Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
In any kind of decision-making, context counts. The simple reframing of a situation or a question can produce a totally different answer from the same person.
For example, when NASA was deciding whether or not to launch the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Morton Thiokol’s engineers opposed the launch on safety grounds. But when the general manager instructed the engineers to “take off their engineers’ hats and put on their management hats,” he changed their frame of reference. Instead of the launch being a decision focused on safety, it became one focused on dollars and cents. Unfortunately, the engineers then changed their minds. The Challenger was launched, and exploded.
In sports, it is natural to focus on winning. A UCLA football coach once said: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” But, just as a focus on profits can lead to poor moral choices in business, if we focus solely on winning in sports and omit ethics from our frame of reference, we can also mess up.
For example, Lance Armstrong, the now infamous cyclist, doped while winning seven Tour de France titles. Armstrong focused so completely on winning that he rationalized his doping as simply doing what it took to win, since he believed others were also doping. He ignored the fact that he was one of the major creators of the doping culture on the tour. Armstrong had dropped morality from his frame of reference, which is why he was later divested of all his titles and banned for life from competitive cycling.
Maintaining ethics in our frame of reference is challenging, especially when winning is the goal. When a Houston Astros’ front office official objected because the team was considering signing a free agent pitcher who had been charged with domestic abuse, the team’s general manager snapped: “I don’t want your moral opinion. I want your baseball opinion.”
Moral opinions are never irrelevant. As athletes, it’s important to remember that if we “win” by cheating, we’re not really winning. We did beat the system, but we did not gain the skill it takes to truly win. And we’ve lost the integrity that comes with winning fair and square. Athletes — like business people and all the rest of us — are advised to always keep ethics in their frame of reference in order to live up to their own moral standards.