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VOL. 36 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 30, 2012

What’s worse: Breach or response?

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I’m a sucker for a tale about justice and ethics, even if it involves football.

Consider, for example, the now weeks-old football game between the University of Wyoming Cowboys and the Air Force Academy Falcons.

The second-string AF quarterback scored on a 5-yard run with eight minutes left in the game, giving his team a lead it would not relinquish. The starting QB 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 UW 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 immediately 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 and more public because of a YouTube video, UW suspended its coach for a week and fined him $50,000. His return to action was marked by multiple apologies and the usual statements professing personal growth and such from the experience, when...

Enter a pair of UW 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 UW 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 UW waited till the video went viral to sanction the coach sends the message that an act “is wrong only when seen by others,” and that what made the coach’s conduct wrong was his getting caught. They ask (rhetorically, I’m pretty 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 this: Although his outrage was expressed crudely and rudely, the UW coach had a point. If the AF coach told his QB to fake an injury so AF 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. The two clearest messages they perceive from the incident are that the UW coach cannot tolerate ****ing cheaters and that UW 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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