Baseball Cares About Character? That’s News

The unstartling news that the Baseball Hall of Fame elected nobody this year was accompanied by a simple explanation in the press: The voters decided that none of the available superstars passed the character test that’s in the shrine’s charter. One candidate is accused of using steroids, another has admitted using steroids, the next holds loud political opinions that some find, um, deplorable, and the last one ... hey, did I happen to mention steroids? (I’m excluding, for cause, the candidate accused of violently assaulting his wife.)

I’m not about the argue with the idea of rewarding people for their good character. The trouble is, whether in baseball or in the boardroom, character is so strange and plastic a concept that no two people seem to agree on what the word means.

The great ethicist Deborah Rhode, who passed away earlier this month, warned that when we adopt strategies that seek to measure character without taking account of human complexity, we’re doomed to fail. Rather than weigh defects against virtues, we wind up making sharp, severe judgments about who’s worthy and who’s not. Rhode was writing about character in the professions, but the point is a general one.

Through much of U.S. history, “good character” has been a code for accepting the dominant political values of the moment. To take only the most obvious example, until the U.S. Supreme Court put a stop to the practice in the late 1950s, the “character and fitness” requirement was often applied to keep left-wing lawyers from becoming members of the bar.  Some 19th century job descriptions equated having good character with being a Protestant. In our sharply divided era, it’s easy to imagine stumbling unthinkingly down the same sad road.

Perhaps we could avoid this risk by searching instead for widely shared values — that is, for character defects that outrage pretty much everyone. But do we really want to follow the consensus? Consider: According to Gallup, one moral judgment that has been rock-steady over the past 20 years is opposition to married people cheating on their spouses. In May of 2001, 89% of Americans surveyed thought cheating was always wrong; in May of 2020, 89% of Americans gave the same answer. As a reference point, this is far larger than the portion of the public that blames Donald Trump for the Capitol riot. In fact, it’s hard to find an unvirtue more unanimously condemned than cheating on one’s spouse.  Yet nobody imagines that the Hall of Fame is going to bar players for doing it.

What are the other possibilities? I’ve argued in the past that we should assess character according to virtues that are “pre-political” – traits that we can judge without regard to whether someone is with us or against us on the urgent issues of the day. The trouble is, hardly anybody seems to believe anymore that such virtues exist. A crying pity of our era is our habit of conceptualizing every struggle as so Manichean that we are unable to honor the vital democratic norm of being able to admire the character of those on the other side.

Even measured on their own terms, some of the grounds on which Hall of Fame voters seem to be assessing character are shaky. Consider, for example, that such famous sluggers as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire have long been anathema to many Hall of Fame voters on the grounds that their remarkable records, set in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were allegedly helped by steroid use. In other words, they enjoyed an unfair advantage.

But as time passes, improved analytic tools have raised questions about whether performance enhancing drugs are likely to be responsible for their achievements. A well-known 2007 analysis found that for most of players accused of using PEDs, “the drugs had either little or a negative effect.” And although there have been thoughtful dissents, many other studies have similarly failed to find a steroid effect, particularly on hitting home runs. (And let’s not forget, pitchers were known to use steroids as well.)

This isn’t to say that taking steroids is good or that professional sports leagues don’t have the right to punish it. But a suspension for a month or a year is a more sensible penalty than an eternal ban from post-retirement honors. Besides, if using drugs to try to enhance performance bars entry to the Hall of Fame, there are probably a lot of stars already in who should be kicked out.

Certainly, there are acts sufficiently reprehensible that they ought to stand as a bar. For example, the wife of shortstop Omar Vizquel has accused him of domestic violence. If true, the charge should be absolutely disqualifying.  But the potential entrant who is alleged to have committed so heinous a crime is the easy case. Most of the others are hard.

Where does this leave us? In an insoluble dilemma. I’m not prepared to say that character should never matter in the awarding of honors; more to the point, neither is Major League Baseball. But without a stated definition or any reliable consensus, in the end we’re trusting the varied character judgments of the Hall of Fame voters. Which leads us back to the beginning: As they sit to judge character and fitness, who vouches for theirs? Or yours? Or mine?

The conceit of the bar is that the requirement is nowadays used to predict future wrongdoing.If that’s the plan, it doesn’t work.

In the Gallup data, the only moral question on which greater unity exists is opposition to the cloning of human beings.

As a practical matter, the allegations only sink a candidacy that was already borderline.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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