Sunday, June 25, 2006

Cheating or Trying?

Sports as societal microcosm becomes a favorite theme. What constitutes cheating versus playing hard and within the rules?

Let's look outside the lines first. The motivation behind cheating doesn't stretch the imagination- power, greed, or both. With electoral politics a driving force, politicians of both stripes have crossed the line, from phantom votes in Chicago's Cook County in 1960 to the voting machine issues and voter registration intimidation of the 2000 presidential election. Political strategists and handlers become more important than honesty and integrity. The massage outshines the message. The massive fraud seen on Wall Street from Enron to Worldcom has yielded to a new generation of malice - backdated options and yet more insider trading to enrich management at the expense of shareholders. Mine safety violations frequent the news. Comedians lament the 5 percent of honest lawyers who make the other 95% look bad. Medical researchers fabricate data and pharmaceutical companies withold negative product safety information. Freakonomics shows how schoolteachers have cheated to improve tests scores with merit pay on the line, and realtors work to get better deals selling their homes than their clients. Ordinary citizens scheme to defraud the internal Revenue Service. We can go on and on.

Some sports "cheating" is part of the game. Groundskeepers water the basepaths to slow opponents' runners, vary the length of the grass and adjust the consistency of the dirt in front of the plate to favor the home team. The Red Sox complained about cameras in centerfield at Jacobs Field . Hitters may try to 'peek' at catchers' signs, at the risk of getting chin music. Jim Fregosi of the Angels was a master sign stealer, kicking second base to confirm the sign, and looking left or right to show fastball or breaking stuff.

Although the spitter is gone, we've seen the Vaseline Ball of Gaylord Perry and others, the emery board from Mike Scott, and Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra combining to scuff the ball in myriad ways. Cooling the baseballs in the pre-game freezer might cool off the visitors bats.

The motto goes, "if you aren't cheating, then you aren't trying." Aside from corked bats, we have corked players, with everything from anabolic steroids, growth hormone, amphetamines, and drugs designed to avoid detection. Lance Armstrong, did he, or didn't he use erythropoeitin to increase red blood cell mass and oxygen carrying capacity? NASCAR teams have cheated with illegal carburetors, illegal engines, oversized gas tanks, and other aerodynamic modifications designed to overcome 'skill factors'.

With the fortune and fame available in society, it's not hard, it's impossible to imagine a trend change. Political dirty tricks, financial shenanigans, fraud and deception outside the lines is mirrored by players and teams seeking to avoid a level playing field. You may want a better mousetrap, but remember the rats will do anything to get the cheese.

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