I once received a note from Gwen, a youth coach who learned that Bill, a close friend who coaches another team, had lied about the age of some of his gymnasts to increase their chances of winning. She knew her kids would recognize that his athletes were in the wrong age division and be upset, but she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to lose Bill as a friend and was afraid that blowing the whistle could ruin her reputation in her close-knit gymnastics community.
Let’s start by recognizing that ethical problems come in two forms. Some are problems of discernment, where it’s difficult to determine what’s right. Others are problems of discipline, where it’s clear what should be done but doing so is difficult.
Gwen’s problem fell into the discipline category. Bill’s action was clearly wrong and she had a responsibility to prevent it. She couldn’t let her kids down by looking the other way just because it was hard to stand up for what’s right. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
It was up to Gwen to confront Bill and give him a chance to fix the problem. If he didn’t, she had to report him.
Yes, it would probably destroy their friendship, but the gap in their values made that inevitable. Some colleagues would likely take Bill’s side, too, but there will always be a split between those who cheat and those who don’t.
Still, if Gwen is a coach, she is a teacher. Her problem is actually a great opportunity in disguise. Doing the right thing when it’s personally costly is the best possible way to teach moral courage.
This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.