Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Lying Matters in Athletics

Barry Bonds was convicted of something, finally. More importantly he was convicted of lying; in this case to the government. More than a few commentators have yawned, so what? The public lost interest a long time ago, and the Giants fans seem undeterred from hero worship of a cheating performance. So be it. But I want to emphasize that Bonds was convicted, as he should have been, and he was convicted for lying.

This is important. Lying is wrong, especially in rule governed activities like sports. The whole point of athletic competition depends upon abiding by the rules so that each player participates on an equal playing field participating in a transparent way under the same standards. This clearness ensures victory is earned by talent, skill, hard work and smarts. Honest athletic competition depends upon transparency to honor its results and align results with commitment.

Cheating, not abiding by the same rules as everyone else, means that a player does not “win” or “earn” a victory. They steal a victory by unfair means. The entire moral edifice of sports as an activity worthy of our honor and respect depends upon this and transparency and fairness.

We call players and coaches to account when they cheat and when they do not abide by the rules. This accountability depends upon honesty and it depends upon sports policing itself to ensure that people abide by the same rules everyone agrees to.

Lying is wrong. Lying undercuts this entire structure of accountability and transparency of sport competition. The coach or player hides and denies that he or she committed a wrong. They lie to escape accountability and hide the ethically flawed nature of their accomplishments. When Bonds lied to the grand jury bout his use of substances—the jury could not decide if they were banned PEDS—he broke the circle of accountability and transparency. So all his victories and records are suspect because they were probably gained by cheating.

Bonds’ convictions for lying to the government probably sets the stage for a similar fate for Roger Clemens who also chose to lie not just to fans and fellow players and managers but to the government. Lying to the government entails some very serious problems for the entire justice system, so perjury is a very serious crime. The ability of the state to have any chance at solving problems and trials justly depends upon truth telling.

The Bonds’ conviction and affirmation that lying is wrong also should be needed reminder to intercollegiate sports.

At universities honesty is one of the most fundamental values because the pursuit of knowledge and inquiry depend upon truth telling and not lying. Liars in academia are discredited and professors can be sanctioned. So the actions of the last two months have been especially disturbing.

Jim Tressel found out that his players had violated NCAA rules. The knowledge was sent to him by a concerned booster to protect the program. As an NCAA coach Tressel had a very clear legal obligation to report these violations to his athletic director and the NCAA. The NCAA requires self-reporting of violations by coaches, and its entire collegial association depends upon this.

Tressel chose not to tell his athletic director or the NCAA. He cited the paper-thin reason that he did not want to “thwart” an investigation that he knew nothing about. It just happens that not telling the NCAA also kept five players from being declared ineligible and enabled him to complete a 12-1 season.

At the same time Bruce Pearl was finally fired by Tennessee after directly lying to his athletic director, President and the NCAA. Unlike Tressel who lied by omission, Pearl just lied outright, and then did it again. In a remarkable step the SEC (this tells how outlandish this was) stepped in and suspended him for eight league games after Tennessee slapped his hand. He was finally fired but only after his team did not go far enough in the NCAA tournament. Tressel of course will continue to coach.

Once upon a time in an NCAA long ago and far away, lying not just got you fired but not hired. Now teams regularly hire proven liars like Rick Neuheisel at UCLA or Kelvin Sampson at Indiana. So the world of the university where truth seeking is honored above all and lying remains a cardinal sin has made its peace with coaches who lie, coaches who win that is.

Thank God an athlete lied and actually got convicted! This reminds us that honesty and transparency lie at the foundation of sports; wish universities would remember that.

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