Saturday, July 28, 2012

Did the NCAA unfairly punish Penn State football?


This week, the NCAA hit Penn State football with some pretty severe sanctions. The team must pay a $60 million fine, recruit with a reduced number of athletic scholarships for the next four years, all victories since 1998 have been vacated, and the Nittany Lions will be ineligible for bowl play for the next four years.

Since I'm writing a dissertation in which I propose a new justification for punishment, I decided I'd say a little something about what I think about these sanctions. The specific question I will address is this: Given that Jerry Sandusky has been punished by the criminal justice system, and that Joe Paterno is no longer with us, is it fair for the NCAA to impose such severe sanctions on the Penn State football program?

I'll focus my discussion on only two of the sanctions: the vacation of the football victories and the bowl game ban. I assume that my readers are familiar with the sad details of the Penn State scandal.

Regarding the vacated victories, some of my friends have expressed the view that this sanction is unfair because the victories were not simply Paterno's victories, but the victories of all the coaches and players. To vacate these victories as a way of punishing Paterno, they argue, is to unfairly punish a whole generation of Penn State players and coaches.

I don't find this argument compelling. Part of what it means to be part of a team is to be willing to be link your fate, so to speak, to the fate of the team. When the Lakers lose, Kobe doesn't claim a personal victory in his playing well. When the Lakers lose, Kobe loses (and when they win, he wins).

A more apt example of this phenomenon would be the 2000 U.S. Olympic women's 4x400 relay team. The team was stripped of its gold medal after Marion Jones admitted to steroid use. When Jones cheated, the team cheated. They were justly stripped of their medal.

Now, my friends might reply: Sure, but neither Paterno nor Sandusky cheated. The whole team followed the NCAA rules and won those games fair and square.

Fair enough. But the way I see it, in punishing the whole team for the transgressions of Paterno and Sandusky, the NCAA is sending a clear message that running a football program that is clear of corruption and abuse of persons and/or power is a condition on being eligible to win games. Just as one can't "win" an Olympic race on steroids, the NCAA claims, a college program can't win football games while covering up blatant and morally repugnant actions.

Sure, it sucks that everyone must suffer for the actions of a few, but that's all a part of being a team.

Admittedly, it's harder to defend the bowl game ban. After all, the current players were not around when Sandusky was a coach and will not be coached by Joe Paterno. They aren't part of those tainted teams. As such, some would argue, they shouldn't be punished.

This bowl game ban is justified, I think, because it sends a message to other programs: "Mess up like Penn State did, and you'll not only be stripped of victories, you will be barred from competing in any bowl games." So, while the former punishment was backward-looking, this punishment is forward-looking. It seeks not to remedy some past wrong, but to prevent future wrongs.

But, as my lawyer friend Veronica argues, such forward-looking punishments only make sense in circumstances in which we have reason to believe that others are likely to commit offenses similar to the offense being punished. As she argues, it's just not the case that there's a Sandusky/Paterno duo at schools like UF, Alabama, and USC, and, as such, it makes little sense to punish with the aim of deterring similar wrongs at major college football programs. This punishment, she argues, simply places an unfair burden on current Penn State football players.

I think the best response to this objection is this: what the NCAA seeks to deter in banning Penn State from bowl games is not actions similar to those of Sandusky and Paterno, but the football culture that allowed the Sandusky-Paterno cover-up to happen.

The Penn State football culture placed winning and the appearance of integrity over other important values (in this case, the safety of the children Sandusky abused). Recall, in November Penn State students rioted in protest of Paterno's firing. In what would does it make sense to protest in support of a man who turned a blind eye to child abuse?

Additionally, the Penn State fans, students, and alums allowed one man, Joe Paterno, to become such an iconic and (seemingly) permanent fixture at Penn State that he felt it was within his power to sweep Sandusky's abuse under the rug, handling the situation in-house.

No college football program should value winning over morality, or treat one coach as so important and vital to the success of the program that he feels he can violate NCAA regulations and the criminal law to promote the (perceived) interests of his team. The bowl game ban, as I take it, was instituted to deter other programs from following Penn State's example.

Of course, we'll have to wait and see if this Penn State scandal and the subsequent sanctions serve to initiate any long-term changes in big-time college football. But, as they stand, I think the sanctions are just.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Fox News, and the Web of Belief


We were all deeply saddened by the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. For some of us, the shooting reaffirmed our belief that, despite the optimistic talk of a "post-racial" America, this country is still deeply divided along racial lines. Martin's shooting caused others to question their belief that America is now "post-racial."

Still, others remain reluctant to view this shooting and the Sanford police department's treatment of George Zimmerman as revelatory of the racial problems that continue to plague this country. Geraldo Rivera claimed that Trayvon's hoodie was to blame. Sean Hannity wondered if Trayvon's shooting could have been "just a big mistake."

But, how can this be possible? How can these geniuses at Fox News be so blind to the gravity of Trayvon's death?

I'll try to offer an answer to this question, utilizing W.V.O Quine's "web of belief," metaphor.

Quine believed that our beliefs form a web, so to speak. Each belief, for Quine, is connected to all other beliefs via inferential relations. For instance, my belief that my name is "Brandon" is connected to my belief that my parents and relatives have not lied to me about my name. I can infer the former belief from the latter. Additionally, for Quine, if I have reason to question the former belief, I have reason to question the latter. If you damage one part of the web, many other parts are affected.

For Quine, there is nothing supporting the web, no belief(s) that ground all other beliefs. As such, all of our beliefs are subject to change. While Quine takes it that there are no foundational, unalterable beliefs, he does believe that there are some beliefs which are more resistant to change than others.

For example, if one day my uncle referred to me as "Joe," I would not immediately start to question whether my parents had been lying to me about my name all these years. I'd most likely figure that my uncle was confused, or that I was mistaken in believing that he was referring to me.

My belief that my name is "Brandon," is very resistant to change, it is a core belief. On the other hand, my belief that my uncle is not confused in this instance is a belief that lies on the periphery of my web. I'm willing to give up this belief without much worry.

Quine believes that our core beliefs change when we reach a point at which we can no longer square them with the evidence we are faced with. To continue the example, assume I find out that my uncle was referring to me and wasn't simply confused. In this circumstance, I would try to come up with another explanation for his referring to me as "Joe."

If, after racking my brain for an alternative explanation, I came up with nothing, I may decide to just give up the belief that my name is "Brandon." This would be a drastic move, but, for Quine, there is nothing about the nature of belief that rules it out. In fact, Quine thought that even our beliefs about math and logic could be revised.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Rivera and Hannity?

It seems that the beliefs that America is in fact a post-racial country and that most charges of racism are misplaced or exaggerated are a core beliefs of many who work for and watch Fox News. Because these are core beliefs, the Fox News crowd seeks to explain Trayvon's shooting in a way that allows them to deny the reality of racism in America.

"Maybe it was a mistake."

"Maybe Trayvon was shot because he was wearing a hoodie."

"Perhaps Trayvon attacked Zimmerman."

"We shouldn't rush to judgment before we have all the facts, right?"

"It could be that the Sanford police have a really good reason for not arresting Zimmerman."

"Zimmerman has a black friend, so he's probably not a racist, right?"

All of these statements represent attempts to keep the conservative web intact. We know why this happens. No one wants their web to fall apart. When one gives up one's core beliefs, one feels a sense of homelessness, as Heidegger puts it. But, to face the world with courage and intelligence is to risk giving up one's core beliefs, to risk (temporary) homelessness.

It is past time for people like Rivera and Hannity to wake up. I doubt, but hope, that Martin's death will cause many of the Fox News conservatives to question their core beliefs about race in America. But, I admit, asking the Fox News conservatives to approach the world with courage and intelligence may be asking too much?

What do you think?


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Importance of Recognition


I'm in full dissertation mode. It has been hard to post regularly or even think about non-dissertation-related topics.

So, I've decided to write about what I've been thinking about in relation to the dissertation.

In the past few months, I've become really impressed with Hegel's understanding of self-consciousness.

If you're anything like me, you don't like having to depend on other people. I liked wrestling more than football because in wrestling, it was totally up to me whether I won or lost. The wrestler has no teammates to blame for his or her lack of success. I also hated doing group assignments in school because I didn't like having to depend on others for my grade. I value my independence.

But, in reading Hegel, I came to realize that I have to depend on others in order to have a coherent conception of myself. More specifically, I came to realize that I have to depend on the recognition of others in order to have a coherent self-conception. I'll try to explain. [For a more complete story, check out a draft chapter of my advisor's book on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, here].

Let's suppose the opposite, let's suppose that I can have a coherent self-conception which is independent of the recognition of others (let's call this the "independence view"). Assume that I wish to think of myself as good singer. What determines whether I actually am a good singer? On the independence view, I determine whether I'm a good singer.

It only takes a moment of reflection to see why this view is problematic. If only I can determine whether I'm a good singer, then any of my performances which seem good to me are good. On the independence view, I simply can't be wrong about the quality of my singing. But, if I can't be wrong, it makes little sense to say I'm right either. On the independence view, I end up just giving my singing meaningless praise. (Think of the rejected American Idol contestant who declares that she can sing despite what everyone else says).

I want it to be the case that the label "good singer" means something, but on the independence view, I strip the label of its meaning. My self-conception, on this view, is incoherent.

I'll now explain how dependence on the recognition of others can solve this problem. First, I have to say something about what recognition is. To recognize another is to view that other's judgments on some particular matter as largely correct. If I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent, I take it that his judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct. Likewise, for Simon to recognize me as a good judge of talent is for him to take it that my judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct.

We are now in a position to see how the recognition of another can allow one to coherently recognize oneself as one thing or another.

Say I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent. Now assume that Simon recognizes me as a good singer. Since I take it that whoever Simon recognizes as a good singer probably is a good singer, I can then recognize myself as a good singer. But, this is only possible because I recognize Simon and he in turn recognizes me. In this way, my self-conception is dependent on Simon's recognition.

Also, on this understanding of what it is to be a good singer, I can be wrong in thinking that I'm a good singer. If the people I recognize as good judges of talent fail to recognize me, then I'm not a good singer. As such, the label "good singer" does not fail to be meaningful.

I find this view very compelling, but I still value independence. I just realize now that my independence cannot be complete independence. Otherwise, I wouldn't even be able to coherently think of myself as "independent," or anything else for that matter.

What do you think?