Back in the “good ole days” (you know, the days of my childhood), several well-worn phrases were associated with athletics: “Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win.” and “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Today, we are hearing that yet another star athlete, Lance Armstrong has admitted that he was cheating in order to win his particular game of cycling.
I have never been much of an athlete. Although I did participate in organized sports as a kid, it was never a passion of mine. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the culture of competitive sports. I’m not a sports fan, and I don’t watch games on television much. It was later as an adult, when I returned to work at my High School, that I got more involved. As an adult, I helped out the school athletics program by volunteering as a timekeeper at basketball games and as a scorekeeper at baseball games.
My experience with High School athletics from the late 90’s until the mid 2000’s left me with a disturbing impression of modern sportsmanship of youth athletics. I was horrified by the unsportsmanlike behavior of the parents at baseball games. Parents would yell angrily at the umpires whenever they made a close call that went against their team. When one of the players on their own team made a particularly bad play, they would protest loudly, and sometimes they would even ridicule the kid.
At basketball games, the behavior was even worse. It might have seemed that way because every scowl from the crowd was amplified by the walls of the gymnasium; it might have been because as a timekeeper, I was technically part of the team of referees. Beyond the bad behavior of the spectators, I began to notice that the basketball teams were specifically coached to break the rules in certain situations. For example, when a team is losing the game, and there are only two minutes left, they are often coached to intentionally foul the other team in order force a change in possession of the ball. This is so common that few people consider whether it is problematic. Few would agree with me that this amounts to training kids that it’s okay to break the rules in order to improve their chances of winning. Somehow the word “foul” no longer means behavior outside of the boundaries of fair play.
What is the difference between breaking the rules of the game in order to gain a competitive advantage and cheating? I think they are the same. When I discussed this with my friend who was the athletic director, he thought I was crazy. The fouling strategy is part of the game. When I raised my old fashioned platitude about winning not being the most important thing in school athletics, he also thought I was crazy. This man had spent his entire life in school athletics. He scoffed at the notion that any coach worth his salt would tell her or his team that there was anything more important than winning. The only way to win was to make that the only acceptable outcome.
I realized that this ethic was behind all of the behavior that bothered me so much. Parents hadn’t put their kids into the athletic program in order to teach them sportsmanship at all. They had put them into those programs in order to teach them to be winners; coming out on top was all that mattered in this environment.
We still like to put a noble face on athletics, so we still give lip-service to the notion that we value sportsmanship. This is why we pretend to be scandalized by Lance Armstrong’s doping. This is why there is so much self-righteous indignation about the Baseball Hall of Fame right now. No one was voted in this year because even though many players put up numbers to earn them a spot, those players had been recently outed as steroid users.
I believe there are many lovers of sports who still believe in the integrity of the game. The problem isn’t that they stopped believing; the problem is that they have also embraced a conflicting ethic that cannot co-exist with the integrity ethic. You cannot both believe that a player or team should win by any means necessary and also believe they must play by the rules. You send mixed messages when you teach your kids to respect the rules, but to also break them when it gives you a strategic advantage.
We are now experiencing the natural consequences of such actions. Our sports heroes are turning out to be cheaters, and even though they tell us that it is a systemic problem–because players can’t win today without doping–we don’t want to acknowledge our complicity in the breakdown of the ethics of the “game.”
I don’t think it is a coincidence that traders on stock exchange floors behave like a bunch of High School jocks in a locker room. Our win-at-all-costs ethic has been an ideal training ground for Wall Street. We still aren’t ready to admit our own part in promoting this ethic, and so nothing changes. We just keep demonizing the few who get caught, and in the meantime, we slowly watch our cherished values of ethics drain away.