Monday, August 06, 2007

Game of Shadows

Is it ever right, or even necessary, to do what you know is wrong? Game of Shadows is an interesting case study in this very issue, in two different ways.

The first way is the actual subject of the book, which is the win at all costs mentality in sports. If everyone has an advantage, does anyone really have an advantage? If everyone else is lifting weights, then I need to life weights. If everyone else trains year-round then I need to train year-round. If every other team is building great facilities, then we need a great facility. If everyone else pays for private coaching for their kids, then my kids will need the same thing, just to stay competitive. As someone who works in, among other things, sports, I see this every day. The fact is, this mind set keeps me employed. So, where does this line of thinking eventually end? Quite clearly, it ends in the events described in Book of Shadows, which is wide-spread cheating through, in this case, performance enhancing drugs. In the eyes of the athletes, trainers, and "nutrition consultants" involved in the extremely widespread BALCO case, they saw themselves in a position where they simply had no choice. To them, everyone else had an advantage that they did not and to stay competitive, they had to cheat as well. It was, in their words, "cheat or lose." Of course, from the outside there are several glaring flaws to this line of thought. The first, and easiest, is that they throw around the word "everyone" so casually. The fact is, "everyone" was not cheating (actually, I do have some tiny sympathy towards the Track & Field athletes, as it appears as though everyone actually was cheating). In the case of Barry Bonds, his "everyone" was Mark McGuire, who Bonds viewed as a lesser player, but was baseball's glory boy. In his eyes, the only way to claim what he saw as rightfully his was to use, really, really use, steroids.

The obvious flaw in the "cheat or lose" philosophy is that there are worse things than losing, one of which is cheating. With that said, cheating in sports has long been a large gray area. Most athletes will tell you that "if you're not cheating, you're not trying." But this cheating "grace period" has boundaries that most athletes know. Q) Is it OK to grab someone's jersey, even though it's against the rules? A) Yes, until you get caught. Q) Is it OK to steal the other teams signals? A) Yes, unless you get caught. What do these two infractions have in common? They both happen within the game. In general, rule-breaking within the flow of the game is not frowned upon within the athletic community. If anything, they see it as the responsibility of the referee or umpire to enforce the rules on the playing field. If the referees allow you to get away with it, then it must be legal, right? The boundaries end with cheating that happens outside the flow of the game. Gambling, the classic example, takes place outside the flow of the game. There is nothing a referee can do within the flow of the game to enforce this rule (there's no 10-yard penalty for "gambling" in football). Steroid use also takes place outside the flow of the game. Again, if these players are allowed to play in games against non-steroid users, there is no recourse from within the game. Referees can't whistle a player for steroids, and the other team has no in-game cheating equivalent to steroid use. So, steroid use clearly falls outside the boundaries of the cheating which is "generally accepted" in the world of sports. More importantly, the athletes who are cheating in this manner know that. They can try to pawn themselves off as victims who had no choice, but they know that is simply not true.

The second question about doing wrong to achieve right is about the book itself. The authors of this book relied heavily upon grand jury testimony that was illegally obtained. The grand jury process is extremely important in the American justice system and is done in secrecy. We must protect this institution and the vital role that it plays in the aiding of investigations and the protection it offers to those who testify. If this secrecy is violated, the system will die and many investigations will end before they even start. Quite plainly, the authors of Game of Shadows are complicit in a crime against the very fabric of our democracy. With that said, this book (and the ground-breaking articles that preceded) it was necessary. Even President Bush told them that they "did a service" by writing it. By making this secret testimony public, a groundswell of public and political outrage was generated against the major sports leagues to fix this problem. Had this information not been made public, it is all but certain that baseball would not have instituted the drug policy they now have (judgments on its effectiveness notwithstanding). The integrity of athletic competition is being restored. Awareness of the dangers of steroid abuse is on the rise, and lives will be saved because of it. These are big deals! Surely leaking a little testimony is worth that price, right? Right?

Ultimately, I don't know that any of us are in the position to make that kind of a judgment. Frequently our view of right and wrong is based on our position. Our founding fathers, who we revere as heroes, committed treason against their country, which was England. To us, they did right, yet to England they are the worst of sinners. Are either of us wrong? For sports fans everywhere, we thank these authors for the service they did. Yet our criminal justice system is now weaker because of it.

Maybe it's only a matter of time. History will make a judgment about the moral appropriateness of their actions. Yet, history is written by the winners and is always biased. History is rarely a fair judge.

Even turning to the Bible we find little clear guidance. In the book of Joshua, we find Rahab, who lied to hide Jewish spies, thus committing treason against her own people. Still, Rahab is esteemed not only in this story, but in the New Testament as well, where she shows up in the lineage of Jesus! Ultimately, the message, I guess, is that only God can judge these types of situations. Although I strongly agree with the truth of that statement, I feel lazy just saying it. Still, I'm glad that I'm in the position to think about these types of issues, pray about them, discuss them, debate them, and generally analyze them to death. But at the end of the day, I'm NOT in the position to pass judgment on them, and I'm thankful for that.

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