When the tail wags the dog

by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, October 23, 2015, at 1:28 pm

“One of the great frustrations I have is when the tail wags the dog … [when the] policy is now the end instead of the means … the policy is why we’re here,” said Thom Rainer, the president of LifeWay Christian Resources (and my boss), when I interviewed him for a recent podcast. His words caught my attention because I find such situations frustrating because they can undermine organizations and their employees.

Just a few days later, Rainer’s words came to mind again when the story came out about LSU running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette being stymied by the NCAA in his efforts to auction a game jersey in order to donate the proceeds to flood relief in South Carolina. The NCAA has a policy against such actions with the intent, for better or worse, of keeping athletes from profiting off merchandise sales. In this case though, the policy stifled the generous desire of a prominent athlete. But the NCAA eventually came to its senses and allowed Fournette to auction the jersey after thousands of people tweeted and otherwise attacked the organization for its initial decision.

Just a couple days after that, the NFL got in on the wagging act when Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams announced the league was refusing to let him wear pink socks, shoes, and arm bands for the entire season to honor victims and fighters of breast cancer (something the NFL allows only in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month). Williams’ mother and four aunts all died from the disease. The NFL has an image issue when it comes to support for and respect of women. Yet its policy still interfered with decency.

And again, when Cameron Heyward, a Steelers defensive lineman and son of former player Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, decorated his eye black to honor his late father, the NFL fined him for that game and promised to continue to do so until he stopped. The league’s policy for uniforms ensures, well, uniformity (and the placement of licensed apparel), and the league wants to protect its image, but in this case, the NFL has displayed an image of heartlessness.

Some policies exist for good reason. Many, though, were put in place to protect a value that isn’t valuable or to combat behavior that isn’t prevalent. These policies wag the dog. In all three of the instances above, the policy-makers had an opportunity to exhibit actual values, to put people above policy, to do good. And instead they refused. (The NCAA caved to public pressure, not out of decency or goodness of heart.)

Values should determine policies. People should outrank them. And organizations should be willing to bend or eliminate them as soon as they become a hindrance to good. Dogs wag tails, not the other way around. That’s what God intended. 

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

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