I’m helplessly drawn to soccer and have been for nearly sixteen years. The sport has shown me countless moments of transcendent genius, like that goal by Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, and it continues to inform my thoughts on issues ranging from globalization to personal fashion.
One of the biggest stories in the footballing world this week comes out of the German Bundesliga, Germany’s top professional league. Sunday’s match between Werder Bremen and Nürnberg saw Bremen’s captain Aaron Hunt deny his team a penalty—and a near-certain goal—by admitting to the referee that he had not been fouled after seeming to “trip” over an opponent’s foot. Werder was leading at the time and eventually won the game 2-0. Afterwards, Hunt told the media that he had tried to provoke the penalty “out of instinct” but then thought that doing so “was wrong.”
Most are treating this as an example of good sportsmanship. My reaction is slightly different. I see Hunt’s conduct as a potential teaching tool for discussing social enterprise.
When I first started looking into social enterprise, it felt like the movement’s supporters saw it principally as a response to concerns about shareholder wealth maximization. Their worry was that an undue corporate emphasis on profit making was to blame for the financial crisis, climate change, and other problems. Social enterprise was seen as the antidote, since it captures firms that seek to go beyond profits in order to do “well” (financially) while doing “good” (socially).
I’m a fan of social enterprise, and I think social enterprise law can add real value. Yet I’d caution against placing it in direct opposition to traditional corporate behavior. Social enterprise is growing at a time when notions of shareholder prioritization continue to evolve. While it is true that courts generally hold that directors must act for the benefit of the “corporation,” what this means as a practical matter is open to debate. Some managers probably do see the singular pursuit of wealth as their obligation, but many others now see a strong relationship between a firm’s social footprint and its impact on shareholder value.
This brings me back to Mr. Hunt. I like to imagine that something similar to his phantom foul situation plays out in corporate decision-making. Even if traditional corporate managers often start with a view toward maximizing profits “out of instinct,” I’m not ready to concede that many won’t still pull back to consider the wider social effects of their decisions. The difference between corporate managers and professional footballers is that not every ethical quandary in the C-suite happens in front of a live worldwide audience. But that’s not to say that every manager needs or wants to check her ethical sensibilities at the door, or that existing corporate law is not already flexible enough to permit most social/economic tradeoffs.
Whatever the justifications are for supporting social enterprise—and I believe there are many—they should not include a wholesale rejection of the traditional corporate model. Generating meaningful social impact is always going to be less about form and more about management’s sense of purpose, virtue, and ideals. So where does that leave the role of social enterprise and social enterprise law? That’ll be the subject of my next few posts.
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