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First, Class: Elevating the Role of Ethics in Sports

 “Winning is nice if you don’t lose your integrity in the process.” –Arnold Horshak, Welcome Back, Kotter

Forget steroids. Forget asterisks. Forget gambling, sideline taping, dogfighting, DUIs, and firearm possession. While they all are the headlining stars of the dramatic Demise of Sports feature film, they are also eclipsing other infractions that may be technically legal, but are much more cancerous.

The most salacious sins and underhanded offenses occur squarely in the gray area, the insidious trap of loopholes and defendable vices. On the contrary, performance-enhancing substances and criminal misdemeanors stack up neatly in the black and white areas, the right and wrong silos.

As disgraceful as these wrongdoings may be, at least they uniformly recognized as unacceptable. But when it comes to things like basic humanistic integrity and moral fiber, there’s no irrefutable litmus test.

Word of Joe Torre’s controversial contributions to The Yankee Years have been lighting up the news reels for the past week, sparking heated discourse with fans of every team as to what this does to Torre’s once-ennobled reputation.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of A-Rod or Steinbrenner, and regardless of what kind of tyranny Torre was subjected to at his players or boss’s hands, he was out of line.

This is a manager who made no bones about his disapproval over David Wells’ notorious Yankee memoir, Perfect I Am Not.

“What happens in the clubhouse, stays in the clubhouse” was the Skipper’s fundamental golden rule, and he was ticked off that Wells didn’t honor it. Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone, Joe.

No, he’s no longer sporting pinstripes. Yes, he was thrown under the bus. And no, technically he has no remaining obligation to his old stomping grounds. But the fact that so many Yankee fans feel betrayed is evidence enough that what he did, quite simply, wasn’t right.

Does it matter if there’s an explanation, or he can produce a viable defense? It certainly won’t when we see No. 6 on some new outfielder, instead of Monument Park.

You’re better than that, Torre. C’mon.

But it’s not just this. There’s a whole legion of slime in need of watching the final monologue in Scent of a Woman.

The other New York club isn’t any stranger to stomach-punching either, as demonstrated in the abhorrent firing of Willie Randolph last year. Firing a guy’s one thing. Breaking the news circa midnight in effort to sidestep morning press, when the firee’s on the opposite coast and about to fly home…despicable.

I don’t care if the Mets were 0-68 at the time. Nothing should transcend basic respect.

And what of the girl’s highschool basketball team that won 100-0? What kind of coach allows this? What kind of people were in the stands that didn’t storm the court in protest? And what kind of girls continue to take jump shots from behind the arc, even after a 30-point lead, let alone the fourth quarter?

These lapses in empathetic decency are perhaps more disturbing because the game isn’t on the line, literally. It’s not about cutting corners to get a win. It’s about personal vendettas and ulterior motives. 

How would the Mets franchise have suffered if they waited ’til Willie was back in New York? What did Torre have to gain by airing the locker room banter? Book sales? He doesn’t need the money.

An unnecessary evil, this kind of departure from basic class speaks volumes. 

I know what I’m dealing with with sports, and I don’t expect or even want it to be akin to some kind of summer camp, arm-linking, fireside, friendship celebration. I think bench-clearing brawls are entertaining. I think throwing a 65-year old man to the ground is crossing the line.

Breaking up a double-play by sliding hard into second is part of the game. Stealing second when up by 10 has no place in the game. Laying down a bunt during a perfect game when the score’s 2-0, is the right thing to do. Staying out of the game to preserve your batting average when the batting title’s at stake is pathetic.

Sports don’t exist in a vacuum, so it’s unrealistic to hold them to impossible standards. The game will never be immaculate, it never was and never will be. Every legend has a transgression to his name, whether it’s Babe Ruth’s carousing and drinking, Michael Jordan’s gambling, Larry Bird’s absentee fatherhood, Ty Cobb’s existence, etc…I don’t ask for or expect sports to be unblemished, or even close to it.

What’s tarnishing the integrity of the game isn’t the rampant yet ambiguous drug use. It’s the general dereliction of fundamental class. Sports were born from the spirit of competition, but are morphing into a Lord of the Flies-esque cut-throat war.

The bottom line, the grey area of anything grants its inhabitants immunity from culpability. There are no rules delineating the right and wrong way to handle things. You can technically get away with passing on fourth down when up by 30. There’s no law against exposing your team’s dirty laundry. And no jury will convict you for humiliating someone.

I remember in my old neighborhood, there was a short little stone tunnel/overpass-type structure. I think it was more for aesthetic purposes, because nothing really went over it, per se. It was right in the middle of residential, two-way side street, but it was only narrow enough for one car to pass through. It was an exercise in chivalry and courtesy, almost, whenever you saw another car through the other side.

You just waited for it to go through, or vice versa. Then one day, they put a traffic light up on either side of it, and my mom hated it because whenever someone had let her go through the little breezeway, she considered it a mini-celebration of human decency.

I know, it’s a stretch, but I empathize. I get like that if someone gives up their subway seat. But the point is, the traffic light made the grey issue a black and white one. No one technically has the right of way in that type of situation, but it relied on an unwritten code.

A moral rubric will never be published, nor should it, as doing so will effectively transform “ethics” into “laws.” However, as it is, as nebulous as ethics may be, they still pull rank on whatever else is at stake, whether it’s a job, a game, or money.

Maybe time has eroded the honor of the game. Maybe it will never be played with the class it once had. Or maybe athletes back then knew the spirit of the game was a function of the players themselves.

Ted Williams knew. He played a double-header against the Philadelphia A’s in 1941, when he could have locked up his .400 by simply passing on the at-bats. But instead he went 6 for 8 and ended the year on .406.

He stood to gain nothing. But he knew how to play the game. He knew it wasn’t about what you can get away with, and what’s admissible by the official rulebook. Because when it came down to it, he was willing to risk losing a record before he’d risk losing his integrity.

And that’s the way the game should played.

By YankTank

Kris Pollina lives and works in New York City as an advertising copywriter. She lives and dies by NY sports and is the first to admit she can be wildly irrational in defense of her teams. She spends too much time thinking of fantasy team names, too little time reading injury reports. She doesn't understand people who keep score at baseball games. She has more interest in the Kreb Cycle than she does in the NBA, tennis, golf, or anything that is limited to running around a track. She doesn't mind the NFL overtime rules, thinks hockey is wildly underrated, and hates the expression "step up to the plate." Most importantaly, she doesn't believe in wearing baseball hats with football logos on them. Football players wear helmets.

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