Capitol Commentary: The deflation of ethics

By Fred Benson

What Patriots fan will ever forget the “bouncing ball” pass reception that seemed to seal the fate of their team in Super Bowl 49 or the exquisite interception that turned the tide in the last few seconds of the game? But when the celebration dies down, there will remain a question of underinflated footballs that could seriously mar the reputations of Patriot’s Coach Bill Belichick and/or his star quarterback, Tom Brady.

The NFL jury on this matter is still out, but the situation raises serious ethical questions.

Recent history is replete with examples of men – yes, usually men – in positions of great power and influence in all segments of our society who have ravaged their reputations by engaging in unethical activity for professional or financial gain, personal gratification or to hide misguided decisions from public view. These actions run the gamut from outright criminal activity to the much more common practice of pushing the edge of ethical behavior. They usually start with something very minor, which when successful, plants the seed for more aggressive departures from good judgment and leads to the eventual hard fall.

These human failures arise largely when what constitutes an ethical action is not well defined and is seen as something that is frequently practiced by others. Even when an organization has developed clear ethical expectations for its employees, a wink by the boss can send a very different message. Those who wander off their ethical path are not necessarily bad people; rather, they lose their moral compass, often giving in to temptation along the way.

Many studies have analyzed the behavior of subjects placed in a situation where they can benefit by cheating if there’s no way for them to be caught. One such study created two groups: one a “high-power” cohort, the other composed of those without leadership experience. Participants were asked to participate in a game of dice in which the final tally of the dice determined the number of prizes each person would win. The result: “People in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20 percent above that expected by random chance. The non-leadership group reported only slightly elevated dice results.”

What this and other experiments suggested was that although most leaders know right from wrong, their positions of power make it easier for them to justify ethical diversions. One study concluded, “When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped, and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?”

Whenever a shocking departure from ethical behavior by a president, a priest, a CEO, a politician or a sports figure appears in the media, most Americans wonder why the offending leader would risk their career, their family life and a permanent sullying of their reputation for what often appears to be a repugnant purpose. Did they really believe they were above the law, and is this how they got where they are?

Back to the Patriots. Both Coach Belichick and Tom Brady have denied any involvement in or awareness of the deflation of the game balls during the playoff with the Colts. That is not good enough. One of the very strong elements of leadership in our military forces is that the commander of any unit is responsible for whatever does or does not happen in that organization.

It is a good rule that should apply to all organizations, public and private. If a leader does not establish, demand adherence to, and personally practice the highest possible ethical standards, it is absolutely assured that serious lapses will occur. If it turns out that someone in the Patriot’s organization did in fact intentionally deflate those balls, the buck stops with the coach.

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.

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