Taking One for the Team

Lately, when I sit around and talk about sports with my friends, I ask this question: “Rank the order in which you think professional sports are more or less honest.”

It’s not easy. Most people agree pro wrestling is at the bottom and boxing and horse racing are not far from it. Not that any sport is far from bottom any more. Repeat Super Bowl champs New England Patriots have been caught taping opponents signals, basketball referees have testified to throwing games (as if you didn’t notice for yourself), at least 100 baseball players are on the not-so-secret list of 2003 steroid users (more woe in Beantown) and we now know that Bobby Thompson was able to hit his “shot heard round the world” in 1951 because the Giants had been stealing signals all through the late summer. (Hey, they were 50 years ahead of the Pats in technology.)

Eager sports fans, dismayed by all the above and prone to saying things like “they all do it” are still tuning into ESPN as religiously as ever. We’re still mesmerized by a pitcher freezing a batter with a breaking ball or a slap shot that seems to have eyes as it flies past two defenders and a goalie. We grow a thick callous on our sense of fair play and Grantland Rice’s words about “how you played the game” seem as quaint and pointless as nursery rhymes.

Life imitates sports or vice versa, because just as sports are a reflection of our time, so are the hemispheres of business and politics soaked through with scandal. I don’t need to list for you here the Bernie Madoffs and Alan Stanfords, the Mark Sanfords and Jon Ensigns and David Vitters.

Although I don’t think scandal is part of the plan, I do think there are people in sports and business and politics cynical enough to take advantage of the sins of their peers.

“They all do it, Nixon just got caught,” my mom, a disappointed Republican said after Watergate (foreshadowing 21st century sports fans). The subsequent years were decorated by Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays, Abscam, Iran-Contra, Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky. Every ensuing scandal brought our expectations lower and created more room for misbehavior. Should we have been surprised, after all that, when George Bush and Dick Cheney spent eight years showing contempt for the rule of law? Should we be surprised that Barack Obama would rather “look forward, not back” even if leaving those crimes unpunished leaves open the door for fresh assaults on the Constitution down the road?

A scandal is a scandal the first, perhaps the second time it occurs. When it happens again and again, it begins to recede into the background and becomes ordinary. If you’ve got a publicist and a crisis manager, you just deal with it and move on, knowing that sooner or later your sins will be forgotten, if not forgiven. Too many things crowd into the frame, jostling for our attention. Cheating is so profitable it’s practically legal and if, on the off chance you do get caught, there’s a whole redemption industry out there.

Better still if you are a corporation, rather than a person. Philip Morris covered itself in slime and became Altria. Arthur Andersen contributed to the Enron crime wave and reinvented itself as Accenture with Tiger Woods pitching from ads in every airport. (Sure, it would better if he was winning more, but at least he takes the public mind off corruption.)

A movie coming out this summer is based on the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal of the early 1990s. They play it as a comedy. Should expect a musical about the Exxon Valdez in another year or so?

The court of public opinion is blunted by fatigue from both individual and corporate misdeeds. Soon there will be no barrier to bad behavior at all. We’ve entered an age in which no one remembers your dignity, they only remember who won and as Vince Lombardi said a half century ago, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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