It's how you play the game: professional athletes who plagued the sports world with scandals this summer somehow missed the message that winning isn't everything.
After a season in which we were constantly reminded of the improbability that the great (and increasingly bulky) Barry Bonds was hitting all those homers without chemical assistance, the boys and girls of summer 2006 piled up a landfill of fresh sports scandals, muddying up everything from cycling and cricket to soccer and track. It was enough to make you homesick for the pie-eyed idealism of professional wrestling.
Before it even started, the World Cup was besmirched by reports of a match-fixing scandal among Italy's soccer teams. And by the time the dust had settled on the last game, the French team's star player, Zinedine Zidane, was headbutting like a hooligan. Then the Tour de France got off to a rocky start with revelations that several of its favored contenders were being banned for doping. American Floyd Landis looked like he was going to redeem the sport and the summer with his Cinderella-story comeback on Day 17, charging up the Alps like a house on tire. But, alas, the yellow-shirted Landis was not true blue, as two doping tests revealed in the weeks after the race. At least some of the testosterone coursing through his veins was not homemade. Within days his reputation was in shambles, his team had been disbanded, and the tour directors were talking about taking his trophy back.
Meanwhile back in the United States, sprinters Justin Gatlin and Marion Jones, who have garnered eight Olympic medals between them, both ran afoul of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency when they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Though Jones later tested negative, Gatlin, a second-time offender, received an eight-year ban from the sport, which he hopes to appeal so he can compete in the 2008 Olympics.
Then in August the whiff of scandal put a stink on the very sport whose name is synonymous with "fair play." For the first time since the Raj introduced tea and crumpets to the region, Pakistan's cricket team forfeited a test match against Great Britain after the refs ruled that the Pakistani players had tampered with the ball, a capital offense among the ultra-civilized, white-shirted players who break for high tea. Even cricket, it seems, was being played in Mudville.
IN THE THEATER OF PROFESSIONAL SPORTS A charge of cheating, doping, or hooliganism is inevitably answered by bellowing cries protesting the honor and innocence of besmirched players, coaches, and teams (regardless of the fact that such accusations usually turn out to be true).
Athletes and their attorneys, having failed to establish that the test was bogus, turn to three traditional defenses. The first is that they would never cheat, dope, or commit any chicanery that would undermine their beloved sport. Pete Rose holds the world record for maintaining this bluster in the face of overwhelming evidence, but even he eventually caved in a tell-all bio.
The second is that somebody else slipped the drug into their system. Gatlin's coach, for example, suggested that a massage therapist rubbed them into Gatlin's pores. It's perhaps the most ancient defense, used by Adam when he claimed that Eve had made him ingest the forbidden fruit.
And finally, there's the classic defense that "everybody does it," which of course makes it perfectly fine because sports and ethics are not about being the best or setting the bar higher, but about being as weak and bad and lazy as everybody else.
THERE'S SOMETHING PATHETIC ABOUT ATHLETIC demigods whining like guests on The Jerry Springer Show, complaining that they do not deserve the sanctions being leveled at them, that they cannot imagine how these drugs got into their bloodstream, or that they were only doing what everyone else does. How refreshing it would be to have these heroes of the playing field and running track step up to the plate and take their medicine like men and women.
Athletics are meant to train us in discipline and fortitude, to build character. It would be nice to witness some guts on the part of those caught in the act. Perhaps they could steal a line from George Washington: "I cannot tell a lie--I took the drugs, scuffed the ball, fixed the match." That ought to be worth a medal or two.
But as long as legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi's truism that "winning is the only thing" remains the bible of sports, we cannot expect the players to deviate from the official script. In the library of sports films there are few movies about second-place teams, few tales about athletes who would rather be right than victorious. Adam and Eve reached for the forbidden fruit when the serpent promised it would make them godlike, and young people will always be sorely tempted to cross the line if it means a path to immortality. In Hoosiers Gene Hackman notes that "most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments," so why wouldn't they inject a little testosterone or dope their blood a bit?
MAYBE THE LESSON HERE IS AS ANCIENT AS Adam and Eve: that we are too ready to do anything to become immortals. We need to remember that sports is also a "game," something we play at to celebrate our humanity and to achieve community. Winning is such a small part of play, and defeating others is the most passing of fancies. In the end Lombardi was wrong and my kindergarten teacher was right--winners are people who work and play well with others. Whiners are people who cheat and lie to beat others.
By PATRICK MCCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2006|
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