Blog: The Educated Reporter

In Las Vegas, a Tough Lesson in the Science of Sportsmanship

That life isn’t fair shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone, even teenagers who might have comparatively less experience with the harsher sides of reality.

But what’s playing out in the Las Vegas desert, where the house nearly always wins, isn’t about the luck of the draw. It’s about how an unfortunate scoring error in a high school academic competition has been compounded by the sheer inability of a few adults to act like … well … adults.

The Las Vegas Sun has a thoughtful overview of the dilemma, which boils down to this: Centennial and Clark high schools faced off in the finals of the state’s Science Olympiad. Due to the error in tallying the points – which wasn’t discovered until 10 days after the event – Clark was mistakenly named champion for the third time in as many years.

Clark is home to one of the Clark County School District’s premier magnet programs, attracting a diverse student body interested in math, science and technology. Centennial, which would have been making its first trip to the national tournament, is the scrappy underdog in this story.

When the scoring error was discovered, Clark’s team had already started planning to travel to the national competition in Florida later this spring. The coach of the Centennial team asked that Clark give up its title. The Clark team refused.

Nevada Education Department employee Richard Vineyard, who founded and coordinates the statewide Science Olympiad, told the Sun he unsuccessfully petitioned the national office to have both Centennial and Clark advance in the competition.

The controversy has cast a long shadow over what had been a source of enjoyment and pride, Vineyard told the Sun.

“We’re moving away from science and learning, to winning and competition,” he said. “If it’s more important to win than to learn, then it’s outlived its purpose.”

Clark’s Science Olympiad coach and the school’s principal both initially refused to comment. However, members of the Centennial team – who are as eloquent as they are apparently proficient in science – have been far from silent.

According to the Sun, Josh Curtis, a Centennial senior and founding member of its Science Olympiad team, told the Clark County School Board at a recent meeting that the incident raises serious concerns about the judgment of the adults involved.

“Some have shirked their responsibility and passed on tough decisions that should have been made by them. Others have refused to make the correct decision in the face of what is fair and just,” Curtis said. “If Centennial is not recognized as the winner, Clark students will learn that if you refuse to acknowledge the rules and ignore the truth, you will get what you want. They will see that lying and cheating are acceptable actions.”

I shared the situation with Paula Mirk, education director of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine., who is one of the panelists for the “Ethical Educator” column in School Administrator. Mirk, who doesn’t take sides when evaluating such dilemmas, said applying some of the classic ethical paradigms could help resolve the conflict.

One of those key paradigms is “truth vs. loyalty.” The actual facts might show that Centennial was the winner, but Clark’s leadership might be reluctant to take the championship title away from students who they worked with and know.

“What it comes down to is we’re all human, and we all make mistakes,” Mirk said.

Another ethical consideration is the “short term vs. the long term,” Mirk said.  In the short-term Clark could hold on to its title so its students aren’t disappointed, but in the long term that could mean Nevada loses its staunchest supporter for the Science Olympiad.

Also at play is which course of action would yield the most good for the most people – that’s tough to apply in this situation, since there are many students on both sides, Mirk said.

And let’s not forget the perhaps best-known of the ethical paradigms: reciprocity. What would the Clark and Centennial teams want to happen if their positions were reversed?

“Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is a very natural way to make these kinds of decisions,” Mirk said.

How the adults conduct themselves does matter, Mirk said. In “Schools on Integrity,” the ethics institute’s researchers determined the behavior of adults in the school community had an effect on students.

“If we want students to be truly good people, the climate of their learning environment—the ’how we do things around here’ of their school’s organizational culture—must clearly stem from and telegraph a platform of shared ethical values,” the researchers concluded.

Schools and school systems can either turn situations like what’s happening in Las Vegas into opportunities to teach ethics proactively, or “you’re definitely going to do it by default,” Mirk said. “The kids are always watching.”


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