Joseph Ulatowski and Jeffrey A. Lockwood from the University of Wyoming penned a piece commenting on the suspension of UW football head coach Dave Christensen:
Conduct Unbecoming: Cowboy Ethics and Falcon Morality
Joseph Ulatowski? and Jeffrey A. Lockwood*
This week, Wyoming football coach Dave Christensen finished his suspension and apologetically re-entered civil society. Although he seems genuinely contrite and would like to put his behavior following the Air Force Academy game behind him, the incident is not easily put to rest. In this regard, one might not expect a couple of philosophy professors whose combined salaries are about a-tenth that of Christensen’s to come to his defense, but philosophy makes strange bedfellows. To begin, let’s make it clear that Christensen’s profanity-laden outburst was offensive. His lambasting of the opposing coach suggests poor judgment with regard to his approach to communicating his displeasure. So there were good reasons for his punishment.
But philosophers worry about justice which we take to be a matter of treating people fairly (or in philosophy-speak, we seek to treat equals equally and unequals unequally). Punishing a student for streaking at half-time and violating community standards is defensible, but allowing another student to plagiarize a term paper without consequences violates our sense of justice (which is not to say that the exhibitionist is innocent, but the moral system that allows the plagiarist to avoid punishment is flawed). Suspending and fining Christensen was the right thing to do, but does the larger context reflect justice? What about the rest of this story?
The UW Athletic Director Tom Burman said that the reputation of the university and concern for the “right message” to the players justified the coach’s punishment. UW President Tom Buchanan endorsed Burman’s decision, adding that Christensen’s “action does not reflect the values and the integrity” of UW athletic programs. Just what are the messages that have been conveyed to the public and the players?
To begin, the delay of punishment until the coach’s actions became public via youtube.com would seem to say: An action is wrong only when seen by others. This suggests that the wrong-making element of Christensen’s outburst was getting caught. Is this the message the university wants to send? If a student cheats on a test and doesn’t get caught, then no wrong has been done?
More importantly, Christensen was expressing profound moral outrage over what he took to be an act of cheating on the part of the AFA when their quarterback evidently faked an injury to gain an unfair advantage in the game. The UW coach believed that the player’s reprehensible act of deception was in response to coach Troy Calhoun’s directions. From what we can tell, Christensen’s interpretation of these events was entirely reasonable. Calhoun asserted that his quarterback had been “dinged in the head”. But the player returned to the game a few minutes later, suggesting that the injury was a ploy to stop the clock and allow AFA time to strategize.
Cheating in this way should entail grave ethical concern (as Christensen attempted to express to Calhoun, albeit without much diplomacy or grace). Not only did it arguably allow the AFA to win the game, but a college player’s collapse is a heartrending event. Other players, the coaching staffs and thousands of spectators surely believed at the moment that something potentially awful had happened to the young man. And to evoke such empathy under false pretense is morally reprehensible.
So, what are the messages that have been sent to impressionable young minds and the larger public? It would appear that for Christensen, etiquette and self-restraint are less important than ethical discernment and moral outrage. In terms of what this says about his program, the message is rather clear: “I cannot tolerate cheaters” (or “I cannot f—— tolerate f—— cheaters”). For the University administration, the message appears to be: “We do not countenance verbal abuse–at least when it’s made public.”
And for the MWC and AFA the message would be more troublesome. The impression one gets from the MWC would be: “Apparent instances of lying and cheating do not warrant investigation or punishment, even when there is compelling evidence and harm to others.” For the AFA the message seems to be: “We’ll do anything to beat a presumptively lesser opponent.” The lack of an investigation by the Academy makes one wonder about their lofty claim: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” Ironically, it seems that when UW played the AFA on Military Appreciation Day, Christensen took the honor code more seriously than did Troy Calhoun.
In terms of reputation, we prefer leaders who have a keen sense of moral outrage and a dull sense of social grace to those who have a keen sense of etiquette and a dull sense of ethical judgment. Of course, we’d really prefer a coach who does not countenance cheating, who expresses himself eloquently and who can do so while earning a reasonable salary and winning games. But at least these two philosophers understand that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.
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?Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Wyoming
* Professor of Natural Science and Humanities, Departments of Philosophy and MFA Program in Creative Writing, University of Wyoming