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The NFL’s Moral Disengagement

PGP Mediation
by Phyllis G. Pollack

Having attended both undergraduate and law school at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, I am a Saints fan and like many, watched the game between the Saints and the Los Angeles Ram including the quite controversial pass interference and helmet to helmet “non-call” occurring with less than two minutes to go in the game: a game changer that cost the Saints a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Like all Saints fans, I believe the Saints were robbed of the win and should be the ones going to the Super Bowl, not the LA Rams.

Recently, I attended a seminar presented on ethical fading in mediation by Professor Stephanie Bell Blondell, Associate Director and Assistant Professor of Law and Practice at Strauss Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University. During her presentation she discussed the notion of moral disengagement, first espoused by Albert Bandura (Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, New York, Macmillan 2016)

Evidently, there are approximately eight different ways to morally disengage: moral justification, euphemistic labelling, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, dehumanization, and moral muteness. (Id. at Prof. Blondell.)

As explained by Celia Moore:

moral disengagement refers to eight interrelated cognitive mechanisms that allow us to sidestep our internalized moral standards and behave immorally without feeling attendant distress. In social cognitive theory, internal controls only work effectively when they are activated. The mechanisms of moral disengagement decouple our internal standards from how we construe our behavior, rendering them ineffective. As an example, imagine Sam has an internal standard that prohibits theft, but has taken a newspaper without paying for it from Starbucks. Moral disengagement mechanisms help Sam construe taking the newspaper as no big deal (distortion of consequences), believe that everyone takes small things like a paper sometimes (diffusion of responsibility), that taking the paper is tiny compared to others’ violations (advantageous comparison), or that he’s seen Starbucks employees take copies of the paper, so why shouldn’t he (displacement of responsibility)? He could think that in the grand scheme of things, being an informed citizen is more important than paying for the paper (moral justification). He could even plan on leaving the paper in the café when he was finished with it, so really, he was just “borrowing” it (euphemistic labeling). He could think that Starbucks is a large heartless corporation that won’t notice the missing paper (dehumanization), or even deserves having the paper taken from it because it charges so much for their coffee (attribution of blame). These mechanisms facilitate understanding his behavior as unrelated to his internal standard against theft. Thus, he can leave the store, paper under arm, confident in the belief that he’s done nothing wrong. ( Moore, Celia. (2015). Moral disengagement. Current Opinion in Psychology.)

 So- what does this have to do with the controversial “non-call”? Quite a lot. Some fans have sued the NFL over this bad call. The NFL has filed pleadings to remove the matter to federal court. In those pleadings, the NFL states that a rematch of the game due to this bad call could cost the league “more than $100 million” dollars because among other things, it would mean delaying the Super Bowl.

The NFL’s position strikes me as a bit of moral disengagement and more specifically, moral justification and advantageous comparison; it justifies its decision to do nothing about the bad call (other than to monetarily penalize the Rams player) based on economics: money provides the ethical fading, here. If the ethical road is taken, the consequences would be severe. Among other things, there would be no Super Bowl this Sunday, causing an economic loss not only to the NFL, but to all of the fans in terms of air fare and hotel rooms as well as to the city of Atlanta and all of its hotels, restaurants, shops, and even sidewalk vendors.  The economic consequences of NOT having the Super Bowl as scheduled are so huge, that ethical fading and moral disengagement is justified. No doubt, there would also be goodwill and reputational damage to the NFL (and probably some breach of contract lawsuits against the NFL by the many who agreed to render various services during the Super Bowl.) The consequences are huge, leading to a moral justification of continuing as planned and as if the “non-call” never happened.

Beware of the slippery slope of moral disengagement. It can cause you to do things you thought, you would never do!

Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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