Is it okay to fail on purpose?

An interesting thing is happening to America’s pastime. Instead of spending money on acquiring the best players this offseason, up to one-third of Major League Baseball teams are, instead, choosing to (for the lack of a more accurate term) stink in 2018.

It’s complicated.

In short, they’re doing this on purpose as part of a larger strategy to amass younger talent that they can control at a lower price for more years. Got all that?

So, for those of you who don’t follow sports, this is the problem: When a player originally signs for a professional baseball team, he may receive a signing bonus, but for the large majority of players, most sign modest contracts with their first team and, essentially, work for them for six years. After the sixth year, a player can become a “free agent.” This is where most talented players make it big, financially speaking. The best players will sign multi-year, multi-million dollar deals. These are the players you’ve read about. The problem is, of course, the same player will suddenly cost the same team much, much more. And so, to replace him, a team must decide to re-sign him, play a younger (possibly less talented, but cheaper) player, or replace him with a player from the free-agent market. Two of those three options are expensive and so team payrolls have skyrocketed in the last 30 years, which has fed PR problems for the league.

But none of that is happening this year. There is a huge pool of eligible and REALLY good players just waiting to be signed. Teams don’t seem very interested in signing them. Some have accused major league clubs of collusion. Others see this as part of a “lose now, win later” strategy employed famously by the 2017 champion Houston Astros. 

If I’ve lost you in all the sports talk, here’s where you can dive back in: 

At least one prominent agent has suggested that what these MLB teams are doing lacks integrity.  Scott Boras, an agent (in)famous to many baseball fans, captured my attention a few weeks ago with these comments:

“Certainly I want them to sign my clients. But I’m trying to get them to act with integrity. Winning is the cement of baseball integrity….We kicked people out of the game when they tried to not win.”  

Boras’ comment (and his reference to the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal) resonated with me: Is it ethically wrong for teams to lose on purpose?

Or, to put it in another context, would it be ethically wrong for you, as an individual, to fail at something on purpose?

Think of the possible ramifications of doing so in the workplace. If someone gave you a task to do, and you thought it was in your long-term interest to fail at that task, would it be ethical for you to do so? How might it be in your long-term interest to appear to be bad at something? Perhaps you don’t like doing what you’ve been asked to do. If you do a good job at it, you might be asked again. And while failing at it on purpose might serve your personal interests, think of the lost productivity for your employer (who is presumably paying you to do this job).

However, more than this, purposefully failing in this way would erode a fundamental tenant of our system: the faith and trust that we have in our employees that they are doing their best work or giving their best effort. Without that, it’s hard to imagine any workplace functioning effectively. There is something fundamentally damaging to the entire enterprise about this behavior.

This is what Boras means when he references former MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s reminder that for baseball to work, every fan must have hope and faith in their team’s desire to win. Without that understanding, the thinking goes, the fabric of the sport unravels.

We don’t know what will happen with this issue in baseball, but I can think of a few take-aways for your work at the university:

  • Always do your best work. This means that you don’t purposefully pull effort from one class to devote to another. No grade should be “good enough.” A course grade should reflect your very best effort and abilities in that course, whatever that grade turns out to be.
  • People around you (in courses, at work) should never have a reason to question your work ethic. Those around you should have confidence that you’re giving your best effort. After all, how would it make you feel if you didn’t have that confidence in the person next to you?
  • Expect the best of those around you. And when you realize that it’s not happening, find gentle ways to encourage them to do so OR find out more about why and help them get what they need to be their best versions of themselves. Just knowing that you care can go a long way.


Photograph courtesy of University Historic Photograph Collection, CSU.

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