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Consumer Reports


When the top isn't high enough

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Martha Stewart, an entrepreneur whose sheets, pillowcases, house paints, home decorating books and magazines, and whole mode of life made her a household adjective, is indicted on charges of lying about a stock trade.

Sammy Sosa, not just a good home-run hitter but a record-breaking home-run hitter, is discovered with a corked bat.

Jayson Blair, a young journalist whose talent and ambition caught management's eye at the mighty New York Times, makes up stories.

Apparently it isn't enough these days just to be successful, talked-about, rich. It would seem that scrambling to the top of the pinnacle of the tallest spire has become so all-important that the bright and talented sometimes resort to cheating to get there. Maybe Stewart did nothing wrong, and maybe Sosa did grab the wrong bat, as he says. But clearly our society loves a winner - to the point that some will do anything to win.

"We now see people, relatively commonly it seems, taking extra steps so they can be the very best rather than just very good," said Mike Shaub, who teaches accounting at San Antonio's St. Mary's University. Shaub, who describes himself as a huge baseball fan, chalks it up to the star mentality we seem to have developed. "You see it in sports, you see it in business, you see it in academe. There are the stars. And then there are the others."

Shaub has written a paper, "Corked Financial Statements," in which he examines the analogies between the athletes who cork their bats and companies such as Enron, WorldCom and HealthSouth that cook their books.

"Perhaps part of the blame is ours," he said. "Our hero worship of muscled sluggers and successful CEOs has made us willing to believe the unbelievable.

"Perceptions are everything in our society. I have students who think they can present a front that will mislead me about who they really are. I have to work very hard to teach my own children that who you are is more important than what you seem to be."

Pressure on behavior

Anthony Pagano, associate professor of management and lecturer on ethics at the University of Illinois in Chicago, cautions that "Martha Stewart still needs to have her day in court. We still have to presume she's innocent. And with regard to Sammy Sosa, baseball has to conduct its investigation to see if this is a long-time thing or just a mistake." That said, he said, people at the top of their game have a responsibility to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.

From the melancholy parade of CEOs dragged before the courts and cameras, to students cheating at his own university, Pagano sees a general decline in ethics. People sense this decline, he said, and so there's a tendency to make examples of the most conspicuous offenders.

"Chicago papers are full of Sammy Sosa stuff. That's why people at the top, especially today, have to be very, very careful to not in the least way do anything that casts doubts on their ethical behavior," Pagano said.

J.D. Mayo, veteran basketball coach at Skyline High School in Dallas, said that when an athlete showboats or cheats, it leaves a powerful impression on youths.

It's not necessary to cut corners to get to the top, Mayo said. And his own teams prove it - more than 550 victories in 28 years of coaching.

To counteract the influence of the cheaters and showboaters, Mayo said he insists his athletes observe the highest standards. They wear suits and ties on game days. They may be heroes around the school, but they are expected to open doors for others and to stop and pick up trash in the hallways. In short, to be good citizens.

"That's just setting a good example for the rest of the school," Mayo said.

"What we ask of our players is - in this order - to put morals and principles and values at a very high priority. Second, we ask them to be excellent students.

"A third priority is basketball skills."

But when they leave school behind, Mayo's students will enter a world that places an ever greater premium on winning.

"We're in a win-at-all-costs society," said Tim Redman, director of the chess program at University of Texas at Dallas. UTD's team was the winningest in the nation last year. This year, it placed second in the Final Four of college chess competition to perennial rival University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

But UMBC has come under criticism for recruiting players that rivals say are of dubious eligibility.

Redman said the pressures at the top are such that last year he was tempted to recruit a Dallas-area grand master to his squad. But there were lingering doubts about the player's eligibility; after talking it over with associates and officials, Redman dropped the idea.

"Winning is not the mission of the university," he said. "Truth is the mission of the university.

"Sometimes it's best to be No. 2."

Changing the rules

Once upon a time, society - backed up by church and other authorities - defined success in clear terms, understood by all, said Dr. Lisa Newton, director of the Program in Applied Ethics at Fairfield University, in Fairfield, Conn., and a professor of philosophy. "When a person had a comfortable income, a respected place within the community, society pronounced that person a success." Now, she said, the attitude is, "I made $2 million today. Can I make $4 million tomorrow? Never a thought to who am I hurting. We've just seen so much of this. The people at Enron were already rich, were millionaires, some billionaires.

"Nothing breeds excess like excess."

Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at The Poynter Institute, a training center in Florida for journalists, said, "When you start getting to the top of the hill, people notice you, or you think they notice you. So you put increased pressure on yourself to go to the next higher hill, and then the next."

Those at the top tend to develop a sense of invulnerability, Steele said. "In American journalism, at least, we often glorify athletes and movie stars and celebrities well beyond their true worth to our society," he said. Talent is equated with virtue. And the famous start believing their own press releases.

Success piled on success sometimes gives the rich and famous the illusion that there are no limits, no holes in their armor. The temptation arises to cut corners.

We all do it, Steele said. "Sometimes we go through a yellow light when we should be stopping. We stretch the truth a little bit to make our role sound a little more important. What can happen when you cut corners, and you're challenged, or you believe you're challenged, is you start to cut bigger corners."

But just as the media make reputations, they can unmake them with terrifying swiftness.

"These individuals choose to be on pedestals, and we shine extra light on them," Steele said. "In turn, when they stumble or when they fall, they die by their celebrity."

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