On Breaking the Rules in Sports

This is one of a Series of Short Takes, about the salient issues of the day.  This one isn’t all that short.  It also isn’t about politics (though there’s one of those coming) or religion, but it might as well be, because it is about sports, which is more religious than religion is these days.  You can get offended if you want.  But really, why not just make a comment and let’s fight about it.

It’s the quarterfinals of the World Cup.  Two decided underdogs, Ghana and Uruguay, are facing off in a match that just keeps getting better and better.  Each team has legitimate chances to win, but the game goes into overtime tied at 1.  Late in the overtime – this is Ghana’s second overtime in a row – the unthinkable happens.  Here is the description by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff:

It was also hard to believe the frantic final moments of extra time. Ghana had pressed Uruguay to the brink with several outstanding opportunities in the last 15 minutes. With time melting away, [Luis] Suarez, stationed on the goal line, used his knee to block Stephen Appiah’s point-blank attempt, then in desperation, used both hands to slap Dominic Adiyiah’s header.

The header having been handled, bounced away.  Handling of the ball by a non-goalkeeper, in soccer, is a no-no, and Suarez was issued a red card, ejected from the match, and Ghana was awarded a penalty kick.

Which they missed.

The game went into penalty kicks, and Ghana was defeated by Uruguay, which went on to the  semifinals and a gritty but lopsided loss to Spain.  Ghana went home, and the entire continent of Africa was incensed at Suarez for cheating.

Two schools of though immediately formed.  One said that Suarez was just doing what anyone would do.  His job is to win the match, and in that circumstance the best he could do was to bat the ball away in contravention of the rules.  He got the punishment, so what’s the problem?  The other school said that Suarez violated the rules in the most shameful possible manner, so that he ruined a terrific soccer match by stealing a victory from the opponent through cheating.  He was booed unmercifully, and he should have been.  He should have been banned for life.

There are countless more examples, but here’s just one more, from baseball.  A couple of days ago, one of the game’s alleged true gentlemen, Derek Jeter, took a pitch that sailed way inside.  He rocked back and grimaced, holding his arm and, well, doing what the picture shows.  That’s not really a grimace.  It looks like agony.  It would be, if he got hit.

But he didn’t.

Replays showed conclusively that the ball never touched him.  Jeter was acting.  It was really good acting, from a player ordinarily not suspected of that kind of behavior, and he was rewarded for it.  He got to go to first base.  No, really, that’s it.  It is a pennant race, and the Yankees are being overhauled by that evening’s opponents, the Tampa Bay Rays.  Jeter’s histrionics didn’t win the game.  Didn’t affect the outcome at all, really.

Again, we get two schools of thought.  Jeter was just gaming the system, looking for an edge.  His job is to win the game.  he did his best, it didn’t work, so what’s a little acting?  Everyone does it.  Don’t blame Jeter if it worked.  And on the other hand, here’s a guy renowned for playing the game the right way who clearly cheated.  He cheated.  He feigned that something that didn’t happen, did, and that deceived the umpire, who awarded him something he had not earned.

So who is right?

This isn’t going to be a surprise to most people – or anyone that’s a regular reader here – but I think both of these guys ought to be taken out and shot.  But I can justify my feeling that about Jeter, and not about Suarez.  Herewith my attempt to do so.

Suarez’s act was despicable and unsportsmanlike, but clearly a part of the game of soccer.  They have a rule for it.  It’s forbidden, but it is in the rules, if you handle the ball intentionally, you’re going off.  All Suarez did was invoke that rule.  It’s not materially different from someone hammering a guy going in for a layup, taking the foul, and making him get his two from the foul line.  It feels different, but it isn’t, and I have to admit that.  Just because the stakes are higher doesn’t change the nature of the act.  Now, soccer really ought to address this rule, because Suarez’s act of civil disobedience pointed up that there is a really harsh disconnect in some of the punishments handed out for various infractions in the game.  Some are insanely harsh (bumping a guy who is running away from the goal, but happens to be inside the penalty area, is awarded a penalty kick), and some are dangerously soft (a penalty kick is also awarded if I grab the ball on the goal line and throw it off the pitch).  But Suarez was doing something that is contemplated by the rules as they currently stand.

Jeter, however, was not.  He was pretending that something had happened, something that has a rule in baseball, but that thing had, in fact, not happened.  He was, point blank, no question about it, cheating.  He was attempting to get an advantage he had not earned under the rules.  Jeter ought not only to be fined, he ought to be banned for the rest of the season.  This isn’t like fouling a guy to stop a layup.  This is like falling over in the penalty area when nobody touched you, looking for a penalty kick.  That behavior is already a stain on soccer, and it should likewise be punished severely.

Yes, players all the time pretend they made tags that they didn’t make.  That’s the same thing.  It’s cheating.  Players pretend they didn’t touch the ball when it went out of bounds.  That’s cheating, too.  I sincerely believe that you can reach a point where that kind of thing destroys the game.  If you’ve ever played against a player that cheated all the time, you know it gets quickly to a place where the game isn’t worth playing.  Because really, it isn’t the same game.

Really, the “hey, everyone does it” argument is what gives you Enron.  Enron’s guys are supposed to me maximizing shareholder value and making money for the company.  They were just doing a Jeter.  We have countless daily examples of people violating the law for personal advantage, and we are swiftly reaching the point where those that do that are shrugged at.  At Enron, they got caught, but if you’re not cheating, you don’t want to win bad enough, right?

No.  Not right.

In the end, what it comes down to for me is what sort of person are you?  Suarez, I don’t know what he was thinking.  Maybe he did it deliberately, maybe it was reflex.  I don’t know.  If he did it deliberately, it was a shame, and he is a person in need of straightening up.  When I foul a guy in basketball, especially these days, almost all the time it’s because I just don’t have the skill to stop him legally.  I do, however, always try.  I never grab a guy’s arm to stop him because that’s easier than going for the ball.   A good man – and I hope to grow into one of those one day – doesn’t do that, no matter what advantage he gets from it.

But Jeter, in addition to being a Yankee, which is itself unforgivable, just straight cheated.  If I had any respect for him, which I would never admit, I lost it all right there.  Instinct when you rear back away from the ball?  Sure.  Obviously.  Instinct when you sham that it hit you?  You know it didn’t.  What kind of man wants to win a game – a GAME, people – so much that he’s willing to invent things that didn’t happen to try to get an advantage?  Do you seriously believe that you could leave your cards on the table while you went to get a drink and Jeter wouldn’t look at them?  Do you really believe a guy like that won’t try to cheat you in a business deal?  What sort of integrity does he have?  He has none.

I know what sort of man that is, because I once was one of them.  When I was 15.  When winning was the most important thing in the world to me.  Then I grew up, and I realized I’d rather lose and be a guy you can trust than win and know I had to cheat to do it.  I started calling the ball out on myself.  I started calling my own fouls.  I started throwing the ball out of bounds intentionally when I knew that the ref had mistakenly given the ball to my team.  I believe that’s what good men do – play as fair as they can, and try their best to right wrongs where they see them.

And no, it wouldn’t be different if I were playing for money.  I play for money right here in this office every day, for large, large sums of money.  And I do not cheat.  There’s no replay here.  No umpire.  No one to catch me.  The way I am on the court is the way I am here.  And the way I am here is the way I am on the court.  I think that’s true of everyone, down deep.

There are a lot of good people in sports, and a lot of opportunities for people to become good.  Which makes it all the more disappointing when one of a game’s top ambassadors shows what a rat fink he really is.  At least it allows other rat finks to try to exonerate him, so we can tell not only who to stop watching play, but who to stop listening to, as well.

26 Responses to “On Breaking the Rules in Sports”

  • Catherine says:

    I enjoyed this post if for no other reason than to hear the phrase “rat fink” used several times. Good stuff.

  • See, and I’m enough of a purist that I don’t think you should foul at all. But I do see your point and I’m willing to go with it.

  • Gordon Jones says:

    I’m with Alison Wonderland. I have committed my share of fouls in basketball, fouls that were even “intentional,” in the sense that I really didn’t have a chance to stop my opponent. But I always tried to get to the ball, and I have never fouled a player who beat me on the fast break. I once refused to ever again play with a very good, 20+ point a game player because he did precisely that.

    Is that different from “jerking” a pitch into the strike zone as a catcher? Because I certainly did that a lot. I don’t know. As I think about it, maybe it is.

    Thought-provoking, which I guess is the point.


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