Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

September 30, 2013

A lesson about honor from a high school football coach

WASHINGTON, D.C. —

I trust you're as impressed as I am by the news that Matt Labrum, football coach at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah, has suspended his entire team — all 80 players — for what he calls a "lack of character." Unlike the win-first coaches celebrated in the sports pages, Labrum was referring to what was going on off the field, where a minority of the players had been skipping or failing classes and were perhaps involved in cyberbullying as well.

Understand what's happening here: Everyone is being punished for the actions of a few. The unspoken suggestion is that members of a team should watch out for one another. If Player A breaks the rules, Player B shares responsibility. This communal understanding of good character provides an admirably clear illustration of the elusive concept known as "honor" — a swiftly dying virtue in an era in which ends always seem to outshine means.

Honor implies more than honesty. It often requires, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, fealty to "a moral bounden duty: sometimes implying that there is no legal obligation." One who seeks to be thought of as honorable may see life as guided by a code that governs the means through which we may pursue our ends. Writes the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: "An honor code says how people of certain identities can gain the right to respect, how they can lose it, and how having and losing honor changes the way they should be treated."

Although the idea of living by a code of honor goes back at least to classical Greece, the concept is nowadays reflected for most young people in the honor codes that their schools require them to sign. An honor code typically constitutes a student's agreement not to violate the norms of academic integrity. In its traditional form, an honor code requires not only that students agree not to cheat, but also that they agree to report violations of the code by others. If Student A is aware that Student B is cheating and does nothing about it, A and B are both in violation. Academic dishonesty, in this understanding, reflects badly on the entire institution.

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