Like the man said, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” And friends, believe you me, these are trying times indeed for sports fans.
The NFL’s moral compass was last seen plummeting down an apparently bottomless elevator shaft. No one’s looking too hard for it, either, because we all know there is precious little chance of that screwed-up sextant being retrieved in any kind of working order.
But this particular “cheating” column is not to bash Commissioner Roger Goodell and his tunnel-visioned bully of a league. Nor will we further drag retiring baseball poobah Bud Selig’s name through the mud for his benign neglect.
Nopeâ€Š —â€Šthis is just a lonely sports novelist daring to question an entire culture, and more specifically, an American icon and Madison Avenue messiah. You may want to locate the nearest fainting couch before you read my next seven words, because they are as follows … Derek Jeter is a big fat cheater.
Let’s flash back to a crucial 2010 pennant race game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The yet-to-be canonized Yankees captain was awarded first base on a hit-by-pitch call. Problem is, the high and tight pitch did not hit Jeter. It ricocheted off his bat handle, millimeters from his hand, as he spun away. But sensing the opportunity before him, Jeter went ahead and CHEATED.
He bellowed and writhed like Al Pacino on an epic toe-stubbing spree. The duped umpire not only awarded Jeter first base, but then threw out Tampa manager Joe Maddon for having the temerity to protest. Better still, after the game, the legendary shortstop and then-reigning Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year” (ah, the irony!) was cheerfully forthcoming and unrepentant about his performance.
“It hit the bat,” Jeter confessed to MLB.com. “[The umpire] told me to go to first. I’m not going to tell him, ‘I’m not going to go to first,’ you know? My job is to get on base.”
Which begs the questionsâ€Š—â€Šwas that really Derek Jeter’s job? Isn’t what he did just plain wrong? Aren’t role models supposed to tell the truth, and represent fair play? Or am I just being a stick-in-the-mud Bronx bummer?
Obviously, the shrugged admission drew nothing but yawns across the great American sportscape. Jeter, already a quintessential national hero for combining the wholesomeness of Lou Gehrig with the womanizing prowess of Babe Ruth, was even commended for his casual cunning.
That should come as no surprise, since dating back to our un-honored treaties with Native Americans, this is a nation that rewards (and avoids questioning at all costs) those craven opportunists who excel at corner-cutting, loophole-exploiting and gray-area-strip-mining. Simply put, we are The Land of the Guilt-Free and The Home of the Brazen.
So why should our sports heroes be any different? Click-bait headline aside, I’m not throwing real rocks at Jeter here, but I am holding his relatively minor, four-year-old actions up to closer scrutiny, because I think they both reflect and reinforce some pretty dodgy behavior.
It’s the kind of pervasive rationalizing that speaks directly to the American/corporate pathology of greed. We know politicians, CEOs and Wall Street bankers plot ceaselessly and strive mightily to achieve preferable outcomes for their side, regardless of stated principles and ethical casualties incurred.
Over the past few years I’ve been writing a novel, Circus Catch, which satirically explores the flip side of this moral issue, in the context of high-level professional competition. Namely, what would the public reaction be if a seven-figure, superstar athlete were to admit to officials that he was the beneficiary of an incorrect call, and seek redress? What if you whistle-blew yourself?
My protagonist, a flamboyant, mercenary wide receiver known as B-Wack (born Brevard Jackson), is given credit for a miraculous, Hail Mary touchdown reception that will catapult his perpetually downtrodden Cleveland team into the playoffs for the first time in decades.
But B-Wack, not nearly the choir boy that Jeter seems to be, knows in his heart that the ball grazed the field in the nanosecond before he caught it. For reasons partially unclear even to himself, he refuses to accept this largesse and stuns the sporting world and beyond with his subsequent vigilante actions. Quite simply, his overwhelming desire for fair play above victory rocks America to its core.
“If you cut corners your whole life, how you ever gonna be able to give somebody a square deal?” wonders my polarizing protagonist in the wake of his unprecedented actions. Doesn’t he realize that when we say “may the best man (or woman) win,” we don’t really mean it? That what we ultimately reward is teams and players “who want it more”?
Just look to the real-life football stadiums. In the past decade, Super Bowl-winning coaches have been caught illegally videotaping other team’s practices (Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots) and even wandering onto the field of play to try to trip an enemy player (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers)! But, true to form, the punishments were knuckle-rappings so dainty they probably felt like manicures.
In the New Orleans-San Francisco game last month, defensive back Perrish Cox quite possibly pratfalled on purpose while defending the Saints’ Jimmy Graham in the end zone. If so, it worked. Graham’s touchdown catch was nullified and the 49ers went on to win the game.
After describing B-Wack’s extraordinary fictional actions earlier this summer to a friend who’s a diehard Red Sox fan, there was silence for a few moments. My friend tilted his head sideways and said, “If Derek Jeter did something like that, even I’d start a new religion for him.”
I would too. But sadly, no matter how much we kid ourselves, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Earlier this year, that unexpected level of confessional honesty did take place in a pro sports league, but on foreign soil. In Germany’s Bundesliga, a soccer player named Aaron Hunt was awarded a penalty kick by the officials, but dutifully informed them that his opponent had not tripped him, that he had stumbled on his own. Hunt did not take the shot, the game proceeded and the world did not fall off its axis.
The mind reels at the notion of something like this happening in the NFL. Or even on Derek Jeter’s watch. As a matter of fact, in keeping with tradition, the newly crowned “Sportsman of the Year,” San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, got away with an obvious balk against the Cardinals in the NLCS this Fall, which prevented St. Louis from scoring a run in a tight ball game. I would imagine Bumgarner, who S.I. just painted as the second coming of Jimmy Stewart-meets-Daniel Boone, gave exactly ZERO consideration to looking at the ump, acknowledging his guilt, and disgustedly allowing the baserunners to advance. And that universally blown societal fuse is why I wrote my book.
American Sport, at least on the professional level, is not presently some exalted, sacred space where fair competition is the highest ideal and defeat is accepted gracefully. It’s more like what George Orwell called itâ€Š—â€Š“war minus guns.”
For some dumb, probably primal reason, we still think that winning is so important, we should sacrifice our integrity if we have to.So I’m calling for players at all levels to make a New Year’s resolution that really would lift sport up to a higher plane: “Honor the game; never fake one for the team.”