Like rest of society, sports prizes winning over all else
Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 11:59AM; Updated: Thursday July 26, 2007 6:35PM
We're pretty smart, when it comes to cheating in sports. We pick and choose. There's real cheating and then there are episodes we let slide.
Intentionally stepping on a guy's foot under the boards when he's trying to go up for a layup: It's dirty, but most of us wouldn't call it cheating. The player justifies his action -- and so do we -- because: 1) It's sweaty men playing basketball, not gloved ladies playing bridge; 2) The ref is supposed to catch that stuff; 3) We could see it ourselves, through the tangle of legs.
But a corked bat in baseball is another thing altogether. There's no way we (the spectators) or the opposing pitcher or the home-plate umpire can know the unfair advantage the batter has.
It's like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in a 1964 obscenity case: Pornography is hard to define, "but I know it when I see it." When there's cheating in sports, we know it when we see it. If we can see it.
You know it's cheating if, after you find out about it, you feel duped by the discovery that what you just saw was tainted. We know Sammy Sosa used a corked bat at least once, when it splintered and the cork went flying. What we don't know is how many of his homers should have asterisks. The cheating episodes we can't see are the most upsetting, a point that was driven home last week with the news that the FBI is investigating an NBA referee for allegedly betting on games, including some that he officiated, over the last two seasons.
It's naive to think all cheating in sports is equal under the law. Different sports have different cultures. In golf, the playing field is huge and unpatrolled. The players have to police each other and themselves. By and large, they do. In tennis, honor isn't always so easy to come by. The chair umpire screws up a call, an out ball is called in. You know it, the TV camera knows it, both players know it. Does the lucky player accept the gift point? Almost always. Why? Because in the long-run, most players figure the mistakes are going to even out. Every blue moon, a player rejects a gift point and the presses stop. But that type of honesty is rare.
We cling to the hope that games can still be played fairly because we know in other areas the barn door is open and it's not getting closed. We've already lost faith. We're sure that nothing is on the up-and-up when a big oil company writes a large check to a presidential candidate. We assume Wall Street IPOs are designed for the rich to get richer while the rest of us roll our loose change. War used to have rules when there were uniforms and cease-fires, and when acting in accordance to the Geneva Conventions meant something.
Cheating in sports undermines the reason we're watching in the first place. If the competition isn't legit -- if the outcome is influenced by illegal factors we can't see -- we're just wasting our time and emotion. Why care if the games are decided by something we can't see? The hollow win does nothing for us, unless you're a professional gambler. The rest of us cling to something more pure. Most of us came to sports when we were younger and more innocent. Adult cheating in sport defiles those memories.
Compounding the damage is that cheating begets more cheating. The sick phrase today is, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying." A batter uses a corked bat because he suspects the pitcher is throwing a scuffed ball. The pitcher uses the scuffed ball because ... well, pick your justification: It's been in the game forever. I only use it when I need it. It's the ump's job to catch me. The mound at this park is too low.