Monday, December 28, 2009

A lesson in shame from the Indianapolis Colts

Ethics in sports means trying your best to win while behaving with integrity. Sometimes winning and integrity are at odds, and people have to choose. They can choose honorably, as tennis player Andy Roddick famously did in the 2005 Rome Masters tournament when he corrected an umpire’s wrong call to his own disadvantage and it wound up costing him the match. Or they can choose dishonorably, as gymnast Paul Hamm did in the 2004 Olympics when he kept a gold medal that had been awarded to him on a scorer’s error.
Coach Jim Caldwell chose dishonorably yesterday when he chose to keep his best players healthy as the playoffs approached. His Indianapolis Colts were two wins away from an undefeated 16-0 season, playing a game that was meaningless for them (they already had clinched top seed in the playoffs), but that meant a great deal to their opponents, the New York Jets, who were battling seven other teams for the last two playoff berths in the American Football Conference. It also—presumably—meant something to the Colts’ fans who shelled out big money to see them play.
Caldwell pulled his starters early in the second half, leading 15-10. He replaced all-pro quarterback Peyton Manning with Curtis Painter, a rookie who had never played a down in the NFL. Painter promptly fumbled in his own end zone, handing a touchdown to the Jets, who went on to win, 29-15.
The Colts are now 14-1, their fans are disappointed, and the Jets have an unearned edge in the race for the last playoff spot.
Sport is said to teach us about character. Yesterday it taught us about shame.


Anonymous said...

Ethical or not, the only people who really have a complaint are those who paid good money to sit in the stadium and watch the drek that passed for football. I'm a Jets fan but they would have gotten slaughtered yesterday if Manning stayed in the game.

Jack Marshall said...

This is a great issue, Bob---thanks for writing it up. The question is , what is the coach's duty: to maximize the chances of his team winning the Superbowl, which means not risking key players in a meaningless game, or to protect the integrity of the play-offs, by playing hard to make other teams earn their slots? I think it's an unwinnable dilemma, dependent on moral luck. If the Colts played Manning, won the game but lost him for the play-offs with an injury, I think the Colts fans would be screaming.

Bob said...

Ah, screaming fans...they don't make ethical decisionmaking any easier. I agree that it's a dilemma, and the answer isn't always clear. But in this case, where the game meant everything to the Jets and to seven other teams, integrity required the coach to try to win.

Anonymous said...

Great article Bob. To the other Anonymous dude, the score was 15-10 when he was removed. Hardly a blowout.

Glenn Logan said...


I have struggled with this one, but my tendency is to agree with you.

The integrity of the game of football is what is at issue here, and I think it is arguable that the Indianapolis coach decided that integrity would not be so compromised if he did what he did.

It's an argument, and it is a moral dilemma. Jack says it's unwinnable, and that argument certainly has merit.

But I think the ethical virtue of courage is operative here, and what Indianapolis did lacked courage. Injuries are always a part of the game, and it would not have been irresponsible of the Colts to try to show a little courage and win it.

History remembers the brave. They will forget this team, no matter how many they win from here on out. No fortitude.

Bob said...

Jack Marshall posted an excellent and thorough analysis of this issue on his lively--and most often correct--website. While I don't agree with all he writes, he makes a lot of sense and causes me to rethink. Read his analysis at