What Does It Take to Break the Athlete's Code of Silence?

Sports has an unwritten "no snitching" rule, but it comes at a price.

George "Buck" Weaver was implicated in the 1919 Black Sox scandal for possessing "guilty knowledge." AP Images

Ty Cobb called George "Buck" Weaver the best third baseman he had ever seen. But when the switch-hitting, sweet-fielding Weaver is remembered today, if he's remembered at all, it is for being a member of the Chicago Black Sox, the eight players who conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, nearly derailing the national pastime just before it reached its Golden Age. Weaver, like his seven teammates, was banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. But Weaver alone was banished not for taking money from gamblers or playing less than his best but for knowing the fix was in and not coming forward, for possessing "guilty knowledge."

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All of us have guilty knowledge. We know that the colleague in the adjoining cubicle is having an affair or that the green-thumb lady next-door grows marijuana or that our brother-in-law is a tax cheat. So, what is our responsibility in life? Is it to do good, or to do good and call out those who don't? How much truth is there in the notion, popularized by JFK, that "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing"?

Because doing nothing is exactly what's expected in sports, where a version of the Mafia's omerta, or code of silence, holds sway. Snitching runs completely counter to the accepted notion of taking one for the team. Better to let a grounder roll under your glove in the 10th inning than to let slip the fact that your teammate's bat is corked.

Rare is the sports scandal, whether it's blood doping on the Tour de France or Tiger's sex life, in which complicit silence does not lie at or near the heart of events. It played a key role in the NFL's Bountygate. And in last fall's nightmare at Penn State. If baseball's antisnitching poster boy is not Weaver, it's Greg Anderson, the longtime friend of and personal trainer for Barry Bonds. Anderson was willing to spend time behind bars rather than testify against his friend. The blind loyalty of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil can give lots of cover for doing evil.

Nancy Sherman is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of the 2010 book The Untold War, which examines the ethical quandaries of the modern soldier. She was brought to the U.S. Naval Academy in the wake of a scandal in the 1990s that saw 133 midshipmen accused of cheating on a third-year electrical engineering exam or covering up for those who did. Sherman came to Annapolis to help midshipmen understand, as she puts it, "that the ship comes before shipmate."

Sherman doesn't underestimate how powerful the pressures can be for young men and women to remain silent. "So much in the life of a midshipman or an officer hangs on covering each other's back," Sherman says. "Building a cadre, developing esprit de corps, fighting for each other are all drilled in. So is loyalty and fighting against ratting, snitching—the less-charged term is whistle-blowing." She notes that when money and careers are at stake—and they usually are—the silence becomes even more pronounced. No less a personage than Charles Barkley, commenting on the Saints' bounty program recently, said: "You have to be a punk to snitch that out." When the Round Mound of Expound, Expand, and Expatiate is speaking out against speaking out, the expectation for silence prevails.

Given all the forces in play, is it possible to get athletes to reconsider the code of silence? Sherman thinks so, but says that it requires getting athletes to consider their behavior beforehand, to develop what she calls a "moral imagination." At the Naval Academy, Sherman designed a military ethics course that is now required for every midshipman. She also laid the groundwork for the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.

"It sounds a bit simple-minded, but it requires a lot of serious reflection and leadership and thinking about what kind of individual do you want to be," Sherman says. "Often, in the case of sports and athletic scandals, you don't think about what the moral toll is, just will your conscience hurt tomorrow."

Silence isn't always golden. One wonders if Buck Weaver would have remained quiet if he could have clearly seen the years of not playing or coaching stretching out before him. What would he have done if he truly understood the loss of income, prestige, and face that would be his price for silence? Or if he could have pictured the almost irreparable damage the Series fix did to the game he loved so much? Would Buck Weaver, like Joe Paterno, have wished he had done more?