Principles

I am sure you have heard it many times: “It’s a matter of principle.” It’s what we say to justify a course of action that may run counter to the courses others would have us run. Often (very often?) it’s a phrase that thinly disguises the rationalization we make to support a position we take simply because we want to take it.

Consider the following:

You are the coach of a NCAA Division I football team and your conference has decided to postpone the football season because of the Carona Virus out of a concern for the players’ health. You are a coach and you make a living coaching collegiate (semi-professional) football players — many of whom want to make the pros at some point. So you tell the press that you have met with the president of the university and you and your players feel “it is a matter of principle” that your team be allowed to play the games. What you really mean is that you and your players want to play the games. But you say it is a matter of principle because it sounds more impressive. Or something.

A principle is a moral precept that we evoke to help us support difficult decisions that we are called upon to make from time to time. For example, the principle may be something like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “harming another living being is wrong.”  These can be said to be out duties, morally speaking. Usually, but not always, the word “wrong” or “right” appears in the principle somewhere. If, for example, I insist that I tell the secret police that the supposed criminal is hiding in my closet because “it is wrong to lie” I am evoking a moral precept. In this case it may conflict with another precept, “it is wrong to harm another person” — given that we know the secret police will not treat the supposed criminal kindly.  But there is a principle (often more than one) involved. In fact, conflicting principles are what make ethics such a confounding arena of thought.

In the case of the football team there is no moral precept whatever. Unless we maintain that is is wrong to deny the players an opportunity to play football — which is doubtful since they are presumably students at a university where education is what matters most (right!).  Thus when the coach says it is a matter or principle that the players be allowed to play he is fabricating things. What he means, of course, is that he and his players want to play and they are being denied that opportunity by the conference they play in.

Rationalization is commonplace. We conjure up a bogus argument — or a “moral precept” which we may even make up — and use that to shore up a weak argument to persuade others that what we want to do is the right thing to do.

But, as George Eliot has reminded us, duties are not chosen. They choose us. And the right thing to do is almost always a matter of duty and as such frequently (always?) conflicts with what we want to do — unless we are saints. So, in this case, the supposed moral precept that it is wrong to deny football players the opportunity to play the game they love is a weak attempt to persuade others (and ourselves, perhaps?) that what we want to do is the right thing to do. It is our duty.

Fiddlesticks! It is simply what we want to do and that’s the end to it. It is certainly not a matter or principle.

Huh?

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.