IAN McAULEY. A warning about “team players”

Apr 3, 2018

Bad behaviour by young cricketers in South Africa has unleashed strong reactions, including references to a decay of moral standards in the wider society. It should also prompt us to realise that team loyalty is not an unmitigated virtue.

Writing in Pearls and Irritations last July, Peter Day, a Catholic priest from Queanbeyan wrote about the real world “which has turned cricket, and many of its sporting cousins, into a corporate behemoth –  a dog eat dog world of intellectual property rights, franchises, lawyers, branding, commercial interests, and ruthless power-brokers.”

It’s clear from his more recent post that  he has been disappointed but not surprised by the ball-tampering incident. He could see it coming.

The most thorough reactions have been not so much about the incident itself, but about its wider context. These reactions go much further than the stupid behaviour of three privileged young men, and much further than the toxic culture of elite sport.

In the Fairfax media Ross Gittins  writes that the cricketers’ cheating “is only to be expected in a nation that’s drifted so far from our earlier commitment to decency, mateship and the fair go”. In a piece of articulate indignation, veteran journalist Mike Carlton refers to the scandal as “merely a symptom of a wider national sickness”. In his article in the Saturday Paper he goes on to write “A culture of greed, selfishness, envy and often criminal corruption is gnawing at the nation’s heart.”

As moral commentary these contributions cover most of the Seven Deadly Sins. But I want to raise another moral issue associated with the incident, and that’s the question of group loyalty and obedience to authority.

We will probably never know just what happened in the interactions between the three young men involved, or whether others played a role. There is a suggestion that the player who actually tampered with the ball was doing so under direction from a more senior team member, but however the incident developed it’s clear that team loyalty was a strong motivating factor.

It’s easy to consider loyalty to one’s colleagues as an unmitigated virtue. Interview panels seek out a candidate who promises to be a “team player”. Exclusive private schools force young men and women into team sports as an integral aspect of character development. And one of the most damning accusations in a unionised workplace is to be labelled as a “scab”.

One doesn’t need a degree in sociology to understand why loyalty is such an asset to a group:  just one or a handful of defectors can inflict mortal damage to a group.

But behaviour motivated by misplaced loyalty can be no less damaging to a group. We now know that senior clergy who protected child abusers have inflicted far more reputational damage on their institutions than would have been the case had they exposed the wrongdoers.

More generally, group solidarity can be at the expense of the interests of wider society. Motorcycle gangs and the mafia are held together by strong sanctions against defectors. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is about the hurt inflicted by an extreme manifestation of family loyalty. Tightly-knit groups can conspire to secure privileges for their members and to thwart desirable reforms: that’s the essence of corporate rent-seeking (usually described by the euphemism “business-government relations”).

Besides corporate rent-seeking there are many instances of group loyalty that we tend to take for granted but which thwart the public interest. Cabinet and political party solidarity, the willingness of public servants to engage in obfuscation, casuistry and withholding of information in order to serve the governing party, employees of financial institutions standing by their companies in the current inquiry into financial services are all cases in point.

Obviously defection from a group and refusal to follow illegal or unjust orders takes courage. It also requires a well-developed sense of morality – based on religious or humanitarian beliefs, adherence to professional standards, or strong norms in the wider society.

A moral compass, however, is of limited use if there is no clear direction in which virtue lies. Those who study group processes and game theory know that the more entrenched bad behaviour becomes, the harder it is for people to find a way to break the pattern, and the personal costs of a moral stance become higher.

The economic philosopher Thomas Schelling used taxation as an example of this problem. If only a few others are evading tax my self-interest in paying tax is high, because I want to enjoy the public goods financed by tax. But if almost everyone else is evading tax, then there is no reward for doing the right thing because there are no public goods worth defending. If I live in Germany or Norway I’ll probably pay my fair share of taxes; if I live in Greece or Italy I probably won’t. It’s not that Germans and Norwegians are more moral than Greeks or Italians: rather it’s about rational responses to the situations that have developed in those countries.

Schelling’s work covered many other areas of social cooperation. If everyone else is breaking the speed limit, then I put myself in danger by driving within the limit, even though I and others would be much safer if we all adhered to the limit. If everyone else at university is cheating in their assignments my doing the right thing puts me at a disadvantage, particularly if there is lax enforcement of the rules. Virtue carries its own punishments.

Breaking the pattern is even harder when bad behaviour is supported by small-group norms as in a sporting team, in a workgroup in a financial services firm, or in a tight-knit group such as a religious community or a police force.

We need a culture more supportive of those who break from their groups and disobey their bosses in the public interest. Strong whistelblower protection helps, but there has to be more, because the life of the defector can be lonely. Corporations need to understand that the whistleblower may be doing the organization a favour. Just as we honour those who make sacrifices in war and in policing, we could celebrate those who have broken from their groups in the public interest. Gittins refers to our tradition of mateship: it’s a fine tradition but we should remember that it includes the tough love of disapproving of our friends’ stupidity. Mateship should not become a cover for conspiracy.

Americans celebrate political mavericks such as Daniel Webster and Sam Houston who broke from their own parties in what they saw as the interests of the Union. Germans honour the memories of Erwin Rommel and Claus von Stauffenberg, but not the obedient thugs who stayed loyal to Hitler’s oath of loyalty. The Nürnberg Principles of individual moral responsibility should be a central plank of young people’s education.

Those who connived to cheat in cricket need to be brought to account. But it would be gross hypocrisy if we were to allow them to become scapegoats for our collective bad behaviour. If, in our wider society, we do not support moral behaviour, we should not be surprised when people behave badly.


Ian McAuley is an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development. In their book Governomics Miriam Lyons and Ian McAuley provide an expanded description of Schelling’s work on social cooperation.

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