Posted: Wednesday August 24, 2005 12:54PM; Updated: Wednesday August 24, 2005 2:40PM
Diego Maradona during the 1986 World Cup did what any soccer player would have.
So Diego Maradonahas finally fessed up. The first goal he scored for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals was propelled into the net with his hand. This comes as no shock to anyone who's seen a replay; as Maradona rose to challenge English goalkeeper Peter Shilton, he led with his arm and clearly gave the ball a punch. The referee somehow missed it and Maradona quickly realized rule No. 1 of cheating: You gotta sell it. Figuring the goal would be waved off, his teammates stood around instead of celebrating. A panicked Maradona told them, "Come hug me or the referee isn't going to allow it." They did, and three minutes later Maradona scored again, this time on a spectacular individual effort. England got one back late, but the game ended 2-1, and Argentina went on to win the Cup.
Maradona later cheekily said that the goal had been scored by the "Hand of God," and that phrase became the name by which the goal is now known. England fans, of course, have been outraged for the past two decades, and Maradona's confession will do little to salve those feelings of bitterness. But what are they really mad about? That Maradona's behavior was untoward? No. Just that it happened against them. If Peter Reid, the England midfielder at the time, had Karch Kiralyed a corner kick into the net to beat the Argies, the English press would still be praising him instead of ripping his managerial abilities and comparing his mug to that of a primate, and fans would probably have been less likely to sing from the terraces, "Peter Reid's got a $%%@#$ monkey's head" to the tune of Yellow Submarine.
Cheating in sports is a funny thing. There's a fine line between out-and-out cheating and being cagey. There are some clear instances of wrong behavior: steroids, for one. (I'm sick of these people who argue that if you're going to keep Rafael Palmeiro out of the Hall of Fame then you have to toss all of the spitballers, as well. Palmeiro broke the law and engaged in behavior that could have dire physical consequences. That's substantially worse than scuffing a ball. And don't write in telling me Ray Chapman died because Carl Mays threw a spitball -- no one knows for sure if he even threw one on the fateful pitch, and even if he did, that doesn't mean the ball hit Chapman because it was loaded.) And in sports such as golf, in which the players govern themselves, it's bad form to cheat. You ground your club in the trap, you take your two-stroke penalty like a man. Ditto just about anything with your pals -- Wiffleball, tennis, basketball. No one likes a guy who flops in a game of two-on-two and calls a charge.
Now, lest my father -- who I'm sure taught me some lesson about sportsmanship, even though I'm having trouble recalling one -- read a column in which his son openly advocates cheating, let me choose my words carefully. In some cases, it is part of the game; sometimes, a fairly big part. Sharpening a belt buckle and using it to scuff the ball. The phantom pivot on a double play. Keeping your yap shut when a referee fails to notice that you've punched a soccer ball into the net. Tuesday night the Indians should have gone to extra innings against the Devil Rays when Bob Wickman clearly balked with the tying run at third. But he was right not to say, "Actually, Lou Piniella's right, and in the interest of keeping that vein in his forehead from popping all over Aubrey Huff, I'm going to insist that you call a balk on me."
Look, there are umpires and referees on the field for a reason: to enforce the rules. If you are a professional athlete -- whose livelihood depends on your ability to produce -- and you think you can put one past those officials, you've got to try. Again, I'm not saying take HGH or pay recruits. Little Leaguers shouldn't be corking their bats, or whatever the aluminum equivalent of corking is. (I'll only advocate professionals cheating.) And don't turn on the air conditioner in your home dome when you're hitting, as a former Twins groundskeeper used to do.