Self-serving Bias

The self-serving bias causes us to see things in ways that support our best interests and our pre-existing points of view.

Discussion Questions

1. Have you ever thought that a candidate you supported won a political debate you watched, while friends who supported the opposing candidate thought their candidate won?  Why might that have happened?

2. Do you remember your grades from high school?  If you wrote them all down and are like most people, you would have remembered doing better than you actually did.  As time passes, the average memory becomes even less accurate and almost always in the same direction of remembering that you did better (rather than worse) than you actually did.  What phenomenon is at work here?

3. Can you think of an ethical situation you have been in where the self-serving bias may have played a role in how you thought or acted?

4. Can you think of ways in which the self-serving bias may negatively impact a company’s performance?  Explain.

5. How can you guard against the self-serving bias in your ethical decision-making?

6. How can a firm protect itself from the potential bad side effects of the self-serving bias as it affects employees’ decision making?

Case Studies

A Million Little Pieces

In 2003, publisher Doubleday released James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, marketing it as a memoir about Frey’s struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. In 2005, the book was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, in part for the inspiring and supposedly true story of Frey’s overcoming addiction. The publicity from The Oprah Winfrey Show sparked strong sales for the book, which topped bestseller lists in the following weeks.

On January 8, 2006, investigative website The Smoking Gun published an exposé describing numerous exaggerations and fabrications in Frey’s account of his life story as written, creating controversy regarding the truthfulness of the book as a “memoir.” When Frey first appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005, he emphasized his honesty: “If I was going to write a book that was true, and I was going to write a book that was honest, then I was going to have to write about myself in very negative ways.” As he did so, he expanded on falsehoods that appeared in the book.

Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, were unable to effectively refute The Smoking Gun allegations. When Winfrey invited Frey back on her show, she harangued him for lying, saying that she felt “duped” and that Frey had “betrayed millions of readers.” Talese described Winfrey’s rebuke of Frey as “mean and self-serving,” while critics of Frey saw him as opportunistic.

Frey defended the right of authors and memoirists to draw upon their memories, not only upon documented facts: “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” Authors and literary critics have echoed this sentiment, noting that memoirs are not necessarily the same genre as biographies or autobiographies. When asked about this controversy, author Joyce Carol Oates stated, “the tradition of personal memoir has always been highly ‘fictionalized’ — colored with an individual’s own ‘emotional truth’ … This is an ethical issue…with convincing arguments on both sides. In the end, [Winfrey] had to defend her own ethical standards of truth on her television program, which was courageous of her; and [Talese] had to defend her standards as a longtime revered editor, which was courageous of her.”

Discussion Questions

1. In what ways is self-serving bias apparent in this case regarding James Frey? Regarding Oprah Winfrey? Do you think one’s position is more ethically defensible than the other’s? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe authors should adhere only to fact in memoirs? Why or why not? Do you think authors have a responsibility to tell the truth to their audiences? Explain.

3. Cultural critic Laura Kipnis writes, “If Frey, an aspiring novelist, harnessed himself to the engine of the recovery narrative to get his story into print, his readers compromised themselves too, swallowing his writerly affectations like pills mashed up in applesauce, so eager for a fix of recovery lit that the eye-blinking grandiosities [of the book] barely registered.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

4. Do you know people who seem to remember past events in their lives in ways that put themselves in a very favorable light? Do you have this tendency? Explain with examples.

5. Can you think of other examples in politics, newspapers, business, or your everyday life that seem to illustrate the impact of the self-serving bias? Explain with examples.

Bibliography

Myanmar Amber

Amber is a resin material that is formed from fossilized conifer tree sap during years of constant pressure and heat. This yellow to reddish-brown translucent material has been used in a number of ways, including to make jewelry, in Egyptian burials, and in the healing arts. Amber also plays an invaluable role in research. In some cases, amber contains inclusions, such as insects, whole or parts of animals, and plants that are trapped and preserved. The ability to hold a piece of history untouched by time has resulted in a number of scientific discoveries and advances such as feathers on a non-avian dinosaur dated 99 million years ago and the biosynthesis of gene clusters for novel antibiotics.

One of the oldest amber deposits in the world, dating back 100 million years, is located in the Northern region of Myanmar. Myanmar amber is plentiful, high quality and contains inclusions within the resin. The mining of these amber specimens in Myanmar is the center of many legitimate and blackmarket sales to university researchers and private collectors alike. Over the last ten years, more than one billion dollars in legal revenue has been generated from the mining and sale of amber.

Myanmar is a small southeast Asian country that contains about 130 diverse ethnic groups recognized by the government. There is no official state religion but the Myanmar government favors the majority Theravada Buddhism population. This favoritism has created ethnic and religious conflicts resulting in government-enforced discrimination. For example, the government has made it difficult for Christian and Islamic groups to gain permission to repair or build new places of worship. The Kachin Independence Army, which includes ethnic minorities who live in the northern Kachin and surrounding regions of Myanmar, has been in armed conflict with the Myanmar government for the restoration of minority ethnic groups’ rights.

For many years this mining area has been protected by the Kachin Independence Army. However, in 2017 the Myanmar government dropped leaflets from helicopters informing the population in northern Kachin that civilians and Kachin militants who remain in the region will be considered hostile opposition to the government military forces. The government then forced more than 5000 inhabitants from their homes and villages, as well as from the amber mines. This hostile takeover of the profitable Kachin amber mines ensures that amber purchases from researchers and private collectors will help fund the government side of the Myanmar ethnic civil war.

While some researchers and universities feel as though they should refrain from making such amber purchases, their failure to participate enables many private collectors to remove collections from the public or to charge researchers an exorbitant fee for access.

Furthermore, many of the miners in the Kachin region, on both sides of the conflict, are not fully aware of the value of the amber that they are selling and are therefore being exploited by the wholesalers who purchase from them. Myanmar classifies amber as a gemstone, not a fossil, so it can be legally removed from the country, unlike fossils that have restrictions on removal.

Discussion Questions

1. If you were a university scientist, how would you decide whether it is ethical for you to buy amber from Myanmar?

a. If you took a deontological approach, what would your reasoning look like? What moral principles would you take into account?

b. If you took a utilitarian approach to answering this question, what would your reasoning look like? What facts would you weigh in making the decision?

2. In deciding whether it is ethical for you to buy amber from Myanmar, do you need to guard against the self-serving bias unduly affecting your decision? If so, how would you go about guarding against it have a deleterious impact?

3. Are there other cognitive biases and heuristics that might adversely affect your moral reasoning if you are not careful? Which ones?

4. Are you aware of comparable situations around the world where individuals and corporations that wish to be moral buyers should be similarly wary, knowing that their purchase price might aid the seller’s bad acts? Is this ever a consideration that buyers should take into account? Is it always a consideration that buyers should take into account?

5. What can scientists considering the morality of trading in Myanmar amber learn from the debate over “conflict minerals” in Africa?

Bibliography

Gammon, Katharine, “The Human Cost of Amber,” The Atlantic, Aug. 2, 2019.   https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/08/amber-fossil-supply-chain-has-dark-human-cost/594601/

Grimaldi, David, “Amber,” Current Biology Magazine. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(19)31097-8.pdf

Greshko, Michael, “Ancient Bird Foot Found in Amber Has Bizarrely Long Toes,” National Geographic, July 11, 2019.   https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/07/fossil-bird-in-amber-has-unusually-long-toes/

Lawton, Graham, “Blood Amber: The Exquisite Trove of Fossils Fueling War in Myanmar,” NewScientist, May 1, 2019. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232280-600-blood-amber-the-exquisite-trove-of-fossils-fuelling-war-in-myanmar/

Nelson, Alexandrea, “The Materiality of Morality: Conflict Minerals,” Utah Law Review, 2014: 1, p. 219 (2014). https://dc.law.utah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1121&context=ulr

Sokol, Joshua, “Troubled Treasure,” Science, May 23, 2019.   https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/fossils-burmese-amber-offer-exquisite-view-dinosaur-times-and-ethical-minefield

Thiha, “Myanmar’s New Gold Mine is Dinosaur Amber, July 11, 2018. https://consult-myanmar.com/2018/07/11/myanmars-new-gold-mine-is-dinosaur-amber/

Xing, Linda et al., “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Current Biology, 26: 24, pl. 3352 (Dec. 2016).   https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982216311939?via%3Dihub

“Dodging Rumour and Insurgency: The Hunt for Burmese Amber Goes to the Heart of Myanmar’s Turbulent North,” Financial Post, Jan. 26, 2017. https://business.financialpost.com/commodities/mining/dodging-rumour-and-insurgency-the-hunt-for-burmese-amber-goes-to-the-heart-of-myanmars-turbulent-north

“It is Time to Bring Global Attention to the Trade in Burmese Amber,” NewScientist, May 1, 2019. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232283-300-it-is-time-to-bring-global-attention-to-the-trade-in-burmese-amber/

Something Fishy at the Paralympics

Some of sports’ most inspiring and heart-warming stories have come from the Special Olympics (for athletes with intellectual disabilities) and the Paralympics (for athletes with intellectual impairments and visual or physical disabilities). The Paralympic games are held in parallel with the Olympics every four years and have become a very big deal.  Sports Illustrated reports that “Paralympic sport has grown into big business, with countries and sponsors pouring in millions of dollars to fund and promote athletes whose stories highlight the best of humanity.”[1] Australian Paralympians are sometimes provided “tens of thousands of dollars in government funding and other perks, including college scholarships, vehicles, and housing.”[2] In the 2020 Paralympics, U.S. athletes were slated to receive $37,500 for each gold medal they won.

Unfortunately, sometimes Paralympians cheat much like regular Olympians have been known to do—they take illicit drugs[3] or they drive their blood pressure up (“boosting”) to drive heart rate and improve performance.[4] And, unsurprisingly, the Russians systematically cheat in the Paralympics just as they do in the traditional Olympics.[5] But the most significant cheating involves gaming the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC’s) classification system.

The IPC classifies the disabilities of competitors in order to provide a structure for competition. Fair competition thrives only if athletes have similar levels of disabilities, so athletes are grouped into classes based on “how much their impairment affects fundamental activities in each specific sport and discipline.”[6]

Obviously, by pretending to have a more serious disability than they actually do, athletes could convince officials to group them with athletes of lesser abilities.  And there is evidence that this has happened.  For example, among the wrongdoing[7]:

  • Swimmers tape their arms for days, removing the tape just before classification. Because of the taping, they are unable to fully extend their arms.
  • Athletes arrive for the classification in a wheelchair when they do not otherwise use wheelchairs, or wearing braces that they normally do not wear.
  • Athletes submerge in cold water or roll in snow soon before classification to worsen muscle tone.
  • Athletes intentionally perform below their ability (“tanking”) in assessment races.
  • Remarkably, even the shortening and removal of limbs has reportedly occurred.

The most infamous example of Paralympic cheating was by Spain’s basketball team at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics: none of the 12 players was mentally disabled as represented.[8] Recently several Paralympians, especially Para-swimmers, have claimed that cheating the classification system is “epidemic.”[9]

After the Spanish basketball team was finally punished in 2017, the IPC removed basketball as a Paralympic sport until officials could prove to the IPC’s satisfaction that they had the classification problem under control.[10]

And, after believable allegations of widespread classification cheating among Australian Paralympians,[11] Australia has launched an online course that is mandatory for all its Paralympic athletes. The course outlines the classification process and requirements for all staff, coaches and athletes, explains penalties for noncompliance, and trains everyone on ethical decision making.[12]

At this time, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, along with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether or not the increased visibility (and awareness) of Paralympic cheating changes the way these games are played in the future remains to be seen.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you surprised to learn that some of these inspiring Paralympians are cheating? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think some Paralympians cheat?
  3. What psychological biases, social pressures or rationalizations might these athletes employ to support their decision to cheat? Explain.
  4. Why do we seem to have cheating in the Paralympics, but not the Special Olympics?
    1. Can the video on “incentive gaming” shed some light on this question?
  5. The coach who recruited the 2000 Spanish Paralympic basketball team has reportedly built a fortune by collecting state money aimed to support disabled athletes.[13] Does the self-serving bias play a role in motivating cheating? How so? By the coaches? By the athletes? Explain.
  6. It has been reported that the consciences of the 12 non-disabled semi-professional Spanish basketball players who entered the Sydney Paralympics of 2000 (and won the gold medal) were eased by the President of Spain’s Federation for Mentally Disabled Sports. He told them that fake Paralympians were commonplace in every sport at the Paralympics.[14] Does this sound like the conformity bias in action? Why or why not?
    1. Is this assertion defensible intellectually, or is it just a massive rationalization?
  7. It has been suggested that cheating by athletes in the Paralympics reinforces a stereotype held by many that people often pretend to be disabled in order to qualify for government payments and are therefore cheats?[15] Is reinforcement of this false narrative a damaging result of the cheating scandal? Why or why not?
    1.  Do you think this negative outcome was foreseen by the wrongdoers?
    2. Can you think of other collateral impacts?
  8. It has been argued that because the Paralympics are about winning (just like all sports) and that sometimes people in other sports cheat, it is no big deal that Paralympians cheat. Indeed, “[s]ome Paralympians and disability-rights speakers take doping scandals as positive news. They say it proves disabled people can achieve the same things as anyone else, including cheating. People, they argue, can identify more with a role model who has made mistakes.”[16] Do you find this a convincing argument? Explain.
  9. Paralympian gold medal winner Bethany Woodward gave back her gold medal in the relays because one of her teammates was insufficiently disabled and therefore gave her team an unfair advantage. Woodward said, “Paralympic sport is about disabled people pushing themselves and overcoming their disability. Handing back this medal will mean all the medals I won are to do with me, my cerebral palsy and my strength.”[17] This act has been mocked by Jim Moore, who wrote: “Para sport is either about inspiration porn, and giving ‘special people’ a little something to do in between putting us all back in a box. Or it’s about what all other sport is about: winning.”[18] Do you agree with Moore? Do you admire Woodward? Both? Neither? Support your position.
  10. Athletes like Bethany Woodward and U.S. Para-swimmer Jessica Long have been trying to call attention to cheating in the Paralympics. But they have been criticized by fellow Para-athletes for causing a furor that threatens to tear the sport apart and thereby damage it irrevocably.[19] Some think that Woodward and Long should just shut up. Do you? Why or why not?
  11. Are the steps being taken by the IPC (banning basketball until the sport can clean up its act) and individual countries like Australia (with its online training course) necessary? Are they sufficient? Explain your reasoning.

Bibliography

[1] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[2] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[3] Roger Collier, Most Paralympians Inspire, But Others Cheat, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Sept. 9, 2008, at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2527388/.

[4] Kevin Carpenter, The Dark Side of the Paralympics: Cheating Through “Boosting,” LawInSport, Aug. 27, 2012, at https://www.lawinsport.com/more/blogs/kevin-carpenter/item/the-dark-side-of-the-paralympics-cheating-through-boosting.

[5] Rebecca Ruiz, Russia Is Banned from Paralympics, Again, for Doping, New York Times, Jan. 29, 2018, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/sports/paralympics-russia-doping.html.

[6] International Paralympic Committee, November 2015 IPC Athlete Classification Code (2015).

[7] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[8] Simon Tomlinson, Are These the Biggest Cheats in Sporting History? Staggering Story of the Healthy Spanish Basketball Team Who Pretended to Be Mentally Handicapped to Win Paralympic Gold, The Daily Mail, Oct. 14, 2013, at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2458715/Spanish-basketball-team-pretended-disabled-win-Paralympic-gold.html

[9] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[10] Craig Lord, Jessica Long on the Poison Pool in Paralympic Swimming Where ‘Classification Cheats Prosper,’ Swimming World Magazine, March 5, 2020, at https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/jessica-long-on-the-poison-pool-in-paralympic-swimming-where-classification-cheats-prosper/.

[11] Scot Spits, Misrepresenting Disability on a Par with Doping: Paralympics, Australia, Sydney Morning Herald, July 31, 2019, at https://www.smh.com.au/sport/misrepresenting-disability-on-a-par-with-doping-paralympics-australia-20190731-p52cm2.html.

[12] Chris Dutton, Paralympics Australia Launches Crackdown on Cheats, Canberra Times, May 29, 2019, at https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6188557/para-sport-launch-cheating-crackdown/#gsc.tab=0.

[13] Alex Dunham, ‘Stop Playing Well, They’ll Know You’re Not Disabled,’ The Local, Oct. 11, 2013, at https://www.thelocal.es/20131011/stop-playing-well-theyll-know-youre-not-disabled.

[14] Alex Dunham, ‘Stop Playing Well, They’ll Know You’re Not Disabled,’ The Local, Oct. 11, 2013, at https://www.thelocal.es/20131011/stop-playing-well-theyll-know-youre-not-disabled.

[15] James Moore, The Paralympics Cheating Scandal Proves that British Para-sport is a Victim of Its Own Success, The Independent, Oct. 31, 2017, at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/paralympics-cheating-scandal-british-athletes-success-disabilities-classification-a8029866.html.

[16] BBC, Paralympics: Olympic Implications, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/sport/aspects/paralympics.shtml.

[17] Paul Grant, ‘I’m Handing Back My Medal’: Is Paralympic Sport Classification Fit for Purpose?, BBC.com, Sept. 18, 2017, at https://www.bbc.com/sport/disability-sport/41253174.

[18] James Moore, Why is Anyone Shocked that Paralympians Have Been Accused of Cheating?, The Independent, Sept. 23, 2017, at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/paralympics-para-athletes-doping-cheating-classification-paralympians-a7962796.html.

[19] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

Major League Baseball (MLB) fosters an extremely competitive environment.  Tens of millions of dollars in salary (and endorsements) can hang in the balance, depending on whether a player performs well or poorly.  Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars of value are at stake for the owners as teams vie for World Series glory.  Plus, fans, players and owners just want their team to win. And everyone hates to lose!

It is no surprise, then, that the history of big-time baseball is dotted with cheating scandals ranging from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”), to Gaylord Perry’s spitter, to the corked bats of Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa, to the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Now, the Houston Astros have joined this inglorious list.

Catchers signal to pitchers which type of pitch to throw, typically by holding down a certain number of fingers on their non-gloved hand between their legs as they crouch behind the plate.  It is typically not as simple as just one finger for a fastball and two for a curve, but not a lot more complicated than that.

In September 2016, an Astros intern named Derek Vigoa gave a PowerPoint presentation to general manager Jeff Luhnow that featured an Excel-based application that was programmed with an algorithm. The algorithm was designed to (and could) decode the pitching signs that opposing teams’ catchers flashed to their pitchers. The Astros called it “Codebreaker.”  One Astros employee referred to the sign-stealing system that evolved as the “dark arts.”[1]

MLB rules allowed a runner standing on second base to steal signs and relay them to the batter, but the MLB rules strictly forbade using electronic means to decipher signs.  The Astros’ “Codebreaker” blatantly violated these rules.

According to Wall Street Journal writer Jared Diamond:

The way Codebreaker worked was simple:  Somebody would watch an in-game live feed and log the catcher’s signals into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown.  With that information, Codebreaker determined how the signs corresponded with different pitches.  Once decided, that information would be communicated through intermediaries to a baserunner, who would relay them to the hitter.

Starting around June 2017, the system was embellished by Astros players.  They started watching a live game feed on a monitor near the dugout and then would bang on a trash can to communicate the coming pitch to the batter.  The “banging scheme” lasted through the 2017 World Series, which the Astros won over the Los Angeles Dodgers.[2]

This all occurred despite the fact that late in the 2017 season, MLB caught the Boston Red Sox relaying signs from their video room to an Apple watch worn by a trainer sitting in the dugout. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Red Sox and issued a strong warning to all teams against illegal electronic sign-stealing.[3]

However, the Astros’ scheme lasted into the 2018 season in away games as well as home games, despite the fact that other teams were very suspicious that the Astros were stealing signs. Other teams often changed their own signs several times a game in an attempt to thwart the Astros suspected sign stealing.  An executive for an opposing team was quoted as saying “The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their asses off for three or four years.  Everybody knew it.”[4]  Indeed, many teams had complained to MLB’s executives about the Astros’ cheating. Some suspect the cheating continued through the 2019 season although others think not, and MLB found no convincing evidence of it.[5]

Sign-stealing might not seem like it would give a big advantage.  After all, even if a batter knows that a certain pitch is coming, he still has to hit it.  And it is not easy hitting a 100-mph fastball or a major league-caliber slider, even if you know it’s coming.  Nonetheless, the advantage is substantial.  According to the Washington Nationals’ pitching coach Paul Menhart, “It’s the worst feeling in the world stepping on that mound and having an idea that the hitter knows what’s coming.  It’s one of the most unnerving feelings.  You feel helpless.  You just get ticked off to the point where you lose total focus and confidence.”[6]  The Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series over the favored Astros. They won, at least in part, by assuming that the Astros would be attempting to steal their signs, and putting into place elaborate countermeasures, including multiple sets of signs for each pitcher.[7]

There is no question that many of the Astros players were actively involved in the scheme.  The Astros manager, AJ Hinch, clearly knew about it.  There is substantial, though perhaps not airtight evidence, that General Manager (GM) Rob Luhnhow also knew of the scheme.  Carlos Beltran, a Hall-of-Fame caliber player near the end of his 20-year playing career was a leader in the scheme.  And bench coach Alex Cora was a primary instigator.  Owner Jim Crane appears not to have known of the dark arts being practiced by his club.[8]

The scandal became public on November 12, 2019, when former Astros’ pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle in an interview published in “The Athletic.”[9] Although some current MLB players praised Fiers for coming forward about the scandal, other players criticized him for violating baseball’s presumed “code of silence,” also called the “clubhouse code.”[10]  MLB then launched an investigation that granted the Astros players immunity in return for their fessing up. Commissioner Rob Manfred soon issued a nine-page report that found that most of the Astros players knew of the scheme and many participated in it. The report said that manager Hinch knew of the scheme and that GM Luhnow should have prevented it.[11]  Commissioner Manfred suspended both Hinch and Luhnow, who were quickly fired by Astros’ owner Crane.  MLB fined the Astros $5 million, and stripped the club of its first- and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.[12]

There was other fall-out, too.  Beltran, who had just been hired as manager of the New York Mets, was fired.  Cora, who had subsequently become the manager of the Boston Red Sox, was also fired.  In late April 2020, Manfred found that the Red Sox had done some illicit sign-stealing in the 2018 season. Surprisingly, though, he concluded that manager Cora and most of the Red Sox players did not know about it. Manfred imposed a modest punishment on the Red Sox organization in the form of a lost draft pick. But again, none of the players who participated in the scheme were penalized.[13]

Manfred’s decision not to punish players was harshly criticized by many. He claimed that granting immunity in exchange for information was the best way to quickly discover the truth. This approach was praised by some,[14] but other observers were unconvinced.[15] He also argued that it was difficult to determine how much advantage the cheating scandal had given the Astros. However, many major league players – including the game’s best player, Mike Trout – suggested that they would love to know what pitch was coming.[16] Manfred also claimed that with so many players involved to different degrees, it would be difficult to apportion blame appropriately. Additionally, MLB had stated in its 2017 warning about sign-stealing that it would hold management responsible for violations.[17]

Some suggested that Manfred was simply trying to minimize damage to MLB’s image. The game got a black eye from the PED scandal, which is brought back into the spotlight every year as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and others are refused entry to the baseball Hall of Fame by sportswriters who insist on punishing their cheating in ways that MLB never did. And Astros players such as Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Justin Verlander will probably have a better chance to enter the Hall of Fame than if they had been suspended for cheating.[18]

The damage done by the Astros is significant.  Former major leaguer Doug Glanville said the Astros’ “selfish act makes everyone question the validity of the future and the truth of the past,” concluding that MLB now faces an “existential crisis.”[19]  Veteran catcher Stephen Vogt said, “The integrity of our game is what we have, and now that’s been broken.”[20]

The impact on the Astros and its players, beyond a new manager and general manager, is as yet unknown.  The Astros worry that opposing pitchers will feel some degree of freedom to throw at Astros hitters.  A former major league pitcher, Mike Bolsinger, sued the Astros. He claimed that a particularly bad outing he had was caused by the Astros’ cheating, and that it effectively ended his MLB career.[21]  The effect of their cheating ways can be seen in non-professional baseball, too, with some little leagues banning the use of “Astros” as a team name.[22] Regardless of league level, gaming the system to advantage one’s own team is not the kind of play that, in the long run, makes for good sport.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Astros began using the “Dark Arts”?

[See videos on the self-serving bias (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias) and framing. (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing)]

  1. Shortly before the Astros began their sign-stealing scheme, the team’s database was hacked by Chris Correa, the rival St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director. He was later sentenced to 46 months in prison.[23]
    1. How might this transgression by Correa have helped motivate the Astros’ decision to cheat?
    2. Could it have given the Astros a rationalization for their own cheating? What do you think that rationalization would be?

[See video on rationalizations. (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/rationalizations)]

  1. How much responsibility would you place on the players? On the manager?  On the general manager?  On the owner? Explain your reasoning.
  2. One writer asked: “Given an open road, a sports car and the assurance no law enforcement would be present, how fast would you drive?”[24] He then noted the relative lack of enforcement by MLB, despite widespread rumors and complaints about the Astros’ (and perhaps some other clubs’) illegal sign-stealing. Would more surveillance, of the type MLB used in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs when watchdogs were placed in baseball clubhouses during the games, have made a difference? Why or why not?
  3. Although some MLB players applauded Mike Fiers for coming forward about the scandal, others criticized him for violating baseball’s supposed “code of silence.”[25]
    1. Is that code common in professions or organizations other than MLB (and the Mafia)? Support your answer with examples.
    2. Is it part of the problem? Why or why not?
    3. How might it be reformed or even ended?

[See videos on the conformity bias https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/conformity-bias and In-group/outgroup. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group]

  1. In 2017 “The Athletic” reported that small groups of Astros players expressed misgivings about the cheating. One player approached Carlos Beltran, who was a ring-leader in the scheme and a 20-year veteran with a Hall of Fame-caliber career behind him. Beltran “disregarded [the appeal] and steamrolled everybody.”  “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re going to do this.’  What do you do?”[26] What does this revelation tell us about obedience to authority? [See videos on obedience to authority.  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority; https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/obedience-to-authority]
  2. On the other hand, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said: “We didn’t feel scared of Beltran; we didn’t feel intimidated. He was the nicest guy we could ever have. He was the best teammate we could ever have.  Beltran was obviously a leader of the clubhouse, but we all had a say in everything we were doing in there.”[27]  How does this affect your conclusions on the previous question?
  3. In a press conference, Astros’ owner Jim Crane said: “Our players should not be punished for these actions. These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.”[28]  It does appear that GM Luhnhow did know generally of the scheme, that field manager Hinch definitely knew about it (and did not like it) but did little or nothing to stop it, and that bench coach Alex Cora and team elder Carlos Beltran were active leaders of the scheme.  Does that absolve the other players? Why or why not?
  4. Former Astro J.D. Davis later explained: “I was a rookie, and I was going up and down the system, and I was fighting for my life. … As a 24-year-old at the time, I was pretty star-struck at the time being around some of the veteran guys and being around the big-league clubhouse and everything. I had never been part of a major-league clubhouse.  Maybe what they did was the norm, I have no idea.  I had never been in another big-league clubhouse.”[29]  Does this sound like the conformity bias in action, or just another excuse? Explain your reasoning.
  5. There were clearly Astros players who were uncomfortable with the cheating. Why didn’t they speak out?  What about the Astros players, other than Fiers, who left the club knowing of the scheme, but never reported it?  Why didn’t they speak out?

[See videos on moral muteness  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-muteness and the Giving Voice to Values video series. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/series/giving-voice-to-values]

  1. It is perfectly legal to watch the opposing teams’ pitcher and catcher with the naked eye, even when you’re a runner standing on second base with a primo view of the catchers’ signals. And it’s legal to try to detect those signals and send them to your teammate in the batter’s box in an attempt to give him an edge.  Is the use of electronic means to do the detecting so close to the traditional means that it doesn’t seem so bad? Explain.
    1. How might this line of reasoning be influences by the slippery slope?

[See videos on incrementalism. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/incrementalism]

  1. Why didn’t MLB punish the players who were involved?
    1. Should the players have been punished as well as the manager and general manager? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think the managers were allowed to keep their share of the World Series prize money ($400,000 each)? Is this fair? Why or why not?
  1. Did Rob Manfred take a deontological or a utilitarian approach to investigating and punishing the Astros? Was it the best approach? Explain your reasoning.

[See videos on deontology https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/deontology and utilitarianism. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/utilitarianism]

  1. In the wake of the scandal, Pete Rose – who is one of the best players in history and was banned from the game because he gambled on baseball – asked for reinstatement.[30] Does the failure to punish the Astros’ players provide grounds for mercy toward Rose? Why or why not?
  2. Commissioner Manfred refused to strip the Astros of their championship, saying: “Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don’t know how you decide where you stop.”[31] Do you think the Astros should be stripped of their championship? Explain your reasoning.

Bibliography

[1] Jared Diamond, ‘Dark Arts’ and ‘Codebreaker’: The Origins of the Houston Astros Cheating Scheme, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 2020, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/houston-astros-cheating-scheme-dark-arts-codebreaker-11581112994.

[2] Id.

[3] Tom Verducci, Why MLB Issued Historic Punishment to Astros for Sign Stealing, Sports Illustrated, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/01/13/houston-astros-cheating-punishment.

[4] Barry Svrluga & Dave Sheinin, The World Just Learned of the Astros’ Cheating. Inside Baseball, It was an Open Secret, Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2020, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/mlb/astros-cheating-open-secret/2020/02/11/1830154c-4c41-11ea-9b5c-eac5b16dafaa_story.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7]  Nick Moykin, Nationals Reportedly Knew of Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal During the World Series, WUSA, Feb. 12, 2020, at https://www.wusa9.com/article/sports/nationals-knew-astros-were-stealing-signs-during-world-series/65-b3ae89ef-58c3-4374-be49-ee591c38384c.

[8] Rob Manfred, Statement of the Commissioner, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2020/1/13/21064270/mlb-commissioner-rob-manfreds-full-statement-on-the-houston-astros-sign-stealing-investigation.

[9] Ken Rosenthal & Evan Drellich, The Astros Stole Signs Electronically in 2017—Part of a Much Broader Issue for Major League Baseball, The Athletic, Nov. 12, 2019, at https://theathletic.com/1363451/2019/11/12/the-astros-stole-signs-electronically-in-2017-part-of-a-much-broader-issue-for-major-league-baseball/.

[10] Susan Slusser, A’s Mike Fiers Says He’s Received Death Threats, Plans to Keep Astros Ring, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 20, 2020, at https://www.sfchronicle.com/athletics/article/A-s-Mike-Fiers-I-ve-dealt-with-death-15071066.php.

[11] Manfred, supra note 8.

[12] Erik Boland, “Yankees Won’t Be Returning to the Scene of Astros’ Crime,” Newsday, May 14, 2020, at https://www.newsday.com/sports/baseball/yankees/astros-yankees-sign-stealing-scandal-minute-maid-park-1.44641481.

[13] Boston Herald Staff, “Calling Foul over MLB Report on Sox Sign-stealing Scandal,” Boston Herald, April 26, 2020, at https://www.bostonherald.com/2020/04/26/calling-foul-over-mlb-report-on-sox-sign-stealing-scandal/.

[14] Thomas Fox, The Astros Cheating Scandal and Compliance—Part 5: The Whistleblower and the Amnesty, Thomas Fox’s FCPA Compliance & Ethics Updates, Jan. 21, 2020, at https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-astros-cheating-scandal-and-55519/.

[15] Christopher L. Gasper, Players Should Be Punished Too in Baseball’s Sign-Stealing Scandal, MSN.com, Jan. 18, 2020, at https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/mlb/players-should-be-punished-too-in-baseball-s-sign-stealing-scandal/ar-BBZ4tCM?fbclid=IwAR0znzAliQdUxJAbpO7v6wMlvL3txqWK6cwIpvmYGSWt3laBhA9hQ-1zI5A.

[16] Allen Kim, Angles Star Mike Trout Rips MLB for Astros Cheating Scandal, Said He ‘Lost Respect’ for Players, CNN, Feb. 17, 2020, at https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/17/us/houston-astros-mike-trout-spt-trnd/index.html.

[17] Dalton Johnson, Rob Manfred Explains Why He Didn’t Strip Astros’ World Series, Punish Players, NBC Sports, Feb. 16, 2020, at https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/athletics/rob-manfred-explains-why-he-didnt-strip-astros-world-series-punish-players.

[18] Howard Bryant, “Why the Houston Astros’ Cheating Scandal Could Be Worse for MLB than the Steroid Era,” ESPN, Mar. 8, 2020, at https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28841940/why-houston-astros-cheating-scandal-worse-mlb-steroid-era.

[19] Doug Glanville, Baseball’s Existential Crisis, New York Times, Jan. 21, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/opinion/the-astros-cheating.html.

[20] Tyler Kepner, The Rise and Sudden Fall of the Houston Astros, New York Times, Jan. 18, 2010, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/sports/houston-astros-cheating.html.

[21] Nancy Armour, Pitcher Mike Bolsinger Says Cheating Houston Astros Changed Course of His Career, USA Today, Feb. 10, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2020/02/10/mike-bolsinger-sues-houston-astros-says-cheating-changed-his-career/4712164002/.

[22] Tim Daniels, California Little Leagues Ban Astros as Team Name After Cheating Scandal, Bleacherreport, Feb. 15, 2020, at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2876498-california-little-leagues-ban-astros-as-team-name-after-cheating-scandal.

[23] Adam Wells, Chris Correa Sentenced to 46 Months for Hacking Astros’ Computer System, Bleacherreport.com, July 18, 2016, at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2652751-chris-correa-sentenced-to-46-months-for-hacking-astros-computer-system.

[24] Gene Laques, Injured Parties, Defiant Execs and a Tainted Title: Houston Astros’ Sign-stealing Scandal Checks All the Boxes, USA Today, Jan. 15, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/gabe-lacques/2020/01/15/houston-astros-cheating-scandal-mlb/4465982002/.

[25] Susan Slusser, A’s Mike Fiers Says He’s Received Death Threats, Plans to Keep Astros Ring, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 20, 2020, at https://www.sfchronicle.com/athletics/article/A-s-Mike-Fiers-I-ve-dealt-with-death-15071066.php.

[26] Rosenthal & Drellich, supra note __.

[27] James Crabtree-Hannigan, Carlos Correa Denies Astros Were Intimidated by Carlos Beltran, Sporting News, Feb. 13, 2020, at https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/carlos-correa-denies-astros-were-intimidated-by-carlos-beltran/1qids459hddeo1k53f8nabl8z6.

[28] Scott Davis, The Astros Said Their Cheating Scheme ‘Didn’t Impact the Game’ and Players Shouldn’t Be Held Accountable in a Cringeworthy Press Conference, Business Insider, Feb. 13, 2020, at https://www.businessinsider.com/jim-crane-astros-cheating-didnt-impact-game-press-conference-2020-2.

[29] Bob Nightengale, Former Astros Outfielders J.D. Davis, Jake Marisnick Apologize for Their Roles in the Sign-stealing Scandal, USA Today, Feb. 14, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2020/02/14/former-astros-outfielder-jd-davis-ashamed-sign-stealing/4759911002/.

[30] Randy Miller, Pete Rose Feels Astros’ Cheating Worse Than His Bets, Questions Players Getting Off ‘Scot-free, NJ.com, https://www.nj.com/yankees/2020/01/pete-rose-feels-astros-cheating-worse-than-gambling-questions-players-getting-off-scot-free.html.

[31] John Perrotto, Rob Manfred Won’t Tolerate Retaliation Against Houston Astros, Feb. 17, 2020, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnperrotto/2020/02/17/rob-manfred-wont-tolerate-retaliation-against-houston-astros/#10a4a13f3b67.

Head Injuries & American Football

American football is a rough and dangerous game. “Football is both notorious and cherished for its unapologetic, brute-force violence.”[1] Players suffer bruises, lacerations, torn muscles, dislocated shoulders, torn knee ligaments, broken bones, internal organ damage, and, occasionally, even paralysis. Football rules intentionally create high speed collisions between human beings, making such injuries inevitable and the sport controversial. And new knowledge about brain injuries have caused many people to call football immoral[2] and to advocate its abolition.[3]

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.”[4] A concussion is a form of TBI where the blow causes the brain to move rapidly back and forth, bouncing around in the skull and suffering various types of structural damage. [5] Although concussions can carry serious consequences, they are termed a “mild” form of TBI because they are not typically life threatening. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is “brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.”[6] Repetitive head impacts (RHIs) can cumulatively lead to CTE and early death, even though no single RHI results in a concussion.[7]

If only one thing is clear about the current science surrounding sports-related concussions (SRCs) and related brain injuries, it is that very little is clear about the current science. The field is surprisingly new.  As told in the movies, a significant scientific breakthrough occurred in 2002 when an African-American neuropathologist in Pittsburgh named Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith in the 2015 movie “Concussion”) performed an autopsy on Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. Dr. Omalu identified abnormal clumps of the protein tau in Webster’s brain, which he believed to be evidence of CTE.[8] Such proteins develop in tangles that slowly strangle neurons and, consequently, inhibit brain function.[9]

Many recent studies point to how dangerous football is to players’ long-term brain health. These studies are broken down by football league level:

National Football League (NFL):

  • Over two regular seasons (2012-2014), NFL players sustained 4,384 injuries, including 301 concussions. This statistic is up 61% from 2002-2007, perhaps reflecting an improvement of awareness and reporting.[10]
  • In a study of 14,000 NFL players, researchers found that even head impacts insufficient to cause concussions can mount up over the years, leading to CTE and premature death. An NFL player who plays 24 games increases the likelihood of premature death by 16%.[11]
  • A 2019 study of the brains of 223 football players with CTE and 43 players without CTE found that for each additional 2.6 years of play, the risk of developing CTE doubled.[12]
  • Another study found that greater RHI exposure correlated with higher levels of plasma t-tau (a biomarker for CTE) in symptomatic former NFL players as compared to the study’s control group.[13]
  • Of 111 NFL players whose brains were donated for one study, 110 were diagnosed with CTE.[14]
  • A 2012 study of 3,439 NFL players with five years or more in the NFL found that their neurogenerative mortality was three times that of the general U.S. population, and four times higher for two subcategories: Alzheimer’s disease, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS).[15]
  • Other studies found that NFL players who suffered concussions were more likely to later be diagnosed with depression, [16] dementia-related syndromes,[17] Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS),[18] and erectile dysfunction.[19]

 

College & High School:

  • A study of former high school and college football players found that RHI exposure predicted later-life apathy, depression, executive dysfunction, and cognitive impairment.[20]
  • After a single season, college football players had less midbrain white matter than they had started with.[21]
  • High school athletes are reluctant to report concussions.[22]
  • A 2017 study found CTE in 21% of donated brains of deceased high school football players.[23]
  • Over time more evidence has indicated that even mild concussions suffered by high school football players can cause serious consequences.[24]
  • Football causes more concussions than any other high school sport,[25] and these concussions can cause death.[26]

 

Youth Leagues (Under 14):

  • Youth football players average 240 head impacts per season. Some of these are high impacts comparable to those experienced in high school and college games.[27]
  • Children between the ages of 9 and 14 make up the largest cohort of football players in the U.S. They can suffer concussions from milder collisions than would be required to concuss a collegiate or professional player.[28]
  • According to research by neuroscientists, “There seems to be greater consequences if you’re getting your head hit when the brain is rapidly developing [below age 12].”[29]
  • A study of former NFL players found that those who began playing football before age 12 tended to show greater later-life cognitive impairments as compared to those who began after age 12.[30]

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY

Given the results of the studies above, it is not surprising that there has been a strong outcry against football. However, the science in this area is truly not settled. Part of the reason is that “[m]ost of the time when a player has a concussion, standard medical imaging techniques do not show damage.”[31] No “gold standard” for diagnosing concussions currently exists.[32] Many researchers in the area recently published an article saying:

Contrary to common perception, the clinical syndrome of CTE has not yet been fully defined. Its prevalence is unknown, and the neuropathological diagnostic criteria are no more than preliminary. We have an incomplete understanding of the extent or distribution of pathology required to produce neurological dysfunction or to distinguish diseased from healthy tissue, with the neuropathological changes reported in apparently asymptomatic individuals.”[33]

Neuropsychologist Munro Cullum argues: “I worry the pendulum has swung too far. The reality is that we still don’t know who is most likely to suffer a concussion, who will take longer to recover, how anatomic or genetic differences influence concussions, and who may be at risk of prolonged symptoms or developing cognitive problems later in life.”[34]

Furthermore, many of the studies cited by those who would like to abolish tackle football have involved relatively small sample sizes.[35]  Other studies have involved skewed samples, including one where all the NFL players’ brains had been donated because of mental declines that the donors had suffered before their deaths.[36]

Most importantly, other studies seem to indicate that concussions may be more benign. Again, these studies are broken down by league level:

NFL

  • A 2016 study found no elevated risk of suicide in a population of players with at least five years in the league.[37]
  • Another study of 35 former NFL players over age 50 who had sustained multiple concussions during their careers found no significant association between the length of careers, the number of concussions, and their level of cognitive function later in life.[38]
  • One study found no statistically significant difference between the all-cause mortality among career NFL players and NFL replacement players who played just three games during the strike of 1987.[39]
  • A 2007 study found that retired NFL players experienced levels of depressive symptoms no worse than those of the general population.[40]

 

College & High School

  • Suicide rates among NCAA football players are the highest among all sports, but they are substantially lower than the general population age 18-22 or college students in that age range.[41]
  • A study of 3,904 Wisconsin men found no significant harmful association between playing football in high school and cognitive impairment or depression later in life.[42]
  • Reducing tackling in practices has reduced overall concussion numbers among high school players, even though the number of concussions in games has risen slightly. And concussion recurrence has been reduced, most likely by protocols guiding when it is safe to return to play.[43]
  • One expert said “It really seems right now that if your [football] practices are highly controlled and reduced as much as possible and you only play four years of high school, your [CTE] risk is probably pretty low.”[44]

 

Youth Leagues (Under 14)

  • Despite their heightened susceptibility to concussions, youth football players rarely sustain concussions because they are lighter and collide with less force than older players.[45]
  • In one study, use of newly-designed football helmets and safe tackling techniques eliminated concussions for 20 middle school aged players for an entire season.[46]

Studies such as these provide ammunition for those who defend organized football as an institution. However, many such studies were funded or carried out by the NFL, owners of NFL franchises, universities that earn millions of dollars from football, and other interested parties. Given the obvious conflict of interest, the studies have been criticized on that ground.[47] There is also evidence that the NFL sought to influence the findings of some of the research it funded. [48] In addition, evidence indicates (and is consistent with the self-serving bias) that industry funding of research often influences results.[49]

The NFL has taken other concrete steps to respond to the controversy. It paid more than $750 million to settle a civil lawsuit by former players.[50] The NFL has also changed rules to discourage helmet-to-helmet contact,[51] and has instituted protocols for safely returning concussed players to the field.[52]

On the other hand, while football helmets can prevent fractured skulls, they will likely never be able to prevent concussions.[53] Studies indicate that there are helmets that may decrease concussions,[54] but neuroscientist Julie Stamm says: “No helmet will ever be concussion-proof, because the brain still moves inside the skull. And for the same reason, a helmet alone will not prevent CTE.”[55] Furthermore, while the NFL has banned helmet-to-helmet hits, these are neither the only nor the most common cause of concussions.[56] Professor Goldberg argues that “there is little evidence that such incremental changes [e.g., in tackling techniques] have a substantial risk-reducing effect.”[57]

Some people accuse the media (and others) of hysterically overhyping the dangers of tackle football to the brain.[58] Other people believe that media discussions have impeded needed change in minimizing sports violence.[59] At the end of the day, the jury still seems to be out on the question of whether you can go to a football game or watch one on television and still feel good about yourself for supporting a sport that seems to cause irreversible traumatic brain injuries.

Discussion Questions

General Discussion Questions 

  1. Which approach do you think should be used to determine the ethicality of banning, or at least seriously reforming, football to reduce head trauma? Utilitarian? Deontological? Explain why and how using that approach might play out.
  2. If you apply Systematic Moral Analysis to the question of whether or not it is moral to continue to support and/or play football, do you get different results for different league categories and age groups? Explain. Is there a case to be made for “justified harm” in any of these leagues? Why or why not?
  3. New Yorker writer Ingfei Chen observed that Fisher-Price had been required to recall a collapsible crib that was associated with 32 infant deaths. Five million cribs had been sold. Chen noted that “there is no such thing as an acceptably risky crib,” but contrasted it with sports like football where “hazards are part of their attraction.” She asked: “How much risk is too much?”
    1. How do we answer that question? What factors go into each side of the equation?
    2. Are the answers different for NFL players, college players, high school players, and under-14 players? Discuss your reasoning.
    3. Is this an ethical issue? A policy issue? A political issue? All three? Explain.
  4. Chen also points to the uncertainties of the science, noting: “For now, these complexities make certain questions about the disease unanswerable. If subconcussive blows are the cause of C.T.E., how much impact is too much? How do the tau clumps relate to the clinical syndrome—do the lesions fully explain the mood and memory problems? (Probably not; other kinds of brain abnormalities, such as inflammation or damage to neural wiring from head injuries, may play a role.)”[60] Chen further notes that the type of decades-long study that might resolve these issues would be terribly expensive and that no such study is on the horizon.[61] In light of this continuing uncertainty, how do we decide whether (and how) to reform or even abolish football when we have lives on one side of the scales and livelihoods on the other?
    1. Do these choices remind you of the COVID-19 pandemic when governments, in deciding whether to shut down society and later when to reopen it, had to weigh lives vs. livelihoods? Why or why not?
  5. The NFL and universities, among others, urge no rash actions until there is more concrete proof of a causal link between concussions and adverse health outcomes. Others suggest that the uncertainty favors taking actions now rather than waiting until too much damage is done, as happened with tobacco.[62] Sports sociologist Matt Ventresca argues: “As sports executives and researchers issue precautionary calls for more conclusive evidence, countless athletes are exposed to repeated head impacts without the benefits of future knowledge gained from pending scientific investigations.”[63] Professor Daniel Goldberg claims that the Precautionary Principle[64] demands that we prevent youngsters from playing football even if the evidence that it will cause serious damage to their brains is not yet clearly established:[65] “[W]aiting for robust evidence of causality is historically a very poor guideline for maximizing population health.”[66] Other public health experts similarly argue that the evidence of risk is sufficiently high to meet both parts of OSHA’s test for “significant risk of material impairment of health” that justifies government intervention.[67] In the face of medical uncertainty, what is the proper approach to this debate?
    1. Where should the burden of proof lie?
    2. Which approach do you find more persuasive, and why?
    3. Do you think this an ethical issue or just a policy issue? Explain.
  6. Regarding sports concussions, President Obama stated: “We have to change a culture that says ‘you suck it up and play through a brain injury…. [Reporting a concussion] doesn’t make you weak, it means you’re strong.” On the other hand, President Trump has stated that rule changes to diminish head injuries are “ruining the game.”[68] Are politics, as well as ethics, involved in this debate? Discuss your reasoning.
  7. One scientist said: “Don’t forget there’s risk in everything we do. Riding a bicycle carries risk and not a whole lot of parents are not letting their kids ride a bike. So, we just need to kind of put it in context.”[69] Do you find this argument persuasive? Why or why not?
    1. Is your opinion altered by the fact that the scientist quoted above is the neurologist for the Michigan State University football team?
  8. Some argue against paternalism and in favor of individual choice, believing that adults (at least) should be able to choose to engage in boxing (and presumably to play football) despite its potentially adverse consequences for brain health.[70] Using John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle,[71] others argue that the individualists overlook the damage that such a choice by a football player might have on others. For example, on the people the player might later beat up in a rage caused by brain deterioration, on the burden on caregivers of caring for a dementia-ridden patient, or the sorrow a premature death might cause relatives, and the burden on society caused by high medical expenses to take care of an impaired ex-player.[72] Where do you stand on the paternalism vs. individual choice debate? Support your position with data and facts.

Discussion Questions on the NFL

  1. Many people who are in favor of abolishing football or significantly reforming the way it is played are pro-choice when it comes to abortion, minor drug use, and assisted suicide. Why, then, do you think they oppose letting adults choose freely to play football? [73] Can these contradictory positions be reconciled? Explain.
    1. How about the reverse—why do many people who believe football players should be free to decide what they do with their bodies take decidedly un-libertarian positions on issues such as abortion, marijuana legalization, and assisted suicide? Explain.
  2. Our society allows people to voluntarily choose to undertake many risky professions, including coal miners, fire jumpers, soldiers, underwater oil rig welders, and others.[74] Why, then, should NFL players not be able to do the same?
  3. Steve Almond argues that “a civilian leisure class … has created, for its own entertainment, a caste of warriors too big and strong and fast to play a child’s game without grievously injuring one another.”[75] Do you think this a moral issue? Why or why not?
    1. Relatedly, should fans of the game be ashamed of themselves? Why or why not?
  4. One suggested solution to the concussion problem is to outlaw helmets on the theory that players will be forced to reduce headfirst collisions and other trauma-causing actions.[76] Does this sound like a viable solution to you? Explain your reasoning.
    1. The co-chair of the NFL’s Health and Safety Advisory Committee has said that the committee thinks helmets are part of the culture and tradition and will not be outlawed in the foreseeable future.[77] Football’s rules have been changed frequently over the years, so why do you think this is different? Or is it?
  5. Some take the view that the NFL has acted like the tobacco industry did when it was confronted with lawsuits seeking to prove to juries that smoking caused cancer.[78] In light of very strong evidence associating football violence with brain injuries, the NFL’s goal has simply been to “manufacture doubt” and thereby delay regulation.[79] Do you think that is true? Why or why not? Do you find it to be a moral issue? Explain.
  6. African-Americans make up 12.6% of the American population but 68% of NFL rosters. Thus, they are disproportionately exposed to concussions and other injuries that arise from the game. This has led some to suggest that the NFL is a modern plantation.[80] And that concussions present not just a public health issue but also a social justice issue.[81] Are these fair criticisms? Discuss your reasoning.
    1. Do you think these critiques are counterbalanced by the fact that the riches that are often lavished upon NFL players go disproportionately to African-Americans as well? Explain.
    2. Do you think that the NFL would make more safety-related changes if white players dominated rosters? Why or why not?
  7. It has been suggested at both the NFL and collegiate level that team physicians are faced with conflicting loyalties. They have a duty to preserve the players’ health, but simultaneously feel pressure to get players back out on the field so the team can win.[82] What is your opinion?
    1. How might the self-serving bias impact team physicians’ and trainers’ judgments and actions?

Discussion Questions on High Schools & Colleges

  1. In the wake of the recent pandemic, Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy said “In my opinion, if we have to bring our players back, test them. They’re all in good shape. They’re all 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22-year-olds. They’re healthy … And people say that’s crazy. No, it’s not crazy because we need to continue and budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.”[83] One commentator cited this remark as stark evidence that “[t]he supremacy of commercial and hedonic interests over the social welfare has, unfortunately become indelibly imprinted into the ethical fiber of American culture.”[84] Do you agree? Why or why not?
    1. Do you see parallels between the debate as to whether to begin playing football again in the wake of the pandemic and the debate as to whether to abolish or reform football in light of the evidence on brain trauma? Explain.
  2. Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, argued that schools should be required to fully inform [college] players about the risks of playing football now, including information about their susceptibilities to underlying health conditions. Do you agree?[85]
    1. Is this disclosure enough? Explain.
    2. Are college (and high school) players sufficiently mature to make reasoned judgments based on such disclosures? Support your position with data and facts.
  3. Statistician Ted Tatos[86] cites the California Supreme Court in University of California v. Rosen as ruling that “[s]tudents are comparatively vulnerable and dependent on their colleges for a safe environment. Colleges have a superior ability to provide that safety with respect to activities they sponsor or facilities they control.”[87] Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? How does it impact your position on the debate about concussions in football?

Discussion Questions on Youth Leagues (Under 14)

  1. A public health professor has said that letting pre-teens play tackle football is “an abdication of moral responsibility for children’s welfare.”[88] Do you agree, or is this getting a little hysterical? Explain.
  2. Empirical research supports the notion that allowing children to engage in dangerous forms of play is key to their optimal development.[89] It helps them learn to assess risks, for example. Based on such findings, philosopher John Russell has argued that children should be allowed to play tackle football.[90] He believes in the distinctive value of physically “self-affirming” behavior which he argues is available mainly in childhood. Russell states: “Dangerous sport in its best exemplars, particularly those in which substantial bodily danger is an immediate and ever-present risk, represents an opportunity for confronting and pressing beyond certain apparent limits of personal, and indeed human, physical and psychological capacities in ways not afforded by other normally available human activities.”[91] On the other hand, Philosopher Patrick Findler argues that children may not be able to fully realize the dangers they face when playing football, and that other, less dangerous activities, can provide the benefits Russell desires.[92] Whose argument do you find more persuasive, and why?
  3. Daniel Goldberg observes that “there is also a crucial social and political question that is not simply a function of that empirical evidence base: to what risks is it acceptable to expose youths and adolescents?”[93] Is that risk level different than it would be for older players? Explain.
  4. Would you prevent kids under 14 from playing tackle football? Why or why not?

Bibliography

[1] Ingfei Chen, Exactly How Dangerous Is Football?, The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2020.

[2] Steve Almond, Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?, New York Times, Jan. 24, 2014; Pamela R. Sailors, Personal Foul: An Evaluation of the Moral Status of Football, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 42(2): 269-286 (2015).

[3] Dave Bry, American Football is Too Dangerous, and It Should Be Abolished, The Guardian (UK), Jan. 4, 2016.

[4] Center for Disease Control, at https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/index.html.

[5] Center for Disease Control, at https://www.cdc.gov/headsup/basics/concussion_whatis.html.

[6] Mayo Clinic, at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-traumatic-encephalopathy/symptoms-causes/syc-20370921.

[7] Julian E. Bailes et al., Role of Subconcussion in Repetitive Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: A Review, Journal of Neurosurgery, 119: 1235-1245 (2013); Breton M. Asken, Research Gaps and Controversies in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: A Review, JAMA Neurology 74(10): 1255-1262 (2017); Philip H. Montenigro et al., Cumulative Head Impact Exposure Predicts Later-Life Depression, Apathy, Executive Dysfunction, and Cognitive Impairment in Former High School and College Players, Journal of Neurotraumua 34(2) (2017); Ann C. McKee et al., The Neuropathology of Sport, Acta Neuropathologica, 127: 29-51 (2014).

[8] Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion (2015). See Bennet I. Omalu et al, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player, Neurosurgery, 57: 128-134 (2005);

[9] Ann McKee et al., The Neuropathology of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Brain Pathology, 25: 350-364 (2015).

[10] David W. Lawrence et al., Descriptive Epidemiology of Musculoskeletal Injuries and Concussions in the National Football League, 2021-2014, Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2015:3(5):2325967115583653.

[11] Justin Ehrlich et al., Mortality Risk Factors Among National Football League Players: An Analysis Using Player Career Data, F1000Research 2019, 8:2022. See also Ann C. McKee et al., The Spectrum of Disease in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Brain, 136(1)): 43-64 (2013)(study of donated brains of 64 athletes found “the stage of [CTE] correlated with increased duration of football play, survival after football and age at death” for 34 football players).

[12] Jesse Mez et al., Duration of American Football Play and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopothy, Annals of Neurology, 2019; DOI: 10.1002/ana.25611.

[13] Michael L. Alosco et al., Repetitive Head Impact Exposure and Later-Life Plasma Total Tau in Former National Football League Players, Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment and Disease Monitoring, 7: 33-40 (2017).

[14] Jesse Mez et al., Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encepahalopathy in Players of American Football, JAMA, 318(4): 360-370 (2017).

[15] Everett J. Lehman et al., Neurodegenerative Causes of Death Among Retired National Football League Players, Neurology, 79(19): 1970-1974 (2012).

[16] Kevin M. Guskiewicz et al., Recurrent Concussion and Risk of Depression in Retired Professional Football Players, Medicine & Science in Sports & Leisure, 39(6): 903-909 (2007).

[17] Kevin M. Guskiewicz et al., Association between Recurrent Concussion and Late-Life Cognitive Impairment in Retired Professional Football Players, Neurosurgery 57(4): 719-726 (2005).

[18] Ernest L. Abel, Football Increases the Risk for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Perceptual Motor Skills, 104(3): 1251-1254 (20007).

[19] Rachel Grashow et al., Association of Concussion Symptoms with Testosterone levels and Erectile Dysfunction in Former Professional US-Style Football Players, JAMA Neurology, 2019: DOI: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2019.2664.

[20] Philip H. Montenigro et al., Cumulative Head Impact Exposure Predicts Later-Life Depression, Apathy, Executive Dysfunction, and Cognitive Impairment in Former High School and College Players, Journal of Neurotraumua 34(2) (2017).

[21] Adnan A. Hirad, A Common Neural Signature of Brain Injury in Concussion and Subconcussion, Science Advances 5(8), Aug. 2019.

[22] Steven Senne, Student Athletes Still Reluctant to Report Concussions, Nationwide Children’s Study Finds, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 24, 2019, at https://www.dispatch.com/news/20191124/student-athletes-still-reluctant-to-report-concussions-nationwide-childrens-study-finds.

[23] Steven Senne, Student Athletes Still Reluctant to Report Concussions, Nationwide Children’s Study Finds, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 24, 2019, at https://www.dispatch.com/news/20191124/student-athletes-still-reluctant-to-report-concussions-nationwide-childrens-study-finds.

[24] Michael W. Collins et al., Adolescent Sports Concussion, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 19(2): 247-269 (2008); Mark R. Lovell et al., Recover from Mild Concussion in High School Athletes, Journal of Neurosurgery, 98(2): 296-301 (2003).

[25] Jacqueline Howard, These High School Sports Have the Highest Concussion Rates, CNN, Oct. 15, 2019, at https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/15/health/concussion-high-school-sports-study/index.html.

[26] James P. Kelly et al., Concussion in Sports: Guidelines for the Prevention of Catastrophic Outcome, JAMA, 266(20): 2867-2869 (1991).

[27] Bryan R. Cobb et al., Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football: Elementary School Ages 9-12 Years and the Effect of Practice Structure, Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 41: 2463-2473 (2013).

[28] Eamon T. Campolettano et al., Development of a Concussion Risk Function for a Youth Population Using Heal Linear and Rotational Acceleration, Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 48(1): 92 DOI: 10.1007/s10439-019-02382-2.

[29] Julie Mack, What Parents Need to Know about Football, Concussions and Head Injuries, mlive.com, Nov. 24, 2019, at https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/11/what-parents-need-to-know-about-football-and-head-injuries.html (quoting neuroscientist Julie Stamm).

[30] Julie M. Stamm et al., Age of First Exposure to Football and Later-life Cognitive Impairment in Former NFL Players, Neurology, 84(11): 1114-1120 (2015).

[31] Christie Aschwanden, Football’s Concussion Crisis is Awash with Pseudoscience, Wired.com, Oct. 2, 2019.

[32] Matt Ventresca & Mary G. McDonald, Forces of Impact: Critically Examining Sport’s “Concussion Crisis,” in Sociolcultural Examinations of Sports Concussions (Ventresca & McDonald, eds., 2019).

[33] William Stewart et al., Primum Non Nocere: A Call for Balance When Reporting on CTE, Lancet Neurology, 18:231-232 (2019).

[34] Munro Cullum, Is Football Bad for the Brain? We Know Little About the Long-term Effects of Concussions, Statnews, Sept.27, 2019.

[35] Munro Cullum, Is Football Bad for the Brain? We Know Little About the Long-term Effects of Concussions, Statnews, Sept.27, 2019.

[36] Munro Cullum, Is Football Bad for the Brain? We Know Little About the Long-term Effects of Concussions, Statnews, Sept.27, 2019.

[37] Everett J. Lehman et al., Suicide Mortality Among Retired National Football League Players Who Played 5 or More Seasons, American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(10): 2486-2491 (2016).

[38] Jesse Mez et al., Duration of American Football Play and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopothy, Annals of Neurology, 2019; DOI: 10.1002/ana.25611.

[39] Atheendar S. Venkataramani et al, Association Between Playing American Football and Long-term Mortality, JAMA, 319(8): 800-806  (2018).

[40] Thomas L. Schwenk, Depression and Pain in Retired Professional Football Players, Medicine & Science in Sports & Leisure, 39(4): 599-605 92007)(but finding that when coupled with difficult with pain, problems with sleep and social relations often followed).

[41] Ashwin L. Rao et al., Suicide in National Collegiate Athletic (NCAA) Athletes: a 9-Year Analysis of the NCAA Resolutions Database, Sports Health 7(5): 452-457 (2015).

[42] Sameer K. Deshpande et al, Association of Playing High School Football with Cognition and Mental Health Later in Life, JAMA Neurology, 74(8): 909-918 (2017).

[43] Zachary Y. Kerr et al., Concussion Incidence and Trends in 20 High School Sports, Pediatrics 144(5): e20192190.

[44] Julie Mack, What Parents Need to Know about Football, Concussions and Head Injuries, mlive.com, Nov. 24, 2019, at https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/11/what-parents-need-to-know-about-football-and-head-injuries.html (quoting neuroscientist Julie Stamm).

[45] Eamon T. Campolettano et al., Development of a Concussion Risk Function for a Youth Population Using Heal Linear and Rotational Acceleration, Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 48(1): 92 DOI: 10.1007/s10439-019-02382-2.

[46] Robert F. Heary et al., Is Youth Football Safe? An Analysis of Youth Football Head Impact Data, Neurosurgery (Jan. 2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1093/neuros/nyz563.

[47] Ingfei Chen, Exactly How Dangerous Is Football?, The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2020.

[48] Kathleen Bachynski & Daniel S. Goldberg, Time Out: NFL Conflicts of Interest with Public Health Efforts to Prevent TBI, Injury Prevention, at https://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/24/3/180.full; Ingfei Chen, Exactly How Dangerous Is Football?, The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2020; Mark Fainaru-Wada & Steve Fainaru, League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth (2013).

[49] Lisa Bero, Industry Sponsorship and Research Outcome: A Cochrane Review, JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(7): 580-581 (2013).

[50] Ken Belson, Judge Approves Deal in N.F.L. Concussion Suit, New York Times, April 22, 2015.

[51] Kevin Seifer, Did the Helmet Rule Actually Work? And How Will It Change in 2019?, ESPN, Aug. 19, 2019, at https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/27372974/did-helmet-rule-actually-work-2018-how-change-2019.

[52] Janine Armstrong, NFL Concussion Protocol Explained: How Does It Work?, Sportcasting, Oct. 13, 2019, at https://www.sportscasting.com/nfl-concussion-protocol-explained-how-does-it-work/.

[53] Christie Aschwanden, Football’s Concussion Crisis Is Awash with Pseudoscience, Wired.com, Oct. 2, 2019.

[54] Marc Siegel, Concussions and Football: New Helmets, New Tools, The Hill, Aug. 19, 2019.

[55] Julie Mack, What Parents Need to Know about Football, Concussions and Head Injuries, mlive.com, Nov. 24, 2019, at https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/11/what-parents-need-to-know-about-football-and-head-injuries.html (quoting neuroscientist Julie Stamm).

[56] Christie Aschwanden, Football’s Concussion Crisis Is Awash with Pseudoscience, Wired.com, Oct. 2, 2019 (quoting brain scientists Adnan Hirad).

57 Daniel Goldberg, What Does the Precautionary Principle Demand of Us? Ethics, Population Health Policy, and Sports-Related TBI, in Sociolcultural Examinations of Sports Concussions (Matt Ventresca & Mary McDonald eds, 2020).

[58] Daniel Engber, Concussion Lies, Slate, Dec. 21, 2015, at https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/the-truth-about-will-smiths-concussion-and-bennet-omalu.html; Kevin Lomangino, Journalists Drop the Ball on Big Concussion/CTE Story, HEALTHNEWSREVIEW.ORG, Jan. 19, 2018, at https://www.healthnewsreview.org/2018/01/sports-desks-drop-the-ball-on-big-concussion-story/;

[59] Matt Ventresca, The Curious Case of CTE: Mediating Materialities of Traumatic Brain Injury, Communication & Sport, 7(2): 135-156 (2019).

[60] Ingfei Chen, Exactly How Dangerous Is Football?, The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2020.

[61] Ingfei Chen, Exactly How Dangerous Is Football?, The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2020.

[62] Matt Ventresca, The Curious Case of CTE: Mediating Materialities of Traumatic Brain Injury, Communication & Sport, 7(2): 135-156 (2019).

[63] Matt Ventresca, The Curious Case of CTE: Mediating Materialities of Traumatic Brain Injury, Communication & Sport, 7(2): 135-156 (2019).

[64] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

[65] Daniel Goldberg, What Does the Precautionary Principle Demand of Us? Ethics, Population Health Policy, and Sports-Related TBI, in Sociolcultural Examinations of Sports Concussions (Matt Ventresca & Mary McDonald eds, 2020).

[66] Daniel Goldberg, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, the National Football League, and the Manufacture of Doubt: An Ethical, Legal, and Historical Analysis, Journal of Legal Medicine, 34: 157-191 (2013).

[67] Adam M. Finkel & Kevin F. Bieniek, How Public Helath Science Evaluates Evidence, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal, 25(3): 564-589 (2019).

[68] Bill Pennington, Trump Says N.F.L. Is Getting Soft. Players Hit Back, New York Times, Sept. 26, 2017.

[69] Julie Mack, What Parents Need to Know about Football, Concusions and Head Injuries, mlive.com, Nov. 24, 2019, at https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/11/what-parents-need-to-know-about-football-and-head-injuries.html (quoting neurologist David Kaufman).

[70] Nicholas Dixon, Boxing, Paternalism, and Legal Moralism, Social Theory and Practice, 27(2): 323-344 (2001).

[71] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harm_principle.

[72] Daniel Goldberg, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, the National Football League, and the Manufacture of Doubt: An Ethical, Legal, and Historical Analysis, Journal of Legal Medicine, 34: 157-191 (2013). Pamela R. Sailors, Personal Foul: An Evaluation of the Moral Status of Football, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 42(2): 269-286 (2015).

[73] Dave Bry, American Football is Too Dangerous, and It Should Be Abolished, The Guardian (UK), Jan. 4, 2016. Bry’s answer is that it’s not the players who are immoral, it is the fans who are comparable to Romans sitting in the Colosseum watching lions devour Christians.

[74] Dave Bry, American Football is Too Dangerous, and It Should Be Abolished, The Guardian (UK), Jan. 4, 2016. Bry’s answer is that only the football players are being paid to do this “for our entertainment.”

[75] Steve Almond, Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?, New York Times, Jan. 24, 2014.

[76] Dave Bry, American Football is Too Dangerous, and It Should Be Abolished, The Guardian (UK), Jan. 4, 2016. Bry believes that this will never happen.

[77] Dave Bry, American Football is Too Dangerous, and It Should Be Abolished, The Guardian (UK), Jan. 4, 2016 (quoting CBS News quoting, in turn, Dr. John York).

[78] David Gee, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on science Threatens Your Health, Journal of Public Health Policy, 29(4): 474-479 (2008)

[79] Peter Benson, Big Football: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Culture and Color of Injury in America’s Most Popular Sport, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(4): 307-334 (2017); Daniel Goldberg, What Does the Precautionary Principle Demand of Us? Ethics, Population Health Policy, and Sports-Related TBI, in Sociolcultural Examinations of Sports Concussions (Matt Ventresca & Mary McDonald eds, 2020); Alan Schwarz et al., N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry, New York Times, March 24, 2016.

[80] Anthony E. Prior, The Slave Side of Sunday (2006).

[81] Peter Benson, Big Football: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Culture and Color of Injury in America’s Most Popular Sport, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(4): 307-334 (2017). Alan Schwarz et al., N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry, New York Times, March 24, 2016.

[82] Stephen S. Hanson, ‘He Didn’t Want to Let His Team Down’: The Challenge of Dual Loyalty for Team Physicians, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 45(3): 215-227 (2018).

[83] Des Bieler, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy Says His Team Needs to Play for Benefit of State Economy,” Washington Post, April 7, 2020, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/04/07/oklahoma-states-mike-gundy-says-his-team-needs-play-benefit-state-economy/. See also Michael Cunningham, Player Safety Takes Back Seat as NCAA Rushes to Allow Campus Workouts, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 22, 2020.

[84] Ted Tatos, Playing Games with College Athletes’ Lives, The American Prospect, May 20, 2020.

[85] Michael Cunningham, Player Safety Takes Back Seat as NCAA Rushes to Allow Campus Workouts, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 22, 2020 (quoting Huma).

[86] Ted Tatos, Playing Games with College Athletes’ Lives, The American Prospect, May 20, 2020.

[87] 4 Cal. 5th 607 (2018).

[88] Kathleen Bachynski, Youth Football is a Moral Abdication, The Atlantic, Feb. 1, 2020.

[89] Mariana Brussoni et al., Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 9:3134-3148 (2012).

[90] J.S. Russell, Children and Dangerous Sport and Recreation, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 34: 176-193 (2007).

[91] J.S. Russell, The Value of Dangerous Sport, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 32: 1-19 (2005).

[92] Patrick Findler, Should Kids Play (American) Football?, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 42(3): 443-462 (2015).

[93] Daniel Goldberg, What Does the Precautionary Principle Demand of Us? Ethics, Population Health Policy, and Sports-Related TBI, in Sociolcultural Examinations of Sports Concussions (Matt Ventresca & Mary McDonald eds, 2020). Daniel Goldberg, What Does the Precautionary Principle Demand of Us? Ethics, Population Health Policy, and Sports-Related TBI, in Sociolcultural Examinations of Sports Concussions (Matt Ventresca & Mary McDonald eds, 2020).

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias causes us to see things in ways that support our best interests and our pre-existing points of view. The self-serving bias can affect our judgments and decisions in a number of ways. For example, the way we judge the actions of others may not consider the situational factors affecting others’ decisions. Or, we may “frame” a political issue in a particular way that fits our own interests or point of view.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Fundamental Attribution Error and Framing. For a closer look at how self-serving bias affected the behavior of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, watch In It to Win: Jack & Self-serving Bias.

The case study on this page, “A Million Little Pieces,” explores the role of the self-serving bias in the controversy caused by author James Frey’s popular memoir after it was revealed to contain numerous fabrications. For a case study that illustrates the self-serving bias in radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s assessment of drug abuse in the United States, read “Limbaugh on Drug Addiction.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: framing, fundamental attribution error, and self-serving bias.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Hastork, Albert H., and Hadley Cantril. 1954. “They Saw a Game: A Case Study.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49 (1): 129-134.

Koehler, Jonathan J. 1993. “The Influence of Prior Beliefs on Scientific Judgments of Evidence.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 56 (1): 28-55.

Pronin, Emily, and Kathleen Schmidt. 2013. “Claims and Denials of Bias and Their Implications for Policy.” In The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy, edited by Eldar Shafir, 195-216. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?”

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“Psychological pressures, especially ones we are not conscious of, often make it difficult for us to be as good as we would like to be. One of the most significant is the self-serving bias — the tendency we have to gather information, process information, and even remember information in such a manner as to advance our self-interest and support our pre-existing views. Because of this bias, even when people try their hardest to be fair and impartial, their judgments are inevitably shaded by their own self-interest, often in ways that seem indefensible to others.

The pleasure centers in our brains light up when we are told that our beliefs are correct or that a conclusion that advances our self-interest is accurate. Therefore it is not surprising that people with conservative political beliefs are more likely to watch Fox News while liberals are more likely to watch MSNBC.

Not only does the self-serving bias affect the information that we seek out, it also affects how we process that information. Thus, supporters of competing political candidates who watch the same debate each tend to conclude that “their guy” won.

The self-serving bias even affects how we remember information. Studies show that we are more likely to recall evidence that supports our point of view than evidence that opposes it.

Because of the self-serving bias, studies show that when scientists review articles, they will tend to conclude that those supporting their pre-existing point of view are of higher quality than those opposing their point of view.

An accountant industry official testified before the SEC, saying, “We are professionals that follow our code of ethics and practice by the highest moral standards. We would never be influenced by our own personal financial well-being.” This testimony reflected an embarrassing ignorance of the impact of self-interest upon all humans’ decision-making.

Inevitably, our self-interest clouds our ethical judgement, even in the most well-intentioned people. The more subjective the judgement, the less certain the facts; and the more that is at stake, the more influential the self-serving bias is likely to be. Don’t make the same mistake! Guard against the self-serving bias!”

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