Friday, January 10, 2014

Sport As Moral Teacher

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has taken to repeating Malcolm X’s slogan, “by any means necessary.” The other day his star linebacker, Patrick Willis, echoed it in a press conference, so the motto has obviously taken hold in the locker room. I imagine that if I still lived in San Francisco, I’d be hearing it from my friends.

That’s because sport is pedagogical as well as entertaining, even for onlookers. It teaches as it entertains us.

Sport is a mini-replica of life compressed into a negligible time frame featuring much of life’s drama with little of its drudgery. Like life, sport teaches lessons, but in bite-sized, easily digestible pieces at a fraction of the personal cost. It serves up universal principles in an immediately accessible format on a national, even international stage.

In other words, sport is a moralist’s dream.

Unfortunately, coaches and athletes sometimes dispense wretched instruction by pursuing victory with too much gusto, or implying that they’re willing to. Take Harbaugh’s rallying cry. It’s pernicious if taken literally.

Though I understand and appreciate the dedication and passion it’s meant to convey, it’s morally depraved on its face. The ends dictate the means chosen but don’t justify them. Clean ends can never sanitize filthy means.

The phrase signifies that any means to the end of winning the Super Bowl are obliged. But, he can’t, and doesn’t, mean that. He’s not instructing Patrick Willis intentionally to shatter an oncoming running back’s knees. He hasn’t hired snipers to take out opposing players who are having too good a day against the 49ers. Nor is he urging ownership to bribe referees.

We innately understand that some means to ends are not to be utilized. Boxers are never allowed to hit below the belt even though the purpose of the sport it to incapacitate one’s opponent.  Low blows are jeered in sport and in life.

Harbaugh rather means that every honorable effort should, and will, be expended in order to achieve victory. The goal is super-human effort, across the board excellence—rushing, passing, defense, special teams play—in a word, superiority. Victory is the hoped for reward.

Moral scruples are presumed in sport, as in life. Trouble ensues when they can’t be.

This past January 6th we observed the 20th anniversary of exhibit A in the sporting pantheon of by-hook-or-by-crook morality: Tonya Harding’s kneecapping of skating rival Nancy Kerrigan on the eve of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

For the record, Harding has steadfastly professed her innocence. Her ex-husband and bodyguard took a baton to Kerrigan's knees for their own purposes; Harding obstructed the police investigation for her own purposes, which had nothing to do with covering-up her involvement. Uh-huh.

The episode was an epiphany for those who believed that world-class athletes adhere to the highest-class competitive standards.  Harding, the 1991 U.S. figure skating champion, earned a place on the 1994 U.S. Olympic team. She nevertheless placed 8th in figure skating at the Lillehammer Olympics and earned the oprobrium of posterity.  She paid too dear a price for glory and now fights the likes of Paula Jones on the celebrity boxing circuit.

Kerrigan recovered to win the silver medal in Lillehammer and frequently serves as a network color analyst for the Winter Olympics.  There is justice in the world.

In the same vein, head coach Sean Peyton (and defensive coordinator Greg Williams) of the New Orleans Saints learned that it doesn't pay to cross the line between zealous competition and foul play. The NFL suspended him a year for financially incentivizing players intentionally to injure members of the opposing team. That is, he placed bounty on opponents and sent his team on headhunting missions.

Ironically, the only players knocked senseless during a 2012 playoff game between Peyton’s Saints and Harbaugh’s 49ers were his own. The hits were ferocious, and clean. The pedagogy was priceless.

The ideal of sport is unblemished competition. There are some things that people simply shouldn’t do, even to win, and everybody knows it. Because sport is pedagogical, society is coarsened by morally dubious strategies that might determine the outcome of a contest.

Take the world’s second largest sporting stage: soccer’s World Cup. The 2010 Dutch squad didn’t get the memo before its championship match against Spain, a team renowned for its speed, fluidity, elegance and skill. Knowing that it couldn’t match up in a fast-paced, freewheeling game, Holland strategized to play rough and slow the Spaniards down.  Fair enough.

What ensued, however, transgressed physicality. Holland’s performance was to roughness what riot is to protest. Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso was cleated in the chest, an assault that cried out to heaven for, yet failed to receive, a red card.

The Spaniards realized they were in a street fight against a brass-knuckled opponent and pulled out their knives.  All told, the teams racked up 14 yellow cards--nine of them Holland's--and one Dutch player was sent off for two yellows.

Fans of the Dutch squad most probably didn’t care and consequently would have been deformed by celebrating a victory. History would have recorded a Dutch win without an asterisk for brutishness. Lovers of fair play, however, were thrilled that Spain emerged victorious. Justice prevailed; perfidy was thwarted. It mattered for more than sport’s sake.

Analogously, Los Angeles Clipper’s forward, Blake Griffin, recently accused the Golden State Warriors basketball team of cowardice for provoking him with physical assaults in order to get him thrown out of the game.

I watched the contest and didn’t sympathize with him. He plays like an ambulatory block of granite that thinks any spot on the court is his regardless of who’s standing on it. To my mind, he deserved the ejection that triggered his outburst. I nevertheless understand the gravamen of his complaint and agree with him in principle, if not in application.

Mike Riordan of the Washington Bullets mugged Golden State Warriors star Rick Barry in game 4 of 1975 NBA Championship Series. The heavily favored Bullets had no answer for Barry and trailed the Warriors 3-0.  So, they resorted to chicanery in order to throw him off his game.

It didn’t work because Warriors coach Alvin Attles flew off the bench at Riordan before Barry had a chance to retaliate. Attles—a very tough player in his day—saved his floor leader by sacrificing himself.  Barry finished the job and the Warriors completed their improbable sweep of the Bullets.  Moral tranquility was preserved.

The tension between excellence and victory presents itself with less fanfare in the case of the miscreant athlete. This presents a team and organization with a painful choice between upholding standards of decency and overlooking them in order to win at any cost, including integrity. It presents a less obvious moral issue. The pedagogy is subtler; the potential harm is stealthier.

It’s a case of refusing to sully oneself, of not associating with taint rather than of refusing to taint oneself. This morality of the greater good is optional, heroic, and cannot be presumed of competitors, or others. It is thus to be celebrated when encountered in sport, or life.

In the negative light, consider the NY Yankees and Alex Rodriguez. Last season, A-Rod appealed his 211-game suspension (for violating MLB’s substance abuse policy again) so that he could stay on the field for the late-season pennant run. The Yankees organization held its nose and went along. It might have even encouraged him.

Everyone knows how badly A-Rod wants to win: Yankees-bad. In Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, for instance, he slapped the baseball out of Bronson Aroyo’s glove in order to reach first base safely, then pled incidental contact.  You make the call.

At the risk of too obvious a pun, this is the competitive spirit on steroids.

Ryan Dempster of the Boston Red Sox protested this postponement of justice to a more congenial time for the Yankees, by plunking A-Rod on the elbow with a 92-mph fastball. He decided to hold A-Rod accountable to the higher standard that nobody else would.

Without a hint of irony, Yankees manager Joe Girardi called for Dempster to be suspended for long enough to miss a start. A-Rod responded to the question of whether Dempster should be suspended by chuckling “I’m the wrong guy to be asking about suspensions."  Throughout, the Yankees took the low road and proved themselves to be Philistines.

A-Rod won the encounter that night by homering off Dempster later in the game and contributing to the Yankees’ comeback victory. Bostonians got the last laugh, however, as the Yankees missed the playoffs and the Red Sox won the World Series. Justice was served.

It is counter-intuitive to assume that overlooking a star’s transgressions might actually thwart the attainment of victory, or that upholding moral standards might foster it. The temptation for a team to “tut-tut” bad behavior, yet keep its star on the field, is overwhelming.

Michigan State’s nationally ranked football team (#4) recently confronted this choice between the real good and the apparent one.   Its star linebacker, senior captain Max Bullough--the middle linebacker and quarterback of the nation’s #1 college defense--violated team rules and was suspended before the team's Rose Bowl encounter with #5 Stanford, last year’s Rose Bowl winner.

Stanford hadn’t won consecutive Rose Bowls since 1971 and 1972.  Michigan State hadn’t won one since 1988, or played a game this momentous in decades.  It was the centennial celebration of the "Granddaddy of Them All."  Yet, Coach Mark Dantonio suspended his team leader.

State did the right thing. It disciplined its star, and risked losing the game, disappointing fans and being accused of cutting off its nose to spite its face. 

Bullough’s replacement, Kyler Elsworth, was a walk-on (a non-scholarship, un-recruited) player who had never started a game. It seemed to be a bad time for noble gestures.

In the end, however, Michigan State won the game and the extra glory that comes from risking defeat to preserve excellence. Ellsworth  (#41) made the game-saving tackle, flying through the air like Rocky the Squirrel to stuff Stanford’s running back and dash its final hope.

The episode was reminiscent of a courageous decision made by Arkansas’ coach Lou Holtz to suspend two of his stars and three of his players before the Razorbacks’ 1978 Orange Bowl contest against the Oklahoma Sooners. Both teams entered the game with 10-1 records. Razorbacks fans had reason to be apprehensive. But Arkansas smoked the Sooners 31-6.

Holtz did the same thing ten years later as the head coach at Notre Dame, suspending two of the Irish’s stars prior to the season finale against hated rival USC. They were late for a team dinner the night before the game and sent back to South Bend on the morning flight to Chicago.  He’d warned them that they wouldn’t get another chance due to prior indiscretions.

The Irish defeated the Trojans and went on to capture the 1988 national championship against West Virginia.  Lou Holtz is now considered a legend, partly because he twice risked defeat for the sake of preserving a good: team unity.

In 2012, MLB’s San Francisco Giants were flying high behind off-season acquisition Melky Cabrera, a fan favorite who led the National League in hitting. Giants’ players shined in the mid-season All-Star game, led by Cabrera ,who won the Midsummer Classic's MVP award.

 The Giants--winners of the 2010 World Series--seemed headed towards a run at recapturing their crown when Cabrera was caught, and suspended for, using performance-enhancing drugs. He prevaricated, skulked out of the clubhouse without explaining himself to his teammates and didn’t maintain communications during the suspension.

The Giants organization faced a difficult decision when the team pulled together and scraped its way into the post-season. Cabrera was eligible for reinstatement, and the light-hitting Giants needed his big bat. On the one hand, Melky had paid his debt; everyone deserves a second chance. On the other, the team had gelled without him—despite him—and teammates hadn’t appreciated his disappearance. The Giants chose to face the playoffs without him.

This appeared to be a mistake when they lost the opening two games of a five-game series in their own ballpark, putting on an anemic hitting display. Their opponents, the Cincinnati Reds, hadn’t lost three consecutive games in their ballpark (where the series was headed) all season. Yet, the Giants rallied improbably to win and move on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

Down three games to one in a seven game series and facing elimination in St. Louis, the Giants rallied again to win and advance despite deficient hitting. In the World Series, the light-hitting Giants swept the mighty Detroit Tigers 4-0, bringing home their second world championship in three years.

Their decision with respect to Cabrera was regarded as a well-what-do-you-know-about-that curiosity and lightly commented upon by sports writers and -casters. Yet the moral pedagogy in the episode was significant, despite lying hidden.

In 2013, the Detroit Tigers faced a similar decision. Their heavy hitting shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. Like Melky the season before, Peralta was eligible for post-season play. Having reached the playoffs again, the Tigers chose the other path, opting to play him.

You can’t fault them: Peralta had served his suspension, and the team needed his bat. All-world slugger Miguel Cabrera was suffering the ill effects of a groin injury. Peralta had, however, violated baseball’s increasingly bright-line rule.

In the end, the Tigers simply declined to follow the heroic course. They also lost the American League Championship Series to the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox despite getting big production from Peralta.

A coincidence? Who knows? A causal relationship? I won’t contend that, though I understand the personal and organizational mechanics (character and culture) by which the case might be made.

What I do know is that sport is a potent teacher that imparts moral lessons to broad populations with great regularity and force. Whether through the outcry (or silence) at obvious improprieties, or the barely perceptible satisfaction at winning despite sacrificing an advantage in order to preserve a greater good, we the fans get the message. We might not always be conscious of it, but we get it nonetheless.

I hope Jim Harbaugh chooses another motto, though I’ll continue to root for my 49ers and give him the benefit of the doubt even if he doesn’t.

I applaud the stands Lou Holtz took, and extend the Yankees a Bronx cheer.

I rejoiced at Michigan State’s victory—though, being a CAL graduate and living in Michigan, I would have anyway—because I appreciate integrity when I see it.

In a world of venal opportunists, corrupt public figures, crony chieftains, scurrilous watchdogs and debased media it’s quite often a pedagogical relief to be a sports fan.

I’m happy to celebrate good example and especially wish to congratulate Michigan State on its Rose Bowl victory, which was a triumph for us all.

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