Friday, September 08, 2006

Little League Ethics

[By Jeremy Pierce]

In little league baseball, there's a rule that every kid on the team needs an at-bat, or your team forfeits the game. What if you realize late in the game that you're going to win on score but lose by forfeit because one kid hasn't been up to bat and won't unless you let the other team score a run? This happened in a recent game between the state champions of Vermont and New Hampshire. The Vermont coach decided to let the other team score so they could then get another chance at bat to avoid the forfeit. The NH coach figured this out and told his players to refuse to score. Did the VT coach violate sports ethics? Did the NH coach? See the Ethics Scoreboard for the arguments in each case. I think I pretty much agree with their analysis. [hat tip: Eugene Volokh]

I think this is actually an interesting case of conflicting rules, because it's not just some abstract set of moral rules. These are actual rules that are explict and written down, and those playing the game have agreed to follow them. One clear commitment is to strive to win, and another is to do your best. But way hat happens when striving to win requires not doing your best at the normal game play? Or is it still doing your best because it's doing your best at winning the game? That does seem to me to be the intent behind doing your best. If a strategy at winning means walking rather than hitting a home run, that's not usually seen as a violation of ethics. So why would allowing the other team a run in order for you to win be a violation of ethics? I'm not actually sure if this is a real moral dilemma in the end for the Vermont coach, because it might turn out that fulfilling one of the principles does fulfill the other one in the end, even if it doesn't seem so at first. I do think the NH coach was violating the motivaiton behind the rules and thus violating the spirit of the rule. I'm not sure I agree with all the reasons given, e.g. the NH coach was trying to win but by making the other team forfeit, so it's not strictly speaking true that he was trying to lose, as #3 in the analysis says. It would be more accurate to say that he was trying to win by forfeit via losing by score. Still, I think the general analysis is correct. The Vermont coach did the right thing, and the NH coach responded in way that can't easily be reconciled with fair play.

[cross-posted at Parableman]


  1. This reminds me of "shooting the moon" in Hearts (a cards game found in MS Windows) - I agree, if winning by a lesser score is part of the game then i see nothing against that!! Its like saying that shooting the moon in the Hearts' game is unethical...

  2. But it isn't necessarily good sportmanship to exploit every loophole, or try to win a game on a technicality, such as by forcing a forfeit. As Jeremy says, "the NH coach was violating the motivation behind the rules and thus violating the spirit of the rule."

    Shooting the moon is completely different. It isn't a loophole, it's a high-stakes gamble that's central to the game of Hearts itself. To highlight one obvious and ethically relevant difference: trying to "shoot the moon" does not involve trying to force your opponent to violate a technicality. To win Hearts by shooting the moon is a great accomplishment, admired by all. To win baseball by forcing a forfeit is... well, not in the same league.

  3. It seems odd to have to explain the ethics of little league but here goes. Violation of the participation rule is clear. Every tournament team coach understands this and the penalty is forfeit. It does not matter if it is intentional or an accident. An accident is very possible if you have ever coached youth sports. That, of course, does not make it acceptable.

    The important issue here is making a mockery of the game which is addressed in Little League tournament policy. You cannot ask your team to intentionally lose a game to “win” by another team’s forfeit for violation of the participation rule. This would be to strike out or pitch erratically for the purpose of losing. This is in violation of the Little League pledge.

    The penalty for making a mockery of the game is much more severe than a simple forfeit. It is a violation of the pledge. It is alleged that the New Hampshire coach was in the process of intentionally losing the game to end the game and force the participation rule violation on the Vermont team. The Vermont coach recognized this and responded by attempting to force a tie to extend the game so his player could participate according to the rules.

    What a mess. If media reports are correct and they were there to watch it, then the New Hampshire coach violated the mockery policy of Little League which is the ethical transgression. Reports from the field are that the Vermont team probably would have satisfied the participation rule if the New Hampshire team had “played their best” as dictated by the Little League Pledge. At worst, both teams violated the pledge. The best course of action would have been for the Vermont coach to play it out as they planned and protested the actions of the New Hampshire coach prior to the umpires leaving the field. As it stands, the only one punished was Vermont. In truth, both teams should have been disqualified and the most severe punishment should have been handed to New Hampshire for instigating the mockery and setting an example to the boys that it was acceptable because they “won” and made the big trip to Williamsport. This situation occurs with regularity in Little League and unfortunately the ethics suffer all too frequently at the hands of the officials. Please excuse the pun but Little League dropped the ball on what should have been a routine play. The Little League organization in order to squelch additional bad publicity rewarded the initial transgressor and vilified the Vermont squad that acted in defense. Little League is the party with the greatest ethical failure. Is this the example that our children should learn? Cheat, you will win anyway?


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