Like most moms, I have tried to teach my son to play by the rules in life. This includes team sports, which I must confess to having known very little about until I found myself raising a bundle of budding testosterone who loves basketball and football.
I’ve gotten books on the sports, and sat down with my son to learn the rules together. I have done my best to make sure he, you know, follows them. That, I told him, is what rules are for.
So imagine my surprise when my boyfriend, the cowboy, comes along and tells me that my son should be getting more…fouls. That’s right, fouls.
This came up in conversation because I expressed alarm at the high number of fouls another member of my son’s school basketball team seemed to be accumulating, and my resulting frustration that the coach let that kid play a lot anyway.
AGGRESSION CAN BE GOOD
The cowboy informed me that in basketball, fouls were an indication of an aggressive player. Aggressive players, apparently, win games. Even if they get fouls. The trick, I was told, was to keep the number of fouls within safe limits so that you don’t get thrown out of the game.
Said the cowboy, “Don’t let yourself be so concerned with strict adherence to the rules that stifle your aggressiveness. There’s a reason that a player is allowed a number of fouls in a game, before being ejected. In the course of aggressive play, you’re going to bump into a few people (just like in life); not necessarily on purpose, but just in the course of ‘going after it’ aggressively.” The cowboy wasn’t saying Alex should disregard the rules. He was saying there was more room than I realized, to bend them or, sometimes, break them.
Celia Moore is a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School who has studied this phenomenon of rule-breaking male athletes (hockey players in her study) being rewarded for their bad behavior. Her conclusion? That “moral disengagement” is often seen as essential for organizational advancement. “Our research does show that rule-breakers (players who get the most penalties) are valuable to teams,” said Moore via an email interview with Mamiverse. “Additionally, penalty-eliciting behavior does appear to be a route to the top leagues for players who have fewer ‘legitimate’ skills.”
Research by Michel Anteby, a professor in the Harvard Business School, shows that in the factory world, the most successful workers are those who break the rules the most. Anteby says those who possess the ability to operate in what he calls “moral gray area” are seen, whether consciously or not, as being more valuable. In other words, to go places in life, and in sports, or even in factories, you have to know how to bend the rules.
I shared this information with my son. As he listened, I could see the light bulb going off over his head. Everything made sense to him now. At his next game, he proudly took home two fouls—and a newfound respect from his teammates. They high-fived him for the aggressive, against-the-rules behavior.
I was shocked.
GIRLS SHOULD BREAK THE RULES, TOO
As girls, we are raised to make nice. To play by the rules. To get attention and to get ahead by being good girls. Naturally, this is the value system I’d mistakenly been imparting to my child. Boys, it seems, are taught from an early age that it’s admirable to be aggressive to the point of breaking the rules, so long as you stay close to that invisible line that gets you completely thrown out of the game. Is it any wonder, then, that boys grow up to be the men who are better than we are at things like negotiating salary raises, or confronting the shady car salesman?
I stand here before you today a changed mom, the kind of mom who now advocates for her son to break the rules now and then, as long as he can get away with it. But more than that, I stand before you as a changed woman, who realizes that all women and girls would be well-served to go hard after that goal now and then, even if it means someone, somewhere, will cry foul.