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Baseball, Golf, Life and Ethics

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A few years ago controversy erupted when Derek Jeter was mistakenly ruled to have been hit by a pitch and took first base at the umpire’s direction. Jeter admitted later that the ball had hit his bat, not his person, but that the umpire had made a ruling and he just abided by it. The subsequent controversy was about the role of ethics in sports. We all know that game officials, like players and everybody else, are human and make mistakes. Blown calls are a part of the game, and while they sometimes affect the outcome there really is no good way to eliminate them completely. Even some of those who admitted that Jeter was technically correct to take the base, though, were troubled by the message this seemingly sent to our youth – if you can cheat and get away with it, it’s not cheating.

This is not anything new in sports, of course. Think of the retaliatory bean ball Scott Diamond threw last year – if that ball is not near the head the game goes on with no ejection, even though everybody in the park knew it was coming. In other sports as well, particularly in soccer and basketball, players will go down spectacularly after contact in an attempt to draw a call that may or may not be legitimate. I’ve heard it said that in every play in the NFL offensive holding could be called if the rule was strictly enforced, and defenders also have their bag of dirty tricks (not to mention bounty-gate, bugging locker rooms, and manipulating air flow in a stadium). This has been going on ever since organized sports began.

And in some sense we can and should expect that, as this mirrors life itself. Think taxes – how many people won’t indulge the opportunity to reduce their tax bill by playing in the gray areas if possible? How many drive over the speed limit, using as their justification that everybody else does it? Dirty tricks have been a staple of politics for centuries. It certainly seems like, in whatever area of life, we are not inclined to allow ourselves to be guided by the “better angels of our nature.”

That’s why I have always enjoyed golf. Golf seemed to be an area where honesty and integrity were something embodied, not just in the rules, but in the very approach to the game. The stewards of the game even sold that as golf’s image, talking about how our youth can learn these values through both the rules and the culture of golf. Yes, I know that in reality people are just as likely to cheat in golf as in any other aspect of life. The foot wedge is still an essential club in many golfers’ bags. The first-tee mulligan has become almost an institution in itself. Yet, in spite of that, the ethos of the sport was still that the spirit of the law had to accompany the letter of the law. Looking for a loophole to squeeze through was the exception rather than the expectation. We still remember Bobby Jones calling a penalty on himself that ended up costing him the U.S. Open title. It was still the hope that, in at least one area of our life, how we played the game was more important than whether or not we won.

Now, that is gone too. Yesterday at Augusta Tiger Woods made a mistake and took a bad drop. Whether he intended to do so or not is immaterial. It happened, and it gave him an unfair advantage compared to the field. Today he was assessed a two stroke penalty, in recognition, but because an official at the time ruled the drop proper Mr. Woods was not disqualified as would normally be the result of turning in an incorrect scorecard. On the one hand, the ruling makes sense. If the official had ruled the drop improper at the time the penalty would have been assessed and the scorecard corrected.

Yet it doesn’t change the fact that the whole thing feels sour to me. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. He should have known the rules about how and where to drop (and my guess is that he did), regardless of whether the official made a mistake. And I can’t but think that Bobby Jones, if he were here and had made the same mistake, would have voluntarily disqualified himself once it was pointed out to him. That won’t happen here; not at a major tournament in the 21st century, and comparing it to other sports, I can understand that. It fits the pattern that cheating is only cheating if you don’t get away with it.

But I do think our commitment to ethics, honesty and fair play have died just a little bit this weekend. Never again will golf be a sport that can be an example for integrity, a sport where the bottom line was not the thing that mattered most. Now it’s just a part of the rest of our world, where results are what really count, and how we get there doesn’t matter if we win. Say farewell to Bobby Jones; from now on there will be only Derek Jeters.

Updated 04-13-2013 at 11:28 PM by IdahoPilgrim

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