Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This past week was a big one for loyalty stories. First, we have the New York Times reporting that President Trump asked former FBI director James Comey for his pledge of loyalty, to which Comey apparently promised "honesty." (The White House disputes this report.)
Then, we have a high school quarterback in Illinois being forced to decommit from the University of Wisconsin's, apparently because he tweeted that the University of Georgia had offered him a scholarship. The student called Wisconsin Coach Budmayr, telling him he had the offer and said he was "still 100% committed to the Badgers." The next day Budmayr apparently told him that he was no longer a good fit for Wisconsin and that he should keep looking. The reason: lack of loyalty.
Obviously, I only have the facts as they have been portrayed in these articles, and there are two sides to every story. Nonetheless, these anecdotes got me to thinking about loyalty and how people tend to perceive the concept.
To some, loyalty means fidelity. This can be in the physical or emotional sense, as in the marriage context. Some view extend it to ideological loyalty. And to some, it means undying, uncompromising agreement and support. It is this last idea that troubles me, because often it means that the loyalty is misguided.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines loyal as follows:
1. unswerving in allegiance: such a
a : faithful in allegiance to one's lawful sovereign or government were loyal to the king
b: faithful to a private person to whom faithfulness is due a loyal husband
c : faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product a loyal churchgoer
2. showing loyalty a loyal friend
The Trump-Comey scenario is clearly type 1(a), but I think the same is true of the Badger football situation. The concept of requiring absolute loyalty to the cause as a prerequisite for being part of the team.
The problem, of course, is what it means to be faithful and to whom. In the Comey situation, Comey's loyalty is to the FBI, the country, and the truth, not the person in the White House. Trump has sort of acknowledged this, although it is not clear what the president had in mind if he really did ask Comey for such a pledge. But it is clear that if Comey were to have pledged loyalty to the president, he would clearly have created the risk of compromising his loyalty to the country and the truth.
For football, this is harder to define. Is it to the team? To the coach? To the other players? To the program? Everything?
Blind allegiance is rarely a good thing, and can often lead to bad outcomes. In the Badger football case, it seems the coach was either (a) looking to get out of the commitment and took an excuse, (b) really believes assurances from one of his commits are hollow, or (c) wanted to send a message about allegiance. It is entirely possible it was some combination of the three.
When it comes to the high school player, I can imagine a scenario where the player was excited to be pursued, and he was showing off a little. Hard to blame a kid for that, frankly. Despite assurances to the contrary, the Badger coach wanted none of it. His team, his call, but I don't like it.
In my view, loyalty runs two ways. And loyalty should have room for misunderstandings, at a minimum, if not mistakes. Even it it doesn't, in the case of college player and college coach, the coach is the grown up. He or she should act like it. That means, if you have a real problem with the player, state it. And if you really don't want them any more, say it. I have no idea what the coach said, and in fairness to him, he may be the one taking the high road here by not airing issues publicly.
I can't say these stories raise any clear answers for me. But they do raise questions about loyalty, and what it means. I think that's worth thinking about, especially for lawyers and future lawyers. Both of these stories make me uncomfortable. It's worth it to me to think about why and what that means. And I think we should all spend a little time thinking about it.