Updated 10/5/18

In a 2013 article entitled Let’s face it: Hall of Fame is a Mess, Jayson Stark scrutinizes how the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs led to no player being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame that year despite a star-studded Hall of Fame ballot that included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza.

He goes on to wonder what kind of Hall of Fame we are building.  “What is the Hall of Fame supposed to be?” he asks.  “A Hall of Fame that basically tries to pretend that none of those men ever played baseball?  That none of the improprieties happened?”

Stark reminds us that it all did happen and we all witnessed it. And now we’ll have to decide whether we want our Hall of Fame to render all of that invisible (Piazza, it should be noted, was elected to the HOF in 2016, while Clemens and Bonds are still persona non grata).

“Maybe we’ll decide we want a Hall of Fame that aspires to be a shrine, not just to greatness but to purity.” he says.  “I don’t know how we get there, but maybe that’s where this conversation will lead us.”

More recently, a Sept. 4 article written by Dennis Romero for NBCnews.com (NFL Says Issues Raised by Colin Kaepernick ‘Deserve Our Attention and Action) chronicles the National Football League’s reaction to a Nike ad featuring Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback whose controversial protest against police brutality and racial inequality got him into hot water in 2016,.

Kaepernick’s act of kneeling during the national anthem led other athletes to do the same, sparking outrage among fans and in political circles, and some say led to Kaepernick being blackballed from the league. The NFL made it a rule this year that all team members on the field must stand to “show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”

So what does all of this have to with business ethics?  Everything. Because it is a metaphor for what business people deal with every day. Decisions about the right way to conduct business and treat people. Recognizing and defining “gray areas” and making decisions about how to deal with them in the right way. How we collectively make decisions about what is right and wrong. How our business networks and communities legislate and enforce behavior.

Should the `steroid-era’ players be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Is the NFL right by telling their players they cannot use the anthem as a forum to protest? I don’t know. But I do know one thing—you can’t have half-baked morality. You have to have one consistent standard of acceptability that everyone understands.

There are levels of magnitude in any crime or controversy. It all depends on where and how we draw the lines of consequence. The baseball players knew what they were doing was wrong, but the idea of including them in the Hall of Fame because they are an “important part” of baseball history is a cop-out solution that only avoids and confuses the real issue. The same goes for the NFL.

If it is up to all of us to figure out what to do next, I say one thing is most important. Be consistent.

Because, just like in business, the real challenge is recognizing where the gray areas are, making collective decisions about the behavior that we consider acceptable and, most importantly, maintaining consistency.

If it is true that the communities within which we live and work establish social norms, then we have an obligation to deal with the conflicts that arise. We must ensure that everyone knows the rules and that there is an expectation to play by them with as little gray as possible. We can only accomplish this through open and honest dialogue, a commitment to a truly ethical environment and a goal to deal right up front with the ever-present vulnerability of hypocrisy.

Only then can we have that virtuous world we talk about—the one in which people do the right thing, even when no one is watching.