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VOL. 127 | NO. 233 | Thursday, November 29, 2012

Vic Fleming

Ethics, Equity, Whatever

By Vic Fleming

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I’m a sucker for a tale about justice and ethics, even if it involves football. Issues stemming from a now-weeks-old football game between the Wyoming Cowboys and the Air Force Academy Falcons have been in the news.

The second-string Air Force quarterback scored on a five-yard run with eight minutes left in the game, giving his team a lead it would not relinquish. The starting quarterback had left the game because his helmet had apparently been knocked off. The Cowboys’ coach alleged the player faked an injury to stop the clock, allowing his team to strategize.

Later, the Wyoming coach would be quoted as saying, “In this game, we’re supposed to be ethical, and that’s not ethical. … I don’t know what they teach at Air Force, but I’m not going to teach that to my kids. I want my guys to get off the field when they’re hurt, and we don’t want to stop the game.” But after the game, he attacked the Falcons’ coach with a volley of F-bombs, including a couple not often heard: “You have no ***ing ethics!” and “Look at me, Mister ****ing Howdy Doody!” Laugh if you will. I didn’t find it humorous. As the flap became more public because of a YouTube video, Wyoming suspended its coach for a week and fined him $50,000. His return was marked by apologies and the usual statements professing personal growth from the experience, when ...

Enter a pair of Wyoming philosophy professors, Joseph Ulatowski and Jeffrey A. Lockwood, who, in an op-ed in the Casper Star-Tribune a couple of weeks ago, noted that “the incident is not easily put to rest.” There was, they write, good reason to punish the coach. His “profanity-laden outburst was offensive” and displayed “poor judgment.” However, “philosophers worry about justice … . Punishing a student for streaking at halftime and violating community standards is defensible, but allowing another student to plagiarize a term paper without consequences violates our sense of justice.”

That Wyoming waited until the video went viral to sanction the coach sends the message that an act “is wrong only when seen by others” and what made the coach’s conduct wrong was getting caught. They ask (rhetorically, I’m sure), “If a student cheats on a test and doesn’t get caught, then no wrong has been done?”

But what they really want to get at is that, although his outrage was expressed crudely and rudely, the coach had a point. If the Air Force coach told his quarterback to fake an injury, so that Air Force could be spared a timeout, that is unethical. It’s cheating. And, since the immediate aftereffect of the alleged cheating was a score that made the difference in the outcome of the game, by not looking into the matter, the Mountain West Conference sends a message: “Apparent instances of lying and cheating do not warrant investigation … , even when there is compelling evidence and harm to others.”

They’re big on messages, these teachers are. The two clearest messages that they perceive from the incident are that the Wyoming coach cannot tolerate ****ing cheaters and that Wyoming will not tolerate verbal abuse when it’s made public.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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