Football, Racist Emails, and the Overconfidence Bias

Football fans know Jon Gruden. He coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Superbowl championship. He is handsome, articulate, folksy, and bright. He is also a walking embodiment of the overconfidence bias—the tendency people have to overestimate their own morality.

Most of us believe that we are more moral than most other people. In one study, 74% of respondents thought they were more ethical than their peers. In another, 83% of those answering believed that at least half the people they knew would list them as one of the most ethical people they know. All around the world, average MBA students rate themselves in the top 70% ethics-wise. And, research shows, people tend to believe that they have a “true self” deep down inside them that is virtuous.

Gruden is one of those people. In a recent talk he said:

I’m ashamed about what has come about in these emails, and I’ll make no excuses for it. It’s shameful. But I am a good person. I believe that. I go to church. I’ve been married for 31 years. I’ve got three great boys. I still love football. I’ve made some mistakes. But I don’t think anybody in here hasn’t. And I just ask for forgiveness and, hopefully, I get another shot.

The reason Gruden hopes for “another shot” is that he had to resign from his last job–head coach of the Washington NFL team, now known as the Commanders. And, as his statement indicates, the reason he had to resign was that an NFL investigation into the Washington organization’s culture uncovered numerous emails that Gruden had sent while working as a commentator for ESPN that were racist, anti-LGBTQ, and misogynistic. In the most inappropriate and offensive terms, Gruden complained about the NFL hiring women as referees, made fun of a Black player’s facial features and impugned his intelligence, denounced the drafting of gay players, and moaned about attempts to reduce traumatic brain injuries because it might scare parents away from allowing their children to play football.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gruden’s opinion of himself, going to church does not necessarily make him a good person, though it probably doesn’t hurt unless it baselessly bolsters his overconfidence. Being married for 31 years may represent primarily a testament to his wife’s patience. Having great children does not make Mr. Gruden a great parent. And, similarly, loving football, is no evidence of moral purity.

To be fair, we have all made mistakes. And most of us would likely also hope for “another shot” if our misdeeds were discovered and publicized, as Mr. Gruden’s have been.

However, we are moved to remind Mr. Gruden that to be a good person, you must do good things and refrain from doing bad things. Morality is not just a state of mind. The fact that Mr. Gruden’s primary response to the scandal was to paint himself as a victim and file a still-ongoing lawsuit against the NFL for disclosing his shameful emails is not a good sign.

If the only lesson Mr. Gruden learns from this episode is: “Don’t get caught, but sue somebody if you do,” we at Ethics Unwrapped will be disappointed. But if Gruden can learn from his mistakes and begin to actually walk his talk, something good could come of this fiasco.

 

 

Sources:

C. Daniel Batson et al., “Moral Hypocrisy: Appearing Moral to Oneself Without Being So,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology77(3): 525-537 (1999).

Ken Belson & Katherine Rosman, “Raiders Coach Resigns After Homophobic and Misogynistic Emails,” New York Times, Oct. 11, 2011, at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/11/sports/football/what-did-jon-gruden-say.html.

Andrew Christy et al., “Why Do People Believe in a “True Self”? The Role of Essentialist Reasoning about Personal Identity and the Self,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 117(2): 386-416 (2019).

Julian De Freitas et al., “Consistent Belief in a Good True Self in Misanthropes and Three Interdependent Cultures,” Cognitive Science 42(S1): 134-160 (2018).

Julian De Freitas et al., “Moral Goodness is the Essence of Personal Identity,” Trends in Cognitive Science 22(9): 739-740 (2018).

Paul Gutierrez, “Jon Gruden Suing NFL, Roger Goodell, Saying They Forced Him Out of Las Vegas Raiders Job,” ESPN, Nov. 12, 2021, at https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/32615059/jon-gruden-suing-nfl-roger-goodell-saying-forced-las-vegas-raiders-job.

Christian Jarrett, “There’s No Such Thing as the True Self, But It’s Still a Useful Psychological Concept,” Research Digest, Aug. 22, 2017, at https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/08/22/there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-true-self-but-its-still-a-useful-psychological-concept/.

Marianne Jennings, “Ethics and Investment Managers: True Reform” Financial Analysts Journal 61(3): 45-58 (2005).

Shayla Love, “Why Your ‘True Self’ Is an Illusion,” Vice, May 19, 2021, at https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7mwa3/why-your-true-self-is-an-illusion.

Neil Malhotra & Ken Shotts, Leading with Values: Strategies for Making Ethical Decisions in Business and Life (2022).

Art Markman, “The True Self: What Does It Mean to Believe that There is a “True Self” Inside of Everyone,” Psychology Today, Sept. 21, 2017, at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201709/the-true-self.

Emmanuel Morgan & Ben Shpigel, “Jon Gruden’s Emails, Explained,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 2021, at https://www.nytimes.com/article/raiders-gruden-emails-explained.html.

George E. Newman et al., “Value Judgments and the True Self,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (XX)(X): 1-14 (2013).

Conor Orr, “Jon Gruden Ignoring Reality Won’t Get Him Back Into Coaching,” Sports Illustrated.Com, Aug. 31, 2022, at https://www.si.com/nfl/2022/08/31/jon-gruden-apology-coaching-nfl.

Matt Stichter, “The True Self as Essentially Morally Good: An Obstacle to Virtue Development?, Journal of Moral Education (March 11, 2021), available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03057240.2021.1887830?src=&journalCode=cjme20

Nina Strohminger & Shaun Nichols, “The Essential Moral Self,” Cognition 131(1): 159-171 (2014).

Jenny Vrentas, “Jon Gruden’s Lawsuit Against the N.F.L. Can Proceed in Open Court,” New York Times, May 25, 2022, at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/25/sports/football/jon-gruden-lawsuit-nfl.html?searchResultPosition=4.

 

Videos:

Overconfidence Bias:

https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/overconfidence-bias (Concepts Unwrapped)

https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/overconfidence-bias (Glossary)

 

 

 

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