Thursday, March 22, 2007

Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and bond-breakers

[This is my second attempt to use basketball analogies to desribe apparent disagreements over the blogosphere. Some knowledge of NBA's system of drafting and trading players may be required to fully comprehend this analogy, and I apologize if anyone finds my analogy incomprehensible.]

In 2004, Kobe Bryant was in the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, the only team he had ever played for (for 8 years) and the team he had won 3 championships with. Despite later proclamations that he wanted to be a "Laker for life", he did not sign an extension of his contract which was earlier offered to him. Why not? Being a bona fide NBA star, Kobe Bryant would be the hottest commodity in the NBA trade market when his contract expires. Beside the Lakers, several other NBA teams would also make offers to Bryant, hoping that he will sign on with them. The Lakers, not wanting to lose out, will offer an even more lucrative contract to Bryant, to lure him away from the other competing teams. Rejecting the initial contract extension would mean that he would get offered a even more lucrative contract later, so obviously it makes sense to reject the extension, even if it was the team you wanted to play with anyway. Such was the mentality of Kobe Bryant, and such was the mentality of probably all NBA players, and when NBA teams propose contracts to NBA players, they know this full well. At the end of the day, NBA players look after their own interests first.

Another celebrity NBA player, Yao Ming's contract with the Houston Rockets was expiring in 2007, making him probably the hottest commodity of that year. Yao Ming is considered by many to be the best player in the center position in the NBA, and many teams, including the LA Lakers, will be interested in signing Yao Ming. However, before his contract expired and before he could be offered different contract proposals from different teams and choose the most lucrative, Yao signed a contract extension with Houston, in a move totally opposite to what Kobe Bryant did a year ago. Why did he do so? Did he not know that if he waited until his contract expired, he would probably be offered better deals by other teams and Houston? One of the reasons Yao Ming gave was that his "heart is always in Houston", and that he is deeply grateful to the organization for helping him overcome the various obstacles preventing him from being an NBA player several years ago. Unlike Bryant (and probably every other NBA player), self-interest was not the only issue in his mind when deciding which contract to sign, but also loyalty, honor and gratitude. This was somewhat an oddity, because no one really expects Yao to be loyal to Houston, and it is quite difficult to make the claim that Yao was obliged to be loyal. NBA players just do not function that way.


There is currently a long discussion going on in Aaron's blog about scholarship bond-breakers. Aside from the fact that I didn't know such a diverse group comment on his blog, I also realized that regarding the ethics of bond-breaking, there were distinctively two camps of views. One camp, which I shall call the "Yao Ming" camp, came to regard scholarships as not just a legal contract, but something like an agreement between gentlemen. There is a promise involved, and it is on your honour not to break such a promise. If a scholar does not feel so, then he/she should, for such is a nature of a scholarship. The other camp, the "Kobe Bryant" camp, just believes that a scholarship is but a legal contract. There is no implication of being immoral if a scholar breaks his contract, but still pays up the liquidated damages as described in the contract.

Of course I am not the only one who realizes this dichotomy, and that the basis of such a difference of views lies in a gap in our fundamental beliefs of the nature of scholarships. But perhaps what is interesting (or pointless) about this debate, is the realization that it is quite impossible for a Yao Ming to argue by deductive reasoning alone, that a Kobe Bryant is wrong, and vice versa. Lucky Tan uses the analogy of one person liking blue shoes, and another liking green shoes, and we argue about which colour of shoes is better. Although that may be an accurate description of differing worldviews, typically a blue shoe lover does not accuse the green shoe lover of being immoral in choosing a green shoe over a blue shoe.

I think this is an interesting case study in differing worldviews (fundamental beliefs), since it unlike the other usual case studies (abortion, homosexuality etc ), religion does not come into the picture here. Aaron, and perhaps other Yao Mings, do not just say that "oh, if the scholars are fellow Yao Mings
then they are immoral for breaking bonds, but if they are Kobe Bryants, then it is okay". Aaron believes that all bond-breakers, regardless if they are Yao Mings or Kobe Bryants, are being immoral for breaking the bond (ie, moral permissibility of bond-breaking is not agent-relative, to some extent). And probably, even if the scholarship bodies themselves realize that most scholars are Kobe Bryants (which I personally believe to be the case), and they actually prepare and design the scholarships with the Kobe Bryants in mind, that still does not deter the fact that bond-breakers ought to be regarded as immoral.

I personally am a Kobe Bryant. My reasons for being so are experiential. I have several friends who are scholars, and I know a couple of bond-breakers myself, I generally sympathize with their plight and feel that labeling them as immoral seems unfair. I wonder if Aaron (and other Yao Mings) got to know such friends of mine and listen to their stories, would they still believe that bond-breaking is immoral? Or perhaps, if myself (and other Kobe Bryants) listened to Mr Philip Yeo and how bond-breakers create all sorts of problems for the organization and the nation, then maybe we might change our minds? Although it has come under criticism of late (in Parliament!), I still believe that "anecdotal evidence", is often the most persuasive evidence we have when it comes to issues which cannot be easily agreed upon by reason alone.

[My thanks to Cognitive Dissonance for her helpful input in a recent discussion we had on the issue of bond-breaking]


Aaron said...

Haha.. I'm just an idealist mah. You also put in your blogroll that I'm the idealist. :P

Idealists have hard heads. :-(

cognitivedissonance said...

Hmm. No I don't think I said anything particularly enlightening. =p Shae's comment on Aaron's post is most unique of all that's been said so far. And I liked Ian's post too - the title says it all *wicked grins*.

LuckySingaporean said...

Oh my 180+ comments in Aaron's blog later...we are still discussing this.

I just want to add one more dimension to this. Our top civil servants (like Philip Yeo) and top leaders have earned the moral authority to ask everyone else to make a sacrifice. This is because our ministers forego about $1M per year in opportunity cost because of their sense of duty and love for Singapore. With that sacrifice, they have earned the moral license to tell everyone also to forego opportunities to serve Singapore a.k.a. leadership by example. ...for a common good.

Given the sacrifice by Philip Yeo and our esteemed leaders, we owe it to Singapore to also make the same sacrifice. Following this line of argument, one can also say that bond breakers have put themselves ahead of the need to serve Singapore.