The Cheatin’ Knucklehead, Part 2

Well, this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard. – Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard c. 1869.

Sooner or later, every parent arrives at the place where the simplest of ethical principles, “You should always tell the truth,” begins to show a few cracks. Usually, the cracks are benign, involving Santa Claus or enthusiastic salespeople, but they begin to show, and you notice your knucklehead paying attention. Then you notice your knucklehead noticing you’re noticing, and it all starts to slide downhill from there. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to address this.

And if you’re raising your knucklehead on baseball, it’s going to be sooner. As Mr. Eliot so intuitively understood, the sport is based on deception. And still, we’re not even talking about steroids* We’re talking about the way a second baseman dekes out a baserunner, the way a catcher frames a bad pitch for the umpire. We’re talking about pitching in its entirety. The fabric of the game is made up of convincing your opponent that one thing is going to happen, and then doing another. So, that makes lying OK… right?

It does within the limits of the game, what we might call baseball’s social contract. It’s understood by everyone on the field that certain types of deception are to be expected. As long as the deception lies within those parameters, you’re ethically on solid ground. Once the deception goes beyond those parameters – say, corking a bat, or coating a ball with Vaseline – a player cannot expect to gain advantage. Not if he’s found out, anyway. The social contract, spelled out in baseball’s rules, makes that clear.

When The Knucklehead was entering middle school, we had a talk about peer pressure. Mostly it had to do with drugs, but it was also about any situation where people were trying to get him to do something he didn’t feel right doing. You can usually spot these situations by asking yourself “Why is it important to these people that I join them in what they want to do?” Often, the answer you get is not, “Because they think I’d enjoy it,” but “Because they know it’s wrong, and if I do it, too, they think that will help dilute their guilt.” I told The Knucklehead that if he felt like it would take courage to say, “No,” then he was probably being hustled.

And if you’re being hustled, you owe nothing to the hustler. You owe it to yourself to get out of that situation as quickly as possible. Someone trying to get you to break your own ethical code to make themselves feel justified has broken a social contract. They have forfeited their right to your honesty.

So I taught The Knucklehead a lie. We practiced it. I told him if anyone were trying to pressure him into doing drugs, he could tell them, “I can’t, my dad’s crazy. He’s a nurse and he doesn’t trust me so he brings drug tests home from work and makes me pee in a cup once a week. He’ll find out, and then he’ll start calling up all the other parents.”

I am a nurse, but the rest was a lie. I respect my Knucklehead’s privacy, and wouldn’t drug test him without compelling reason, and he knows that. But it was an easy and plausible way to get out of a potentially dangerous situation. I told him that I thought a lie here was OK, because when we drop our own integrity and try to coerce, we are no longer entitled to expect others to respond with ethical norms that we’ve abandoned.

It’s a risky strategy to tell you kid there are times when it’s OK to lie, but I think it’s riskier not to talk about it at all. By talking about it, you show the kid your reasoning. You can’t have a talk like that without getting down to what’s really important to you ethically, and how that works and is challenged in the real world. To not talk about necessary deception is to leave your knucklehead on her own to figure it out for herself. Or worse, to put your stamp of approval on hypocrisy.

We talked about that a lot through The Knucklehead’s up-growing. I’m a firm believer in lots of little talks as opposed to One Big Talk, so as we ate dinner, rode in the car, or played catch, we’d throw each other hypotheticals on situations that might constitute cheating, both in life and in baseball. Through the accumulation of “what ifs” over the years, the Knucklehead began to see common threads, and form his own ethical platform. All, I think, because we got into the habit of talking about it.

Did we need baseball to do that? No. Plato, Kant, and Kierkegaard all managed to muddle through without benefit of the infield fly rule. But our childrens’ avocations, be they baseball, soccer, dance, or theater, are places they go where they feel some sense of control. A child may feel much more at ease on the field, on the stage, or on paper than she feels in the classroom. To discuss ethics in terms of your child’s pleasures is to help him get a feel for thinking ethically in a venue where he’s feeling more self-assured. Where a child plays at life is where he will learn how to live his life.


*I told you in Part 1 we’d get to steroids, and we will, so pipe down.

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One Response to The Cheatin’ Knucklehead, Part 2

  1. dmchoffman says:

    There are really important ideas here, Pete. They are really well-written and they fill a need. I smell a book a-brewin’….

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