Quality Control?

A recent story echos a former experience with the Ford Motor Company:

The engineer said: “We’d raise our hands and be told, ‘Don’t be naysayers.’ We got strange comments. It seemed the ship had sailed. After that, if you ask questions, you’re accused of mutiny, so you put your head down and make it work. Good people tried to make it work. But you can’t violate the laws of physics. It’s a mechanical catastrophe.”

He was referring to the DPS6 dual-clutch “PowerShift” transmission used in 2 million Focus and Fiesta cars sold this decade that is the subject of massive litigation and a federal criminal fraud probe.

The case is one of flawed transmissions which Ford knew about and decided to continue to produce anyway. This case reminds me of the infamous Pinto case in which that car was known to have a sharp object that, upon impact, pierced the gas tank and in several instances incinerated the occupants. Ford was taken to court and in their defense they argued that the cost of avoiding this problem (which in an individual case was minimal, a few dollars) was prohibitive. It would require recalibrating the entire production line and necessitate lengthy delays in producing more and more cars. Ford admitted publicly that the cost of the adjustment to avoid the problem was a great deal more than the cost of a few court cases brought against the company in the name of those who had been disfigured by crashes and the inferno that followed. They opted to continue to ignore the problem. Eventually they stopped production of the Pinto, due, perhaps, to the stir that was caused when the corporate decision was brought to light by Mike Wallace on CBS.

In the world of Big Business there is always a calculation that weighs the costs against the benefits. The benefits, of course, are profits. And the costs are almost always those nagging problems that may or may not end up in headlines. Those in high places in corporations like The Ford Motor Company are very good at denial and in passing the buck. In fact, in many cases in which companies have been found neglectful it has been virtually impossible to figure out who was responsible. Who is the company after all?

In Bhopal, India years ago when a gas leak at Union Carbide India, Ltd. killed more than two thousand people, an engineer was found who should have turned a handle and he was fired. In the infamous B.F. Goodrich Brake Scandal in which an engineer, Kermit Vandiver, blew the whistle on a company that, in order to deliver the product below cost, was about to release a brake on a plane that would have failed to stop the plane when landing, Vandiver was later fired. The company was not found responsible. Again, who is the company?

Apparently the only body that has been able to answer this question is the United States Supreme Court when a few years ago in the case of “Citizens United” they determined that corporations are legal persons and are entitled to the same protections as any other citizen. Interesting, since as far as I know corporations cannot reproduce their kind or even catch a cold. But the decision of the court made it possible for corporations to open their treasure troves and pour tons of money into political races in order to determine the outcomes in their favor. Yet they are seldom, if ever, found culpable in courts of law.

In any event, the case of the Ford Motor Company is interesting because it raises once again the question whistle blowing. As the spokesperson said in the quote above, “if you ask questions, you’re accused of mutiny.” Companies want good soldiers, employees who will do what they are told, toe the line as it were. They do not want employees who can think for themselves and point out that the company is at fault and may be turning out a faulty product that may end up costing someone his or her life. Whistle blowers are almost always fired, or if protected by laws as they are in some states, they are made to feel like a pariah and given menial jobs in the hope that they will quit on their own.

On the contrary, whistle blowers ought to be lauded and rewarded by their companies since they have the best interest of the company at heart — and they also show signs of having a lively conscience which corporations — persons though they may be in the eyes of the Court — obviously lack.

Super Athletes

Now that the Baltimore Ravens have won their second Super Bowl it might be well for us to reflect on an incident that occurred the year before Baltimore won its first Super Bowl. After a night of drinking, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and a couple of his friends were involved in the death of two young men outside a bar. Lewis made a “deal” with prosecutors by providing evidence against the other two men who were involved in the knifing of the young men and he got off with a slap on the wrist. The NFL then fined him $250,000 and suspended him from football for a year. Since that time he has presented himself as a changed man, helping young people live their dream, so he says. Some might even say he has redeemed himself. I wonder: redemption involves contrition, it seems to me.

In an interview prior to this year’s Super Bowl, Lewis answered a question by Shannon Sharpe about those killings 13 years ago. Lewis’ response, as reported by Yahoo News,  was garbled and it raised more questions than it answered:

It’s simple,” Lewis said when Sharpe asked him what he would say to the families [of the two slain men].
“God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see. And if our system – it’s the sad thing about our system – if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”

Aside from the terrible grammar which we have come to expect from those college graduates who play football, this answer, as Boomer Esiason noted on a CBS pre-game show, was hardly satisfactory. Esiason was quite blunt:

“He was involved in a double murder and I’m not so sure he gave us all the answers we were looking for,” Esiason said. “He knows what went on there. He can obviously just come out and say it. He doesn’t want to say it. He paid off the families – I get all that, that’s fine. . . . I appreciate you [Sharpe] going down there and asking him that direct question. I’m not so sure I buy the answer.”

Lewis blames the “system” for failing to get to the bottom of things. That system let the two men Lewis testified against go free because of insufficient evidence and charged Lewis himself with a misdemeanor. The murder has never been solved and the parents of the two slain youths still burn with hatred and anger at Lewis for the role he played in the death of their sons, whatever that might have been. He has nothing to say to the parents of the two men, apparently.

But, once again, we hear the bromide: “God never made a mistake.” It’s not Ray’s doing, somehow, it’s God’s doing. And He wouldn’t make a “mistake.” He wouldn’t have allowed Ray Lewis to become so successful if he had done those terrible things. That’s not how things work — at least according to Lewis. And one does wonder where Ray Lewis got his theology degree and how he knows what God would or would not do. But that consideration aside, we cannot help but note that Lewis never really answers the question what happened that night outside the bar. We may never know, but we can be certain that Lewis does.

In my view, Ray Lewis is the personification of what is wrong in professional sports — and we see it in the case of a number of other famous athletes who are never asked to account for their actions. But as long as they continue to win we forgive them. We ask only that they light up the field or the golf course, not that they live exemplary lives — despite the fact that these people are the only heroes our kids will ever know. That’s the way the culture works: it places athletes on a pedestal and insists that we give them their due homage. We adulate people because of what they can do in the sports arena or how much money they earn, not what kind of people they are. Ray Lewis will undoubtedly make it into the Football Hall of Fame. He was a great player, but is not much of a man.


Rumor has it that as part of the shake-up of football conferences in this country Boise State University in Idaho will leave the Mountain West Conference to join the Big East Conference. That’s right, the Big East. It may not happen because the Mountain West Conference recently worked a deal with CBS to sweeten the pot to make staying in the conference worthwhile for those teams thinking about departing. But the very idea of Boise State joining the Big East Conference makes about as much sense as big-time football does in American Universities — which is to say no sense at all.

Assuming the university will have to charter a plane — or two — to carry the entire football team, the coaches, the band, and the cheerleaders, the cost in dollars alone raises the question: what are these people thinking? The financial rewards of making the change must be considerable, since the motivation that is driving universities around the country to leave the conferences they are in to join others is clearly money. And to paraphrase Lord Acton: money corrupts and lots of money corrupts a lot.

The University of Maryland has been chastised recently for choosing to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference to join the Big Ten, which will consist of fourteen schools soon. (That makes sense, no?) Maryland will pay millions of dollars in penalties for leaving their current conference at a time when they are crying poor and cutting “non-revenue” sports, but the rewards from joining the Big Ten which has its own television network are considerable. In addition, the Big Ten frequently sends as many as six or seven teams to bowl games every year which bring in the big bucks, and those bucks are shared among the member universities. So it is all about money.

But, assuming it ever happens, the cost of a school like Boise State flying to the East Coast and back six or seven times a year to play football cannot be reduced to dollars and cents: it’s about the cost to the environment as well. On average, jet planes burn 45-50 gallons of jet fuel per minute while in flight — and we won’t talk about take-off, landing, and time on the runway. The flying time from Boise, Idaho to, say, Boston is just over 4 hours, which means one plane would burn up about 12,000 gallons of fuel in flight (one way). As a referenced article in Wikipedia tells us: “The contribution of civil aircraft-in-flight to global CO2 emissions has been estimated at around 2% However, in the case of high-altitude airliners which frequently fly near or in the stratosphere, non-CO2 altitude-sensitive effects may increase the total impact on anthropogenic (human-made) climate change significantly.”   In a word, those flights will cost us all in the end.

One would think that this should be a consideration in the minds of university officials whose main job is presumably to educate young minds. But, of course, that isn’t their job. It’s all about money. Not climate change, Not education. Money. Athletics at the NCAA Division I level is Big Business.

I have vented before a number of times in my blogs and even written an essay or two about the “tail that wags the dog” — to wit, Division I athletics. The tail has grown longer. It is no longer possible to pretend that athletics at that level has anything whatever to do with education — or even about setting a good example. I confess I do love to watch college football just as I like to watch anyone do anything they happen to be good at. But I am not foolish enough to think that Division I football has anything to do with education about which I care deeply. So my suggestion has been to pay the athletes money to play football and let the ones who want to get an education do so. They can pay for it just as the other students do. The football teams at Division I schools would be, in effect, semi-professional sports teams wearing school colors. It would be more honest and we wouldn’t have to pretend that things are not what they are.

But it wouldn’t keep greedy idiots from planning to join a conference 3000 miles away in order to make more money. That problem may be insoluble.