Little League Ethics

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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 Philosophy et cetera]

3 Comments

This sort of case is not really all that unusual -- your example of the hitter taking a walk is a good case. Here's an example of another sort of case that does occur from time to time.

There are two minutes remaining in the 4th quarter of the football game, and team A is winning by one point, with no time outs. Both offenses have been extremely effective, scoring on most drives. Team B has the ball, and has driven into A's territory. It's first-and-ten at the thirty-yard line. B has three time outs remaining. B has an excellent field goal kicker who is very reliable (>95%) at mid and short range.

I submit, the proper strategic play for A's defense is to give up the touchdown on the very next play. Then A has two minutes and a six-point deficit with a very effective offense. If they can reach the end zone in two minutes, they win. This looks like their best chance; if they just play defense, barring anything very surprising, B will score at least the field goal, and use up most of the remaining clock.

I've seen this situation come up a couple of times in NFL games; coaches never make the move I'm suggesting. (Although a few years ago, Steve Mariucci made a similar strategic play with the 49ers when he did not contest a bad TD call in a case like this; he would rather have the ball back than those points erased.)

Proper strategy is to win, so no, this is no deviation from sound strategy, nor is the case you describe above, as far as I can see. It's just an unusual case.

In your little league case, however, something else is relevant. The NH coach is playing a strategy that maximizes his chances of winning, but he is doing by deliberately frustrating one of the non-competitive functions of the game. In the case of little league, it's not just about winning. Whether this falls under 'sports ethics' or not, it's in some sense inappropriate to pursue the win at the cost of preventing some kid from playing.

The NH coach is playing a strategy that maximizes his chances of winning, but he is doing by deliberately frustrating one of the non-competitive functions of the game. In the case of little league, it's not just about winning. Whether this falls under 'sports ethics' or not, it's in some sense inappropriate to pursue the win at the cost of preventing some kid from playing.


Yes, plus. The VT coach is deliberatly trying to acheive BOTH goals, that of all players playing, and his team winning. Whats more his win will be a 'legitimate' win where his team did outplay the opponents.
Whereas the NH coach is pursuing, in effect, a triple loss. By his actions not only will his team not 'win' in the sense of perfomring better, not all of the VT players will get a chance to bat, and his team will have deliberatly played less than their best in order to acheive this result.

That said, the fault here begins with the VT coach. To both obey the rules and minimize the chance of dilemna he should have batted all his players right away... unless there is something in the rules that would have prevented him.
Or, rather, the fault begins with the rulebook, which shouldn't penalize a team that wins by default too early to bat their players.

Poor Adam Bentley.

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