July 2005 "Easy Calls"
  • The saga of Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens has collided with ethical principles, as the flamboyant and talented NFL player is now and noisily demanding a new contract in the wake of his admittedly central role in getting the perennial underdog Eagles to the Superbowl. His problem is that he signed a 49 million dollar seven year contract before last season. Now he is making vague threats of either refusing to play or becoming a disrupting force on the team unless the Eagles tear up last year's agreement and give him a richer one. Astoundingly, many sportswriters have expressed sympathy and support for "T.O." on the specious grounds that the NFL doesn't have guaranteed contracts, and so a player "has" to pull these kinds of stunts to get any "bargaining power." That's nonsense…unethical nonsense. It is an argument that refusing to abide by the terms of a valid agreement is justifiable any time there is a disparity in power between the parties. Owens didn't have to sign last year's contract, but he did, he's committed by it, and the fact that he would have been worth a lot more money if he waited until this year to make a long-term commitment isn't the team's fault. Long-term contracts are long-term specifically because both parties trade the future opportunity to make beneficial yearly adjustments for long-term certainty. Owens' job is to play his best and not disrupt the team in exchange for his millions, just as he promised when he signed his contract. The fact that he turned out to be better than even the team or he expected (at least in 2004) is cause for a hardy, "Well done!" It is not justification for Owens to break his word.

    And one more thing: Owens has joined a long list of athletes who fall back on their family responsibilities to justify anything short of armed robbery. Terrell's quote: "I'm going to do what's best for my family." This disingenuous statement frames Owens' undermining of his own promise as a legitimate solution to an ethical conflict (his duty to keep his word against the duty of responsibility to those dependent upon him). But we're not talking about a man stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children here. This is a family that already is being supported by seven million dollars a year, courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles. The welfare of Owens' family is not at risk; he can't use that to justify unethical conduct. (7/29/2005)

  • The fact that someone has become a national celebrity does not make it any more ethical to tell their secrets and expose their personal life than if they were unknowns. Michael Baroni apparently had a mini-romance with girl-Friend Jennifer Aniston back when she was just a 15 year-old, pretty, slightly over-weight Greek girl with big dreams. Now he's auctioning off a love letter she wrote to him and several other items, including a birthday note she wrote to him on toilet paper.

    Perhaps this last is a clue that even then, Jennifer understood Baroni's true nature. The ethical thing to do with personal communications after a fling is flung is to return them, destroy them, or keep them secure for private nostalgic moments. Selling them off on e-Bay, as Baroni is doing, is not among the options. (7/26/2005)

  • The big controversy of the day seems to be that some members of the national championship Northwestern University women's lacrosse team, invited to the White House last Tuesday after a 21-0 season, chose to wear flip-flops at the event. As The Bush White House had banned jeans as "disrespectful" attire, the flip-floppers have been subjected to various levels of media condemnation. Respect is an ethical value, but discerning what constitutes respectful conduct is extremely tricky. The Golden Rule doesn't always work: the women who wore the flip-flops wouldn't have felt offended if someone wore them in their homes. Neither does precedent: some of us still wince remembering Larry King...tieless, jacketless, in jeans…interviewing President Clinton and Al Gore in the White House and ending with an off-hand "Thanks, guys!" Attire is one way in which we show respect for others, but in order to do that we have to actually know what respectful attire is. In a world with Larry King and lawyers who wear flip-flops to the theater (I've seen them!), the lacrossettes can be acquitted of bad ethics, if not bad taste. (7/19/2005)

  • The Ethics Scoreboard's designation of C-Span as an "Ethics Dunce" for insisting that historian Deborah Libstadt's arch-nemesis, a Holocaust denier, appear in a segment devoted to her book on his (unsuccessful) libel suit against her is cited with approval on Lipstadt's web site. But the Scoreboard later withdrew both its Dunce designation and its criticism once it better understood the cable station's reasons for its stance, which while debatable were neither indefensible nor unethical. Lipstadt's web site, however, doesn't mention our subsequent retraction. This may not qualify her for an Ethics Dunce award, but if it isn't an oversight (and there was persuasive evidence that Lipstadt knew about our retraction, given the amount of hate-mail it generated from her university colleagues), the omission certainly is misleading and thus unethical. (7/19/2005)

  • Talk about easy calls: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's resignation from the editorial boards of two fitness magazines was wildly over-due; hobby though it may have been to "Ah-nold," a part-time job with a profit-making venture that pays over a million dollars annually is the epitome of a conflict of interest that raises the "appearance of impropriety." But Schwarzenegger critics who claim his long-standing gigs with Flex and Muscle and Fitness were behind the Gov's 2004 veto of a bill discouraging the use of nutritional supplements (the legal ones, not illegal steroids) by high school athletes have got to be kidding. The man is a body-builder, for heaven's sake; he lived on supplements for much of his life, and he undoubtedly believes that they contributed to his success as a body-building competitor, which everyone knows served as the springboard for his even greater success as an actor, businessman and politician. Of course he thinks they shouldn't be withheld from young athletes! He'd be the biggest hypocrite in California (and thaaaat's big, my friends!) if he had signed that bill. Yes, Arnold had a conflict, but this was one decision we can be 100% certain wasn't influenced by it. (7/16/2005)
  • In the category of lawyers who give lawyers a bad name, we have Linda Harvey, who recently argued to a Massachusetts Appeals Court that her client, Thomas Budnick, should get a new trial because his original attorney was incompetent.

    Mr. Budnick had represented himself in his trial for trying to poison his friend with a nitric acid-laced bottle of beer. Because criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to defend themselves, but are always strongly urged by judges not to do so, Harvey's argument is in the same category as the apocryphal murderer of his parents who pleads for mercy because he's an orphan. Rule 3.1 of the American Bar Association's Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits intellectually dishonest arguments, and this is a doozy, especially since Budnick convinced his jury to convict him of a lesser charge. His first lawyer was better than his current one! (7/15/2005)

  • The results of a recent survey by the Business Software Alliance showing that two-thirds of college and university students surveyed see nothing unethical about downloading digital copyrighted files without paying for them simply show the power of the mind to deny the obvious when it's convenient. Sorry kids: oral sex is still sex, and stealing copyrighted files is still stealing, which is, and will always be, unethical. (7/13/2005)

  • From Selma, Indiana comes the story of the middle school principal, Alice Mehaffey, who apparently will not be disciplined or fired for performing a "sexy dance" with male students at a talent show in an act that included tearing the T-shirt of one boy and being handcuffed by another. It is true, as the AP story quoted the grandmother of a student as saying, that everyone makes mistakes. But some mistakes, in this age of student-seducing teachers, show such wretched judgement and disturbing proclivities that one is too many. Female teachers and administrators must not be presented as sex objects to students of either gender. I'm sure Ms. Mehaffey enjoyed herself; so did Mary Kay Letourneau. Whatever her motives, she crossed a line that must never be crossed, and should be sent packing, hopefully to a profession that doesn't involve contact with teenage boys. (7/13/2005)

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