It’s not often that you can distill an accurate “big picture” view of a person’s character from a single comment.  A close friend asserts he knew all he needed to know of Bill Clinton upon hearing his “I never inhaled” defense of smoking marijuana.  I try to let people off the hook for a slip up and, likewise, to refrain from adorning someone as a saint for one saintly remark.  Though occasionally, a single comment provides a good snapshot of a person’s character.

I recently served on a 13-person search committee looking to hire a new Athletic Director at the school where I work.  And in an interview situation, just a few comments are often all one gets.  After sifting through 170 very thoughtful and capable cover letters and resumes, we honed in on four finalists who we brought to campus to spend a day interviewing with various constituencies.

I found a great deal of the interview process much like a dance: We ask a question about the value of sport within the academic culture or views on diversity or leadership style, and then the interviewee follows our lead providing the obvious requisite answer.  This is an unavoidable part of the process and all of the candidates danced along like seasoned veterans.

As the resident philosopher, I asked each of the candidates some “grey area” questions—questions philosophers tend to be good at asking, and many of which come up in this blog.  Their responses tended to be very telling as I pushed them to give hard answers as opposed to just re-framing the questions, espousing how difficult they are, etc.  Every answer was very thoughtful and often tended to divert us off topic into more of a roundtable discussion than an interview.

One answer from a candidate—the person to whom we eventually offered the job—proved very telling.  It was one of those “big picture” answers.  It struck a chord with me at the time, though I figured I might be the only one with this reaction given that I tend to get excessively excited about these sorts of musings.  I was happy to hear from three others on the committee, in separate accounts, who shared my enthusiasm with his answer.  As our school’s headmaster commented to me later that day, “That answer to your question sure tells us a lot about his character.”

The Question: How would you respond to a baseball coach who requested that the grass be cut much shorter or allowed to grow much longer than usual in order to benefit his team given their strengths pitted against the weaknesses of the visiting team?  Is this ethical?  Would you grant the coach his wishes?  Why or why not?

(I encourage you to formulate your answer to this question—and do it quickly, as though you’re facing 13 discerning judges, all with pen in hand, analyzing your response.)

Answers tend to be split on this question, which makes it such a good one to pose in an interview.  Some argue that it’s acceptable as it doesn’t break the rules and fits under the ever-present “home field advantage,” while others argue that it’s unethical as it provides an uneven playing field, doesn’t treat your opponent with respect, and doesn’t align with a good host.

His Answer (paraphrasing): I would not allow him to do this because it would put the grounds-crew in an awkward position, as though they’re being asked to do a shoddy job cutting the grass not according to standard or, worse, being forced to do their job in a manner which doesn’t honor the game and goes against their own ethical framework.

I’m not suggesting that this is the right (or only) answer.  I do think that it needs to be a part of the conversation.  And on a larger scale, this answer highlights three things about this whole endeavor of sport ethics worth emphasizing:

1. The moral scope of an ethical issue almost always extends beyond just those directly involved.

Understandably, we often view a moral transgression as affecting only those directly involved: the cheater and the cheated.  But in much the same way that John Donne’s famous line—“No man is an island”—captures the value of each life (and, unfortunately, death), we recognize that nearly all moral transgressions and also moments of moral courage reach much further than the incident alone.  Be it others indirectly involved, such as this case with the grounds-crew, or the culture of an institution or of society at large, ethical actions reach beyond just the “island” of the sport field.

2. An emphasis on empathy and caring is often overlooked in the typical Western approach to ethics.

The 1992 book by Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice, established the foundation for a new approach to moral theory.  The aptly named Care Ethics focuses less on the typical rights-based moral arguments and more on human relationships and a wider scope of caring.  Annette Baier suggests that ethics up until that point often focused on “cool, distanced relations between…strangers.”  Yet, as we know, this is not how we experience our daily lives, especially in the sporting realm.  Instead of—or along with—the hard and fast rules, obligations, and moral contracts, we also want a sense of community and caring from our moral lives.

3. Through prior experience considering moral issues, one develops a certain character which helps to inform future, novel ethical situations.

Aristotle argued that one becomes virtuous not inherently nor through studying moral theory but through practice.  Just as a painter becomes good by painting well, a person becomes good by acting well.  “Excellence,” he wrote, “is not an act, but a habit.”  Through exploring ethical issues and living them out, one not only becomes a good person but develops a foundational character which serves them throughout their moral life.

This candidate’s resume highlighted his (and his wife’s) involvement with Positive Coaching Alliance, a national organization whose mission is to provide a “positive, character-building youth sports experience.”  It should be of no surprise, then, that he could address this particular moral issue quickly and assertively and with the broad, empathetic moral scope: he already had years of practice doing so.

The interview and hiring process we conducted was amazingly thorough and left us with four exceptionally strong candidates all of whom, I believe, would have done an exceptional job working with our coaches and student-athletes.  After hours of deliberation and discussion, we unanimously chose this particular candidate and the one word that came up most often in our deliberations was “character,” with the “grass cutting incident” mentioned repeatedly.  I smiled inwardly at this, happy to be reminded that such ethical issues matter and matter deeply to the school where I work, and also because, after twenty years of writing on the topic, I still had much to discover and to celebrate in this endeavor.

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