Embracing the scandal
Which brings us back to the possible upside of the Year of the Cheater. For the past three millennia or so — despite ever-mounting evidence that what we’re doing is intellectually indefensible — we’ve insisted on over-idealizing sport, on treating great athletes as moral exemplars, as well as freakishly gifted specimens. They don’t need to lead upstanding private lives, mind you. (Alex “Stray Rod” Rodriguez’s recent marital infidelities are a non-issue for most Yankee fans.) But when the game is on, we want them to embody humanity’s noblest traits. When they do — when the Patriots ran onto the field together before their first Super Bowl win, for example — we lavish them with misty-eyed praise. When they don’t, out comes our self-righteous judgment. (Manny Ramirez isn’t hustling to first?! Children, look away!)
But the recent wave of scandals might finally manage to change that. Look at this year’s transgressions as a group, dispassionately, and some harsh lessons start to emerge. Money is king. Morality is selective. And we’ve entered an era in which athletic acts themselves — the elemental building blocks of competition — have become inherently untrustworthy.
If the Year of the Cheater drives these points home, it won’t be the death of sports fandom. But the content of fandom will change. Once we’ve reconciled ourselves to the obvious — that money and technology have made cheating an inextricable part of modern sport — we’ll be free to focus on the nuances of competition itself, from strategic brilliance to individual displays of athletic transcendence, instead of fretting over whether our favorite athletes are comporting themselves nobly.
This won’t make every cheater a hero. (It’s hard, for example, to find anything to praise about NBA ref-gone-wild Donaghy, who cheated solely for financial gain.) But when someone does cheat, we’ll forgo the sermonizing and appreciate their achievements anyway. Bonds may have enlisted the help of some top-notch chemists to set his new home-run mark. But he also relied on freakish hand-eye coordination, as well as an all-consuming will to sports power (remember, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s 1998 home-run derby may have pushed Bonds into his alleged dalliance with chemicals), and a superhuman knack for fending off and feeding off abuse from commentators and fans. Slap an asterisk on home-run ball No. 756 if you must, Mark Ecko; that’s still impressive stuff.
We might even conclude that certain cases of cheating deserve our not-so-grudging admiration. Take Belichick. After the videotaping scandal broke, Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis told us that Belichick’s late father Steve, a former assistant coach at the US Naval Academy, would surely have been ashamed by his son’s transgression. But would he? Here’s another possibility: perhaps Steve Belichick would have congratulated himself for raising a son so thirsty for success, so relentless in his focus, that he risked public opprobrium to give his already-dominant gridiron team yet another advantage.