Infidelity and Trust: Boardroom vs. Basketball Court

In an earlier post I asked, Would you trust less a business partner who cheats on his/her spouse? Or do you completely separate personal and professional?

My answer is I would trust the person less in a business or corporate environment, but would still trust enough to maintain a relationship.

Here’s a question for people like myself, people who do not strictly separate bedroom character from boardroom character:

Suppose that you were on an NBA team and you knew one of your teammates was cheating on his wife. Would you trust him less on the court? Trust is vitally important in basketball, just as it is important in business.

My answer to this new scenario is no, I would not trust my point guard (who’s cheating on his wife) any less on the court.

Why do I answer the questions differently? Is the trust required on the basketball court different than the trust required in most other professional settings? Is it that not trusting a teammate on the court would result in failure easily observed by coaches and fans, whereas trusting a colleague a bit less in the office is not easily known by others? Or do I just hold two contradictory views?

For those who said you would trust your business partner less if you knew he or she were being unfaithful in the bedroom, what say you to the NBA teammate scenario?

(thanks to Tyler Cowen for raising these questions.)

18 comments on “Infidelity and Trust: Boardroom vs. Basketball Court
  • In business and relationships, people have incentives to lie and backstab. On the court, what incentive does your point guard have to betray you?

    He’s not gonna pass to you for a few months and then suddenly stop – he has nothing to gain. And when you pass him the ball, you don’t have to worry that he’ll dunk it in his offshore bank account.

    Maybe it’s just easier to trust someone when you know they don’t have much reason to break your trust.

  • Good point… another shot:

    Perhaps in basketball, choices are repeated and broadcast into the open many times, making it obvious who you should trust. If you see a teammate play hard D for hundreds of points, you don’t need to know whether or not they cheat on their girlfriend to trust that they’ll be playing D on the next point as well.

  • I think the trust you give to a CEO and another basketball player are different. With a CEO or co-worker, the trust deals with the reliability and honesty of their actions when you’re not around. The trust of a fellow basketball player can be seen all the time on the court.

    I would say that AI not coming to practice when he was playing with the 76ers is different from Stanford and Madoff in their respective boardrooms.

    The kink in my argument is that if someone uncovered a betting ring scandal (pete rose-like) then the sports analogy becomes more relevant)

    on selfishness in the NBA check out this NYT article

  • I agree with you Ben that a player’s infidelity would not impact the trust relationship on the court, but infidelity would impair my ability to trust someone in other ways. The “discovery” process in basketball for the trust relationship is very short: you find out within minutes or days and there’s no obfuscation of whether the trust was violated. Additionally, the cost of each trust “bet” is relatively small: a single pass.

    To create an example on the opposite side of the spectrum, let’s imagine you were to appoint an irrevocable trustee for your (future) children’s well-being in the case of your death (sorry). My guess is that someone’s integrity to their spouse would significantly impair your ability to trust that person. It certainly would impair mine.

  • The ability to cheat requires the ability to relegate one’s conscience – or (in the case of sociopaths) not to have one at all. What happens on the basketball court is very closely observed and scrutinized; conscience doesn’t come into it, but the desire to look good does. Big difference in scenarios.

  • Like the military, sports and real life are almost entirely dissimilar. Sports is its own world, with its own set of rules.

    Loyalty to the team or to the squad has to come first, before loyalty to one’s spouse.

    Doug Christie was the most famously loyal basketball spouse of all time, and earned the scorn and ridicule of fans and players across the league.

    I doubt we’d ever criticize Barack Obama for being too close to his wife.

  • Ben,

    Ted S. has a point though. Only the top of the top get large contracts and endorsements. *Most* NBA players benefit the most if their team succeeds. Mix the financial gain of being on a good team with the competitive desire to win, and a point guard has every incentive to do what’s best for the team.

    Basketball is a hard analogy for the business world. Most of basketball player’s marketability is easily observed on the court. There are those intangibles such as locker room attitude etc, but those are also easily known through the NBA rumor mill.

    In business, because much of the dealings can be done in secret, it’s harder to discern the trustworthiness and the intangible skills a business partner brings to the table.

    So for the most part, in basketball at least, incentives are aligned. In the business world, incentives may not be aligned as much (although most business partnerships are somewhat symbiotic) therefore a person’s character and trustworthiness is more important in those business professional settings.

  • Doesn’t it depend on your vulnerability to the counterparty, regardless of the setting?

    It is very difficult for a basketball teammate of mine to “cheat” on me and have me not notice. Perhaps he can shave points, but even then, his play happens right in front of me. If he doesn’t pass when he should, I’ll be one of the first to know. Our relationship does not truly include “trust” – I don’t have to rely on his behavior out of sight.

    Incidentally, if his off-court behavior could have consequences for me (for example, if we are college players and his taking money from an agent will result in forfeiture of games/postseason opportunities), it definitely DOES matter to me that he cheats on other people. Because now I am trusting something I cannot verify.

    Many business relationships are fairly visible. I don’t care if the FedEx guy cheats on his wife; if my packages start vanishing I’ll know.

    Some, however, are not. A fellow manager in a parallel division, for example, could blow up my company (ask the folks outside AIGFP what they think of the quants now), and in all likelihood, I will read about it in the newspaper when everyone else does. Any action or behavior that made the person seem more erratic – infidelity, drug use, personal tax evasion, etc – would scare me.

  • As others have said, to me it comes down to the level of exposure you have to misdeeds on behalf of the person you need to trust. Infidelity demonstrates tactics and abilities that could be very dangerous to me in a boardroom, but not on a rarely on a basketball court.

  • i think there are too many things we don’t know about the guy who’s cheating on his wife. while cheating is not a good thing, but real life isn’t simply just guilty and not guilty.

  • Hmm, I think even a Pete Rose-esque level of scandal/betrayal, though it obviously attracted a great deal of attention & criticism (for good reason) is not nearly on par with say, a CEO who knows his stock is about to tank, hides the information for personal gain & takes the golden parachute — then lets his employees watch their retirement pensions evaporate.

    Pete Rose did a really really lousy thing, but it didn’t ruin lives in the same way that say, Kenneth Lay’s (former Enron CEO) betrayal did.

    To tie this back to Ben’s post, I think I’d say that in the business world there are both more opportunities & more incentives for someone to betray the trust of their comrades, then in the athletic world. In addition, the magnitude of said betrayal can be much much greater.

    Just my $0.02 – interesting post Ben.

    P.S. As an aside, I think it would be interesting for you (Ben) to do some kind of maybe semi-statistical analysis of what types of posts tend to garner lots of comments, like this one, and what types garner few or none. Maybe examining whether certain topics/linguistic choices/ lengths/ etc. lead to more audience participation & feedback. Anyway, that’s something that has been bouncing around in my head for a while and I’m curious what conclusions you might draw

  • I’ll suggest another sports example. I once had the opportunity to play golf with a business associate during a tournament. He was a horrible golfer and throughout the round reported lower scores. Now his scores were so bad that his effort was oriented towards not making him appear the worst golfer on the course rather than cheating to win. The only charitable characterization for his activity was to suggest that he took so many strokes per hole that he couldn’t actually remember how many strokes it took per hole. But this was so regular that I did not see this as a legitimate possibility.

    After this display I never trusted this man again. I saw his actions as reflective of an ego so weak that he would do anything to save face. And to save face in such an unimportant endeavor as a bar golf tournament makes one wonder about his behavior in something more substantial such as business dealings.

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