The Sins of Utley

Okay. Let’s get down to cases.

Even if you’re trying not to follow baseball this time of year, it would be hard to have missed this one. In Game 2 of the NLDS,* Chase Utley of the Dodgers took a hard slide into second base, upending Ruben Tejada who had hopes of starting a double play. When Tejada came down, he came down hard, and left the field with a fractured right fibula; that’s a broken leg, to you and me.** Utley was eventually suspended by Major League Baseball for two games for the play (not coincidentally, the two games he would have played in New York). You can see the play here. Sports fans, ever on the verge of apoplexy to begin with, needed little to push them into indignation on the internets, and this was just the thing. (As if the play wasn’t complicated enough, neither of the players involved appeared to have touched second base upon review, but that’s something we’ll leave for another day.)

All of the outrage on the media outlets, and the impassioned commentary by the fans, boiled down to essentially one point: Was Chase Utley’s slide a dirty play?

Now, I have my own answer to that, which I’ll get to at the end of this essay. But what fascinated me about the whole situation, particularly in the media and fan reaction, was that we were all arguing ethics the way we usually argue strategy. And that’s a great thing, but the quality of the argument was disappointing. What we saw wasn’t reasoned discourse, but a “yell to win” strategy. Now that makes great television, and can be entertaining when watching a sports program. But when we unloose this on our children, without adult perspective, we get a generation that doesn’t know how to get to the bottom of a difficult question. We get to a place where every argument has a winner and a loser, and the winner is not an idea, or truth, or insight into a problem. The winner is a person, and it’s usually the person who used the best “arguing tricks” or talked the loudest or longest.

If you don’t think that’s a problem, I suggest you take a look at the way we discuss current affairs in this country. And it’s not just “we the people” who have this problem; you need look no further than the last Republican debates to see where this gets us.

This is especially important for children because they need to learn the difference between arguing to win and arguing to gain deeper understanding. Now there’s a place for “arguing to win” and sports is a great arena for that. Sports, movies, pop culture – anything you might argue in a bar for example, would constitute arguing to win. You’re not really concerned with finding common ground with the person against whom you’re arguing. In fact, that person may not even be your primary audience; it may actually be the other people in the room, or at the bar, or in the comments section of the blog you’re responding to. You’re there to show off. You’re there so your opponent, and anyone else can see how clever you are.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. In the right context, it’s fun. Many’s the evening or road trip The Knucklehead and I have passed in arguing “Who’s the greatest leadoff hitter of all time?” Or, “Who would win in a fight, Indiana Jones or Han Solo?” (See Bar Talk and The Knucklehead if you want to know how valuable I think this can be.)

But the tactics and goals of arguing to win are completely different than in arguing for understanding, and it’s crucial that children learn the difference at home. When you and your kid are making your case for your favorite Disney movie, the argument is the fun. But if you’re discussing bedtime, or household chores, or whether to get a dog, it’s a whole different ballgame. That’s when you need to listen to each other, and, most importantly, each person needs to feel like they’ve been heard. The goal isn’t winning your side. It’s coming to an understanding together about expectations for a shared life.

That seems obvious to us, as adults. But if it does, it’s because it’s been made clear to us somewhere along the way. If you want your kid to understand the difference, you should really talk to her about it. The Utley Situation isn’t a bad place to begin.

Go online together, and hit the discussion threads. Don’t try to take a side, not at first, just look at how people are making their arguments. There’s a lot to be learned from this.

Start with the premise: what are we actually arguing here? In this case, the question most often seems to be: Was Utley’s play clean or dirty? It’s easy to get pulled off the argument (a common tactic, actually), so it’s not a bad idea to keep this in mind. But before you even look at the arguments, you need to ask yourself something crucial:

Is this a yes/no question?

You’d be surprised how often in sports, life, politics, we’re trying to shoehorn reality into an either/or proposition, and life is resistant to that. It’s a lot easier to think in those terms, but give your knucklehead permission not to get bullied into that. I don’t think Utley’s play can be parsed so easily, and people who insist it can be are selling something I don’t want to buy. If you read the arguments without watching the play for yourself, you might think Utley either nudged Tejada and tipped his hat with a “dreadfully sorry, old boy,” or went at him with a jailhouse shiv and a potato gun and had to be pulled off Tejada by stadium security. Your knucklehead should learn to be able to recognize the hyperbole such polarity encourages, and dismiss what doesn’t fit the facts.

The next thing to notice is how the opinions line up to team loyalties. It’s no surprise that Dodgers fans looked a lot more kindly on Utley than their New York counterparts, but that’s got to be counted out of an argument for understanding. It’s easy to see in other people, but it takes some introspection to recognize it in yourself. Make sure you’re being honest with at least yourself. You can’t let the outcome you want influence your decision making. That’s tough, it really is, but your knucklehead should learn that loyalty to team shouldn’t trump loyalty to the game, or to sportsmanship. Someone with a horse in the race shouldn’t be disqualified from comment, but they shouldn’t be given a pass on objectivity, either.

Bad arguments and red herrings ran through both sides of the issue, and your knucklehead should be able to recognize these for what they are. For example, arguments on the Evil Utley side:

  • Utley broke Tejada’s leg! That was the result of the play, but it’s not something Utley could have foreseen. Had Tejada not added the unexpected spin move to his defense, he’d likely have come away uninjured. None of that addresses Utley’s intent.
  • It was the dirtiest play I’ve ever seen in baseball! Then you haven’t watched much baseball. Stick to this particular play: what, in Utley’s behavior, made this play a dirty one?
  • Utley knew he was out and was deliberately trying to break up the double play. That’s almost certainly true, but well within not just the rules but the ethics of the sport.
  • Dodgers suck! You kind of have to cede a grudging respect for someone throwing in the towel so directly in an argument. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out to children (and some adults) that this doesn’t actually constitute a rational argument.
  • You suck! This person has officially run out of brain cells.

And on the Saint Utley side:

  • Tejada shouldn’t have turned his back on Utley; that was bad baseball. Maybe, but Tejada’s actions are separate from Utley’s. The question is whether or not Utley behaved appropriately.
  • Utley had know way of knowing Tejada would break his leg on the play. True, but we’re not arguing result. We’re arguing intent.
  • Utley’s done this before and was never punished; he’s only being punished now because it’s the playoffs. That’s a better argument, but still gets off topic. You’re now arguing about Baseball’s response to Utley without arguing whether he should have done it in the first place. Does getting away with it make it right?
  • Major League Baseball is hypocritical; it only suspended him because they were worried about their own reputation. You’re preaching to the choir here, but it’s still off the point of whether Utley acted badly. MLB will always act in the interest of protecting revenue. That’s a separate question, which has nothing to do with Utley’s moral guilt or innocence.
  • Utley did nothing wrong. He was playing old-school competitive baseball. Ah, now we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter. And here’s the discussion you need to have with your knucklehead the day she begins to play competitive sports:

Do we have a different set of rules for how we treat other people in sports than we do in everyday life?

It’s not an academic question. In every sport, aggression and competition are assets to be praised. When we watch sports on television, we yell, we get emotional, and our children are watching and learning from our reactions. We can say all the right things when we send them off to play T-ball about having fun and playing fair, but kids are sharp enough to realize that higher up the food chain, the priorities are quite different. Winning and losing matters at the professional level. Treating others the way you would want to be treated is outright ludicrous. Is that the way it should be?

Now, relax. If you know me, you know that I’m fairly damning of our worship of sports. I’d love to see the ethics of everyday life applied to sport. But I’m not here to nag. I understand that my opinion is in the minority, and I get that there’s a “gladiator” ethos to sport that serves as a safety valve for the aggression we’re not allowed to exhibit in daily life. I get it, and I don’t think people are evil or wrong-headed for disagreeing with me on this point.

But if you do feel this way, it’s important that you’re honest about it. First, and crucially, with yourself. Acknowledge that sports is in its own special place, ethically. A friend of mine, an ordained minister and an intentionally ethical man once told me, “everything I believe about the Gospels and loving each other and Christian community goes right out the window when the Eagles are on.” Fair enough. Now talk with your knucklehead about it.

Let her know before she takes the field that there’s a level of aggression that’s admirable on the playing field that doesn’t have a place in the classroom or on the playground. Let her know that there’s a line between clean aggression and foul play that keeps moving, that gets all mixed up with emotions, but that you need to always try to keep on the right side of. It’s a line that will be harder to find with coaches, teammates, and parents screaming from the sidelines, so she’ll need to always be looking for it even when others have forgotten.

How do you find that balance, especially when you can’t even define it yourself? You do it by watching sports with your knucklehead and talking about it all the time. If I asked you, “what’s the line between clean play and dirty play in football?” you wouldn’t have an answer any more than I would. But if I pointed to a specific play, you’d probably have an opinion. Share that opinion with your knucklehead. Let her know what you think. Ask what she thinks. It’s through repetition that our values become clear to ourselves and to others. Next time you’re watching a game with your kid and you see a hard tackle, let her know what you think. Don’t give her an either/or. Give her, “that was questionable.” “I think that was clean, but….” “That was bad.” Then tell her why. Be as specific as you can, but let her know what you were thinking to lead you to your conclusion.

Saying this stuff out loud, you may surprise yourself. You may find yourself clarifying things you’d never considered before. But your kid will benefit enormously from this. Because if you don’t say these things to your knucklehead intentionally, you’re leaving it to her to guess. And if all she has to go by is your outbursts at the TV screen, she’s not going to be picking up what’s really going on in your head. She’ll be learning, alright. Just maybe not what you want to teach her.

Talk about what you watch together. Talk about what went on in her own games that you attend. Sometimes the view from the stands can be quite different from what’s perceived on the field. Ask her what it was like to play the opposition. Were they playing the type of game she wanted to play, or something different?

And if you have a different set of behavioral expectations on and off the filed, tell her that. Don’t leave it to chance – be obtuse . “Look, you know this is soccer, right? This isn’t the kind of aggression the kids in chemistry class have signed on for. You get that, right?” Sometimes it’s the most obvious things that kids need us to say.

For what it’s worth, on a scale of 1 to 10, where one is “Francis of Assisi” and ten is “Genghis Khan”, I give Chase Utley a 6.5 on his takeout slide. I have no doubt that Utley had no intention of injuring Tejada when he went in, and I believe he was surprised and felt bad at the result. But I also believe that when he slid, he deliberately turned a blind eye to the real possibility of injury to his opponent. That’s awfully close to intent, even if we don’t want to admit it. And I don’t believe he’s to be condemned or absolved because the play happened so quickly. What we call “instinct” in sport isn’t really instinct at all; it’s the compressed reaction of thousands of repetitions of practiced behavior. Utley had made up his mind years ago what kind of player he was going to be whether he did it intentionally or not, and he spent his career practicing plays that reinforced that. Utley didn’t have to think about going in hard because he’d already made that decision a long time ago. Last week, he was simply ready for it.

I don’t like what Utley did, because I don’t like to see people treating others carelessly, no matter what the context. If you’re going to tell me you disagree because you think the ethics of baseball are an exception, OK, I respect that.

Lets just both make sure that our kids know the difference.


*That’s National League Division Series for the uninitiated; there are actually two 5-game series each year involving the winning teams from each of baseball’s three National League divisions, plus the winner of a playoff game between the two remaining teams with the best win/loss record. The winners of each NLDS meet in the National League Championship Series, a 7-game series to determine who represents the National League in the World Series. The same thing goes on in the American League to determine who they send to World Series.

**Well, you maybe. I’m a nurse, after all, so I’m supposed to know better.

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3 Responses to The Sins of Utley

  1. And there you go again! When is an essay about baseball NOT an essay about baseball even when it IS an essay about baseball? Reading this is like sinking a spoon into one of those deliciously decadent trifle desserts–so many layers, so many wonderful flavors, so satisfying working your way to the bottom. Welcome back.

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