Ethically speaking, should the Seattle Seahawks be expected to give back Monday night's victory?
There is precedent. In 1940, Cornell University president Edmund Ezra Day, upon learning that his school had scored the winning touchdown against Dartmouth after game officials inadvertently provided Cornell a fifth down, ordered a forfeit.
"We have done the right thing," Day told his football team, ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time, "and this will live with us. We shall not have to spend the rest of our lives apologizing for a tarnished victory."
Conspiracy theorists might have noted that the magnanimous Day happened to be a Dartmouth alum. But, at the time, the New York Herald-Tribune editorialized that Cornell's gesture was "magnificent; there seems again to be hope for the world."
So now, 62 years later, we have another team benefiting from ham-handed refereeing. Seattle bore no moral responsibility, yet the replacement zebras' goof on Monday, magnificent though not malicious, nevertheless swindled the Green Bay Packers.
Given that, should Seattle be bound to follow Edmund Ezra Day's lead?
"I don't think so," said Randy Cohen, for 12 years author of The Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine whose most recent book is "Be Good, and How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything."
To Cohen, the ethical violations were committed by the NFL owners, for throwing maladroit substitutes into the fray during their referee lockout, without implementing special mechanisms to deal with logically expected failures.
"They created a situation where every single person on Earth knows that they would get bad calls," Cohen said in a telephone interview. Why, he wondered, hadn't they -- at the least -- set up a short-term system to override replacement errors. The technology for additional replay review was available.
"We tolerate a certain amount of bad calls, hoping, over the course of a season, it all evens out," he said. "But our commitment to that approach is put to the test when we see a call that everybody agrees is that egregious.
"If you believe the rules of sport are a moral code, the game is defined by that. And there's something to how public these transgressions are. Millions of people who care about this game can watch and say, 'This is unfair.' They screwed up, and we say, 'That's correctable.' "
Cohen does not condemn the replacements for their series of bloopers that have come to resemble something out of a feverish dream; rather, he takes them to task for accepting their jobs in the first place.
"Officials are human," he said. "They make bad calls all the time. Whether scabs are human is another matter.
"If you're an unbelievably poor person and you cross a picket line at a coal mine in Kentucky in 1890, there might be a moral gray area there. People have to live. But these are scabs."
"And there is a greater transgression here. Are the owners morally wrong for failing to have settled this thing?"
Money -- big, big money -- defines the NFL, and always is a primary element in a labor dispute. Beyond the league and its employees, there are the television bucks, the ticket sales, the enormous gambling totals.
But that, Cohen said, isn't the point. "It's not the amount of money that makes stealing wrong, whether taking $100 is OK but not $1,000. With ethics, I don't make that distinction."
Bottom line: The Seahawks need not spend the rest of their lives apologizing for a tarnished victory. (Not that they would think of doing so.) But this might live with the NFL a long time.