The entire season had led to this. Sweating, pushing, and training together. Moving and thinking as one unit; one team. It was the day before our championship race. It was also the last day of classes. So, most students were partying. But we were at practice.
As we were warming up, a few underclass team members approached me and told me that they had seen a freshman named Bart drink a beer earlier that morning.
Wait, what? This morning?
My mind went reeling.
Bart was not supposed to do that. Our team had a rule of no alcohol 48 hours before a race, not to mention Bart was underage. The coach would ban Bart from racing, his boat would be scratched, and three other teammates would lose the opportunity to compete. The whole team would know. Bart would be ostracized and hated.
I pulled Bart aside and asked him whether he had drunk a beer. He paused, and then admitted yes, but it was “only a beer.”
Ugh. What do I do? The behavior itself was wrong. But telling the coach would cause so much trouble. It was only a beer.
If I had been in this situation earlier in my life, maybe I would have covered it up. Because that sounded easier. Because nobody likes a tattle-tale. Because things were going so well that season. Because I thought managing the expectations of a few underclassmen was easier than involving the whole team. Because this was my second-to-last day.
Typically, I take time to reflect alone on decisions like this. But I didn’t have time. I had to react fast. It was a Trebuchet problem, but with the deadline of a Rubber Band problem. My cheeks and palms swelled as the raw gravity of responsibility knocked me sideways.
So, I took a chance.
I told the coach.
Coach got angry at me.
Then coach got angry at Bart.
Then Bart got angry at me.
The boat didn’t race the next day.
Bart didn’t return the next season.
I had the responsibility to maintain lasting trust in the structure of our organization. This structure required that every team member live in a way that benefits the organization and does not harm it. This way of life was partially codified by the explicit acceptance of concrete policies such as no alcohol 48 hours before a race and no underage drinking. But it was also constructed by the implicit acceptance of ethical customs, like everyone suffering at practice together instead of partying.
As a team, we needed a real demonstration of these explicit and implicit limits. And to reinforce them, an example had to be made showing what happens if these boundaries were overstepped.
The context surrounding this event had been stirring for years. It unearthed the tectonic cultural forces that had been changing the team from social club to serious competitive squad. It highlighted the effects of us replacing Friday night ragers with movie nights.
To this day, I don’t know whether I made the right choice. I may have ruined Bart’s life, caused social anguish, and crushed his dreams. I don’t expect forgiveness. But I tell myself that I left the organization better than I found it, and I prevented many future “just a beer”s. I hope Bart understood why I chose that way.
Moving forward, I’m concerned that I’ll be faced with more difficult ethical problems requiring faster reactions.
What if Bart had been in my boat? And if banning him meant squelching my own opportunity to compete? Or if Bart had been 21 and the 48-hour policy hadn’t been formally in place? These problems are difficult to solve.
Word travels fast in our ultra-connected world. So, small actions can have large-scale effects. It’s impossible to predict whether a tiny misstep will be overlooked or will ruin lives. The best thing we can do is to think simply, with honesty and humility. Because even if we are clumsy, at least we are trying.