How Cheap Physical Courage

Risking injury for money is one kind of brave. Liam Day argues that it’s less brave than refusing to.

So Paul Tagliabue has weighed in and found the evidence wanting. As a result, the appeals filed by the four New Orleans Saints suspended for participating in a bounty program in which bonuses were promised to players who injure opponents were upheld and the suspensions vacated.

I won’t get into the evidentiary particulars of the individual cases. Josh Levin has done that over at Slate and done it well. (My favorite tidbit, pulled directly from Tagliabue’s ruling, was Commissioner Goodell’s claim that the revelation that the voice on the video tape used as evidence against Anthony Hargrove was not, in fact, the defensive lineman’s voice “did not affect the level of discipline imposed on Mr. Hargrove.” Excuse me.)

What I want to explore is one of the justifications former Commissioner Tagliabue gives for vacating the suspensions: that the players involved in the bounty program were merely employees and therefore at risk if they did not follow their coaches’ directions. If it were not a bit of an overstatement, we might call this the Nuremberg defense.

Chain of command. For most individuals within any organization there is a tension between the discipline required to follow the orders or directions given by supervisors and the individual dictates of one’s conscience. Fortunately, for most us, this tension rarely erupts into full-fledged crisis because our supervisors don’t often direct us to do anything unethical. At least I hope not.

But, of course, that isn’t always true and that it isn’t is the reason we have whistle-blower laws, something the NFL doesn’t, as far as I know, have. And maybe it should. It is asking a lot of men who play a violent game with a short shelflife, most of them without a guaranteed contract, to blow the whistle on men with the power to cut them from their teams and vacate their contracts. But I’m not sure that should fully absolve the players of their culpability in this matter. Therein lies the difference between physical and moral courage.

It takes an extraordinary amount of physical courage to play football, or, at least, I have to assume it does, as I’ve never played the sport myself. It would have taken an equal amount of moral courage on the part of any member of the New Orleans Saints to stand up and tell his coaches that paying them to injure opponents is wrong. 53 members of the Saints display the former 16 Sundays every year. None of them displayed the latter. I can only conclude from this discrepancy that, of the two types of courage, the physical is by far the cheaper.

 

Photo credit: AP, 2011

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About Liam Day

Liam Day has been a youth worker, teacher, campaign manager, political pundit, communications director, and professional basketball player. His poems have appeared at Slow Trains Apt, and Wilderness House Literary Review. His op-eds and essays have appeared in Annalemma Stymie, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public health professional. He is the Sports Editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @LiamDay7.

Comments


  1. It would have taken an equal amount of moral courage on the part of any member of the New Orleans Saints to stand up and tell his coaches that paying them to injure opponents is wrong. 53 members of the Saints display the former 16 Sundays every year. None of them displayed the latter. I can only conclude from this discrepancy that, of the two types of courage, the physical is by far the cheaper.

    In that particular situation I’d agree.

    Just so I’m clear you are not trying to say this is the case all across the board are you?

    • Danny,

      Though I was referring very specifically to this instance, I would, in fact, argue that, across board, moral courage is a much rarer thing than physical courage.

      Liam

      • Liam,
        Ive been thinking about moral courage and physical courage since Bill and I posted comments on Josh’s thread a few days ago. I agree with you, as I had the same thought that moral courage is rarer, the implicit social pressure to conform to a group is extremely strong. Few can breech it

  2. “of the two types of courage, the physical is by far the cheaper.”
    The only formal religious training I ever had was with the Quakers—
    I’ve long held that I lack the courage to be a pacifist……

  3. In quite a few disasters there has been commandlevel paralysis, as those in charge did not have the courage to circuit-break the chain-of-command and take the necessary action. For those applying for command positions, and especially for more senior roles, ive always felt there should be tests* of the applicant’s moral courage, their ability to disregard established convention, group censure, their discomfort and embarrassment.

    *eg.
    1, doing standup comedy infront of a large crowd(if they havent done standup before).
    2, or for the male applicatants, in a noneparodic manner to wear women’s clothing in public(very hard for most men to do)

    100yrs from now, as part of the selection process i would expect to leaders of countries to undo go tests of moral and possibly physical courage, perhaps even publically

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  1. […] loosely) of the athlete who pounds his chest after a hard foul or an illegal hit. As I’ve discussed before on The Good Men Project, physical courage is much easier than moral courage. It’s easy to […]

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