime employment left the American lexicon. And finally, all the chatter about baseball’s Moneyball and other computer-generated modeling that has overtaken the sport in the past decade is nothing more than a Six Sigma approach for improving outcome.

With the foregoing in mind, here are a few lessons that managers can learn—or relearn—from the steroids scandal in baseball and apply to their business lives. Be forewarned: Some of what follows may not be pretty, politically cor- rect, or easily digested; but such is ethics in the real world.

 It’s never not a management issue

Have you also noticed something lacking in the media coverage of steroids and baseball? Volumes have been written about which players used, which ones didn’t, who is suspected and who should be barred from the Hall of Fame. The chatter provides ample fodder for debate and titillates the curious. But where was the managerial account- ability for the players both during and after the scandal? Were any managers, general managers, or owners ever in hot-water, let alone disciplined, because their players used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)?

The steroids scandal was treated as if it was a player-only issue. That borders on the absurd. Management’s central responsibility is to manage the affairs of its employees, and if management isn’t accountable, nobody is accountable. In this vacuum, it’s no wonder the steroids era raged on unchecked for nearly two decades.

It should be noted that despite all the reforms and remedial actions taken by baseball to address the steroids epidemic, none focused on managerial accountability. That guarantees one thing: It’s not a question of if there will be another major ethical lapse in baseball. It’s just a matter of when.

Your customers may not care

Oops! That headline may run counter to what has been ingrained in every managerial brain. But there are times when your customers won’t care. Consumers want a good product at a fair price, and like making sausages, they may not be interested in how that happens as long as the result is suitable to their tastes. There is no tangible evidence that baseball from a business perspective was harmed by the steroids scandal. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite is true. Interest in the sport was at an all-time high and rev- enues grew to unprecedented levels during the steroids era. Why? Because professional baseball delivered a product that the public wanted at a fair price, the process be damned.

The question then becomes: If your customers don’t care, should you? The answer, of course, is ‘yes,’ because some things, like personal integrity, are more important than dollars and cents.

 The damage is irreparable

On the surface, this may seem like a contradiction of the previous headline, but don’t assume that if your customers don’t care, then no damage has been done to your product. In fact, the opposite may be true. The damage may even be irreparable.

Today, several chasms exist in baseball due to the steroids era. Ex-stars such as Goose Gossage and George Brett are adamant that players merely rumored to have used steroids should not be considered for the Hall of Fame. There is also player discord between those who used and those who didn’t. Careers were made, and lost, by play- ers on both sides of the issue. There are also hard feelings between those who testified against their teammates and those who honored the code of silence.

Baseball, like no other sport and very few industries, prides itself on its history. This is best represented by over a century and a half of statistics against which each player and every team is judged historically. Today, with nearly 20 years of skewered numbers, baseball finds itself in a situation from which there is no escape. The steroid era will forever remain a black eye that never goes away.

 Ethics will shift

From the time Moses brought down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, right has been right and wrong has been wrong, or so we think. Unfortunately, for businesspeople who prefer certainty, what the general public perceives as ethically proper can shift like the sands of time, or even the winds of a storm. Nowhere is that more evident than in a high-tech, rapidly changing — demographically and culturally — America.

On one hand, it appears that baseball was caught flat- footed on steroids. But in reality, there were precursors. Baseball had an amphetamine (so-called greenies) problem in the ’60s and ’70s. Prior to that, the sport had an alcohol

problem that would have made the late W.C. Fields blush. Neither the public nor the press — to say nothing of man- agement — ever raised an eyebrow about the abuse of those substances. But the steroids era coincided with changing attitudes. The message to the business community is clear: Always keep a vigilant eye on shifting perceptions.

 Cheaters will prosper

Your mother was misinformed when she told you, ‘cheaters never prosper.’ Some players earned tens-of- millions of dollars by using steroids, and their teams won

games, earned championships, and made even more mil- lions because players used PEDs. The checks have been cashed and the games are over and the cheaters, even the ones that were exposed, prospered greatly, most with no consequences.

As the boss, you must be cognizant of the reality that your employees, competitors, and perhaps you will likely be tempted to take unseemly shortcuts. Because cheaters sometimes do prosper, that reality will never change. Your best and perhaps only defense is placing a higher premium on your personal as well as your organization’s integrity than you do on quarterly earnings reports and stock prices.

 Conclusion

The focus on ethics in higher education may be a pass- ing fad, but the message it delivers should not go unheeded. Ethics may not be “sexy,” like a cutting edge product, or tangible, like a new facility. But as we learned from baseball, businesspeople must be ever vigilant that their company maintains the highest ethics regardless of the season or the circumstances. Doing otherwise may result in unacceptable consequences.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am currently working on my MBA and doing a research paper on ‘Ethics in Major League Baseball’ and this was an amazing article. The author’s did a tremendous job of articulating the information and tying in other factors to back up the argument. As a huge Pirates fan and a student of business, I really appreciated the author(s) bringing both elements together relatively harmoniously. Good work!

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