Distinctions

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once told us that the way to begin any philosophical discussion is to first “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” I gather what he meant is that we must begin discussions with definitions to make sure we know what we are talking about. If we debate, for example, who is the greatest athlete to ever perform on the public stage we must  start with some sort of stipulation as to just what “greatness” means. Otherwise we are much like the fly in the milk bottle: we beat our heads against an unforgiving surface.

This reasoning allows us to solve the age-old question of whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound. That depends on what we mean but “sound.” If we mean vibrations in the air, simply, then surely it makes a sound. If we mean vibrations heard by at least one person then, obviously, it made no sound.

But I have always found that making distinctions is also extremely helpful in showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle. For example is the distinction between WANT and NEED. I have made mention of this in previous posts and it remains a focal point in my thinking about so may complex issues — as in the case of what students need as opposed to what they want.

Take, for example, the current discussion over whether or not collegians should or should not play football this Fall. This is what is known as a “hot” topic and everyone and his dog has an opinion.

In a recent informal poll on a sports show I learned that nearly twice as many people say”yes” to the question as say “no.” The vast majority want to play or to watch football this Fall. Additionally, a football player at Ohio State has initiated a petition among football players nationwide and has nearly a quarter of a million “yes” votes that show clearly that a great many football players in this country want to play football this Fall. Even the President of the United States, who cannot keep his fingers still, has plunged in and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

Seriously? A tragedy. Let’s define our terms! I jest, of course, but the word does seem a bit overworked, to say the least. If the absence of football this Fall is a tragedy then what do we call the death of a grandmother whose young son brings back the Covid-19 virus after football practice, infects her, and she dies? Surely there are tragedies and there are simply unfortunate or even sad circumstances: things we don’t like.

For a great many Americans what they like or want amounts to what they need (in their minds). As a people we are not very good at denying  ourselves what we want. Calling those things “needs” makes us feel better about our choices, I suppose. The petitions and the polls show us clearly that many people want to play (or watch) football. But do the polls and the petitions show us anything about what the people need as far as football is concerned? Surely not.

It might be argued that a great many people genuinely need to play or watch football for their own psychical well-being — as a release of pent-up frustration, perhaps. But it is a game, after all, and the one thing we know for certain is that given the circumstances these days, it is a game that courts danger: it is risky, at the very least. We know nothing about the long-term consequences of infection from this virus. There are indications that there might be as many as one hundred possible side-effects, some of them very serious. And the wise choice in this case is to err on the side of caution. In general that might serve as a viable general rule, one would think.

But in the end, we do not really need football. We (or many of us) want it. And that is something entirely different.

 

Meyer’s Culpability

I was recently discussing the case of Urban Meyer over drinks in the local Pub with a former student and close friend (who happens to be an attorney). You may recall that Meyer, the head football coach at Ohio State University, was reprimanded (if you can call it that) for failing to intervene in the case of domestic violence involving one of his assistant coaches. I maintain that Meyer should have been more severely punished, even fired, rather than given a mere three-game suspension without pay. As a millionaire football coach, the loss of pay will amount to a pittance. It is, as they say, a mere slap on the wrist.

In any event, my friend maintains that Meyer cannot be held legally responsible for the actions of his assistant coach given that the abuse in question happened away from the football facility, presumably in the confines of the assistant coach’s own home. I wasn’t sure how to respond, and I was surely not going to debate legal questions with an attorney (!) But it seems to me that the issue is a moral one and perhaps even a legal one — if Ohio has a Good Samaritan law. I am thinking of the 1964 Kew Gardens case involving Kitty Genovese when she was stabbed to death in the streets of New York in the hearing — and even in view– of (reportedly) thirty-eight witnesses who simply chose not to become involved. I believe New York subsequently introduced the Good Samaritan law to make it unlawful for anyone to witness a crime and not report it.

As I say, I do not know if Ohio has such a law. But the moral perspective is quite clear and goes back at least to the medieval period when the Schoolmen talked about the “sin of omission.” The claim was that one sins when failing to do the right thing — just as one sins when committing a wrongful act (the sin of commission). Thus, if Meyer was aware of the fact that his assistant coach was beating his wife — and presumably he had been aware since 2015 — then he had a moral responsibility to report the act if not to more actively intervene on behalf of the man’s wife. This is not only a matter of moral responsibility, it is simply a matter of common sense.

In any case, if I am walking down the street and see a man beating a woman  or someone leaving a toddler in a car with the windows closed when the temperature is near 100 degrees I am morally bound to try to intervene. I may not have the courage, because I don’t want to get beat up myself, but I still have an obligation and if I fail to act I have done something wrong. If I am in New York I have even broken a law. Ohio may not have such a law, as I say, but the moral issue is still very clear.

Urban Meyer not only failed to act, of course, but he later lied about his knowledge of what his assistant was doing and, from all reports, even wiped his phone clean of text messages for the past year — an act that suggests that he knew he was culpable in one way or another. So there are clear grounds for punishment, certainly more severe punishment than a mere three-game suspension.

What do you think?

Appropriate Punishment?

The saga of the scandal at Ohio State University involving the head football coach seems to have reached its predictable climax. You may recall that Urban Meyer, the head football coach, was suspended on August 1st when it was disclosed that he had failed to reprimand one of his favorite assistants who had been accused of domestic abuse years before and was eventually fired — but only after the matter had become public knowledge. The coach’s job, apparently, was to deal with the inappropriate behavior of one of his coaches in a timely manner and he failed to do so. The assistant coach in question — Zach Smith, one of Meyer’s favorites by all reports — had been guilty of domestic abuse and his wife had appealed to Meyer and his wife to intervene and protect her against her own husband. Meyer’s response was to do nothing except lie to the media about his knowledge of the affair and erase all of his text messages for the past year from his mobile phone.

The debate on television has been going on for several weeks now about the possible outcome of the discussions going on by a special committee set up to look into the allegations and to make recommendations about how to deal with the problem moving ahead. Speculation was that Meyer would be fired as he was ultimately responsible for the actions of his assistants, especially in the climate of college athletics where various forms of abuse seem to be a matter of course. But the decision, finally handed down, was a three game suspension without pay. The football program will not suffer and Buckeye fans breathed a sigh of relief. I heard it all the way out here in Minnesota where Ohio State has very few supporters.

The issue is one I have blogged about (endlessly some might say) involving corruption in collegiate athletics, especially at the Division I level. There have been cases of child abuse, cheating on a grand scale, rape, and now domestic abuse. All of these seem to flare up and then quietly disappear, swept under the rug for the most part, and things go back to semi-professional sports as usual. At the Division I level of the NCAA where college athletics rules, education takes a back seat. (I wanted to say it sucks hind teat, though that seems a bit vulgar. But appropriate, somehow.)

In the end we must conclude that these scandals are merely grist for the mill as far as the news media are concerned, something for the talking heads to discuss with worried expressions while committees are formed and high-paid officials meet to discuss what punishment might be appropriate. With rare exceptions, the punishment seems little more than a slap on the wrist. One wag, in commenting on Meyer’s punishment expressed his surprise that Meyer wasn’t merely suspended for half of the Spring practice game! Indeed, others have said that they knew Meyer would be slapped on the wrist and that the Ohio State University would not jeopardize its football program in this case. Such is our cynicism in these days of semi-professional sports in the palaces and country clubs that now comprise the athletics facilities in the larger universities. Let’s not rock the boat; its bringing in the dough!

Football and basketball at the Division I level do indeed bring millions of dollars into the coffers of the universities that make winning a habit. And that’s the bottom line: it’s all about profits. So while education as a whole has become a business it should not surprise us that sports at the most prestigious universities around the country would regard the preservation athletic teams as a top priority. After all, money is what it’s really all about.

The moral questions are hidden behind the rhetoric that nearly always comes out of the committee meetings where “punishment” is determined. The fact that a man who heads up a massive football program in a major university in effect supported his assistant in his determined effort to abuse his wife, and later lied about it, is ignored because the central question is how to make the whole thing go away. We have become, as a nation, unwilling or unable to face up to the hard moral issues that confront us daily because we think morality is a matter of choice, simply, a gossamer fiction of mere opinion not to be taken seriously. The possibility that those moral issues we choose to treat so lightly — or ignore completely — are the warp and woof of a civilized nation has somehow been lost in the shuffle.

In the meantime, millionaire Urban Meyer will enjoy his unpaid holiday for a few weeks and then get back to work — if, indeed he isn’t working the entire time behind the scenes. And Ohio State University will return to normal, concentrating its massive efforts on guaranteeing that its football team makes the collegiate playoffs at the end of the year because there is a great deal at stake. A great deal of money.