Monday, March 26, 2012

The NFL Needs a Lesson in Bounded Ethicality

Over the last week we learned that the New Orleans Saints defense was delivering bonus money to players who were able to injure opposing offensive players. When the NFL discovered this bounty system, they conducted a swift investigation and handed out a stiff punishment: Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, was suspended indefinitely, Sean Payton, the head coach, was suspended for one year, and several fines were levied on the Saints organization itself. The result of these punishments is that we likely won't see the Saints making a run at the Super Bowl any time soon.

I'm sure the NFL thinks of this sort of punishment as sending a clear message to its teams: Don't promote or engage in unethical or unsportsmanlike acts that put the health and safety of other players at risk... or else the punishment will be severe. Will this severe punishment really deter future bounty systems? Or ensure greater health and safety of NFL players? Based on my understanding of psychology principles, I'm not convinced this penalty will do anything more than torpedo the 2012 season of one NFL franchise.

Why don't penalties directed at individuals solve ethical problems? For the answer, I turn to the theory of bounded ethicality developed by Max Bazerman, Professor of Negotiation, Organizations, and Markets at Harvard Business School. Bounded ethicality is a simple idea: Most of the unethical practices that people engage in are not due to their evil or immoral nature, rather, unethical acts are simply potentiated by features of the social or organizational context in which individuals reside (Chugh, Bazerman, & Banaji, 2005). In short, social contexts create conditions that make unethical behaviors more palatable and more frequent.

What do I mean by features of the social or organizational context that enhance unethical behavior? Well, certain features of the context can in some ways make unethical acts seem okay. For example, in one study, if an unethical action causes no harm, it is viewed as more ethical than the same action that causes harm (e.g., two people shoot a gun with an intent to kill, the one who actually is successful at hitting their target is perceived as more immoral; Chugh et al., 2005). In another example, when a negotiation is framed in terms of losses (versus gains) negotiators tend to behave more unethically. For instance, in one study, when the chances of purchasing a firm were framed in terms of losses (75% chance of losing the firm) versus gains (25% chance of acquiring it) were more likely to misrepresent facts during the negotiation, and to make false promises during the negotiation (Kern & Chugh, 2009). These unethical behaviors are being enhanced by the social context, and not by contrast, by some pathological personality disorder of the negotiators.

Turning back to football, it appears that the NFL is suggesting that the Saints' bounty system is one of the primary factors that places player safety at risk in the NFL. I'm skeptical of this reasoning: The game of football is inherently violent, the players are enormous and powerful, and the helmet is used as much as a weapon as it is a protective device. A quick perusal of concussion statistics reveals 167 reported concussions over the course of the 2010 NFL season, with many more likely going unreported. In short, bounty or no bounty, players run a high risk of head injury when playing football, and cracking down on teams who may encourage hits-that-injure, or individual players who deliver big hits (e.g., fining James Harrison $125,000) seems to be a silly response. Don't hate the player, hate the game. The game rewards violence, and as long as fans want to see players get "Jacked Up" I think we can expect the same violent game in the future.

Do you want the NFL to change its rules so that players are better protected? Or would you rather leave the game as it is? Tell us in the comments!

Research Cited

Kern, M., & Chugh, D. (2009). Bounded Ethicality: The Perils of Loss Framing Psychological Science, 20 (3), 378-384 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02296.x


  1. Hi Michael, interesting post as always.

    I both agree and disagree with your points... I think you certainly have a very valid point that if the NFL were thinking in terms of bounded ethicality they could do a better job understanding the dynamics that create the problems they are seeking to address.

    Where I disagree is that levying stiff fines and handing down long suspensions is not an integral part of this effort. Isn't having a bounty system precisely the sort of thing that changes the ethical landscape for a player? And doesn't a stiff fine send the opposite message. Bounded ethicality, in part, involves our abilities to rationalize seemingly unethical acts as "how it's done" or "everyone else is doing it."

    Take the prisoner's dilemma study by Aaron Kay and Lee Ross -- they found large differences in the willingness to cooperate or defect depending simply on whether the prisoner's dilemma game was labeled "Community Game" or "Wall Street Game". Changes in our understanding of the expectations about behavior in the context change our behavior. The NFL's stance on bounties defines (in part) expectations about behavior in the game, so I think it's important that they make it very clear what those expectations are.


    1. Great comment Dave! Thanks for reading!

      I think you make a very good point that bounty systems set expectations that harming opposing players is the NFL status quo. This severe penalty is an effort by the NFL to suggest otherwise.

      I think this doesn't work because there are so many other incentives built into pro football that suggest aggressive, even ultra-violent, defensive play is the right way to play. Take for example, the "jacked up" segments on ESPN that feature weekly videos of players delivering epic hits--violence is rewarded with time on ESPN. As another example, hall of fame defensive players are typically remembered for their epic hits (e.g., Jack Tatum, Ronny Lott) than for their sure tackles. And finally, even if monetary incentives for injury aren't present, there are clear in-game incentives for injuring opposing players: I can remember Tony Siragusa flattening a helpless Rich Gannon in a playoff game ( that ensured the Ravens' trip to the Super Bowl in 2001.

      Of course, my examples suggest that the game of football is inherently dangerous, and so I sadly, don't have a solution. I just think blaming the Saints or individual players like James Harrison is a mostly ineffective course of action that the NFL is pursuing.

    2. Harrison has said as much in his responses to the NFL fines levied against him. How else is he supposed to play the game that encouraged and rewarded him to be violent? It seems to me that the new rules and fines create new parameters which the players must adjust to, and then they must learn how to be violent within those parameters. So the fines that are so highly publicized become the new boundary conditions for the players which curb certain kinds of violence, but do not stop violence. Players just find new exciting ways to be violent without being fined (and still show up on SportsCenter).

    3. Thanks for the comment bro-montana!

      A quote from former defensive lineman Doug Brown regarding a play in which he injured another player: "To say I didn't mean to hurt him would not be entirely true, because every action in the repertoire of a defensive lineman is designed to hurt something. Any time you have 300-pound athletes looking to run into something, you can't exactly claim amnesty when someone doesn't get up."

      "I wasn't happy or sad that I had legally knocked this running back out of game, just content in the knowledge I was contributing to the success of my team by eliminating one of the opposition's better players within the rules of the game."

  2. I think this analysis is off the mark. Honestly, I think a more cynical interpretation is in order.

    Consider that only the most egregious violators are being punished, while other teams are being let off scott free. I think this move should be seen as a symbolic gesture aimed at public relations, rather than a punishment seeking to remove unethical individuals, or seriously tone down the game.

    I don't think the NFL is failing to effectively reduce the violence of the game; I think the NFL is quite effectively combating the perception that it is unwilling to do anything about excessive violence, without actually changing the game that it thrives off of. In a word, scapegoating.

    1. Thanks for your comment Matthew!

      I agree that these exorbitant fines are a bit of a public relations maneuver on the part of the NFL. Whether or not the NFL actually wishes to change the violence in the game is an intriguing question!

  3. i agree with what the suspensions of this allogation to punish those involved in Paying for Cart offs, but Punishing those for making Big Hits is unethical. those players were raised in football to make that big hit and they were rewarded with positive reinforcement. so trying to punish someone who is doing something that they grew up doing is like punishing someone who grew up doing something that they have always done. When people learn something that they have done their whole life it is encoded in their mind through a long term memory. in result it is all muscle memory. I know that it is wrong to make the hit above the shoulders but they cant help it sometimes.