Our Last Innocents: 'Fair play has always been more of an ideal than a working principle.'

The timing was exquisite. A voice on the radio, trying to entice viewers to one of those “Survivor”-type reality shows, promised that the program’s competition would be extremely intense. “We don’t play fair,” the voice intoned. “We play to win.” This pledge was delivered in a manner that suggested not embarrassment, but pride. After all, isn’t that the point—to win, regardless of the means?

Coincidentally or not, the reality-show commercial led directly into a summary of the day’s sports news, which concerned the adventures of the pitcher Roger Clemens, accused of using performance-enhancing substances, and the football coach Bill Belichick, accused of videotaping an opponent’s practice session in violation of National Football League policy. Both men vehemently deny the accusations. If they are innocent, they should, of course, pursue every avenue to prove it. But you almost have to wonder why they would bother.

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There is a pretty good case to be made that fair play always has been more of an ideal than a working principle in American society. From Standard Oil to Microsoft, American companies have been accused of dispensing with fairness in their will to win greater riches. Politicians from both parties, running for offices grand and local, have been known to cross the boundaries of fairness to win an election or get a piece of legislation passed. I’m told, and I find this hard to believe, that people in the publishing business have been known to fudge circulation figures in pursuit of greater advertising revenue.

It’s not about playing fair. It’s about winning.

When it comes to our games, however, we dispense with Machiavelli and instead embrace our inner Jeremiah, demanding purity and calling out those who fall short of our ideals. We believe in what sports bureaucrats call the “integrity of the game,” that is, the charming notion that the playing field is level and pure for all, and that the games are played within a recognized set of rules that are the same for every competitor.

What a quaint notion! It seems positively Victorian, at odds with our distinctly un-Victorian attitude toward anything that smacks of self-restraint in pursuit of indulgence. As the Outback Steakhouse commercial says, “No Rules. Just Right.” I’ve often wondered precisely what rules Outback has dispensed with in order to lure steak-loving anarchists to its dining rooms. Surely the rule that requires payment after consumption remains in place, and one suspects that the use of knives and forks is encouraged if not actually required.

In any case, no serious athletic organization could ever get away with the Outback ethic. Rules are the essence of sports. Break them on the field, and you are penalized. Break them off the field, and you are liable to be denied employment or, in the case of athletes like Pete Rose and Joe Jackson, you are barred from the highest accolade your sport can confer, a place in the Hall of Fame.

Sports fans may be this country’s last innocents. Political junkies tend to be among the most cynical of humans, for they know how the legislative and electoral sausage is made. Few consumers are surprised to learn that large corporations occasionally cut legal and moral corners to make a few extra dollars. But sports fans are eternally wide-eyed. They passionately believe in the meritocratic purity of the baseball diamond, the hockey rink, the gridiron, the boxing ring.

On second thought, skip the boxing ring. Nobody is that innocent.

That’s why athletes find it so difficult to admit that they’ve rigged the competition, that they have not played fairly in pursuit of victory. A reality show like “Survivor” can boost its ratings by highlighting the ruthlessness of its contestants because, at the end of the day, it’s just an entertainment vehicle. The shows are not about reality, no matter that they are billed as precisely that.

Sports, however, are real, at least in our culture. The men and women who perform at the highest levels are admired for what they achieve on a playing field governed by rules fairly applied to all competitors. The victor supposedly earns his or her laurels not by manipulation, but by performance. When that proves false, when rules are broken in pursuit of victory, glory is rescinded and public affection withheld.

It seems, however, that only athletes are held to these high standards. Few people condemned Bill Gates when Microsoft was fined for violating fair trade practices in Europe. Presidential candidates rarely suffer when their campaigns are found to have violated election laws—a fairly frequent occurrence. But if an athlete or coach bends a rule, he or she not only faces the public’s censure, but may actually go to prison. Marion Jones, the disgraced sprinter, denied taking steroids for years, but when she finally admitted that yes, she had taken drugs to improve her performance, she was stripped of her Olympic medals and dispatched to prison for perjury. No rules, just right? Not in the world of sports.

And that, I believe, is the beauty of the games we play or, in the vast majority of cases, watch. That’s why the ongoing Congressional investigations of both baseball and football are important, because millions of sports fans really do believe in the integrity of the games they watch and the teams they follow. They may no longer associate integrity with public life; they may question the ethics of Wall Street; but they expect fairness and equity on the field.

A quaint notion, for sure. But an admirable one as well.

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