Yesterday, I employed a lofty moral tone to excoriate Lance Armstrong for lying. Today, it’s its “sister entry” in this “Daily Double of Duplicity” – cheating. (I have no idea why I’m doing this. I don’t even care about Lance Armstrong.)
Lying, at least in its most egregious incarnation, is easy to identify. A man is taking performance-enhancing drugs to help him win bicycle races and he adamantly insists that he isn’t. He’s lying. Big time. If he were Pinocchio standing in the middle of a room, his nose would be rocketing into a wall. And the end of it would snap off.
Lying is the counterfeit money of social interaction. (“Bartletts called. They said, ‘Nice try. But no.’”) Living in a culture where you know, fear or at least suspect that, because it was better for them to do so, that everyone is lying, places us in a world brimming with anxiety, suspicion and mistrust. A situation of this nature would confine me permanently to the house, because, paraphrasing my daughter Anna when she was two…”No good, that world.”
Okay, that’s lying.
Cheating is trickier. And, in fact, an argument can be made – though not by me – that there is no such thing as cheating. Or if there is, it’s acceptable, or even essential, because, according to a radio sportstalk host I once heard, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
But even if you don’t buy into that view – and I don’t, because I dislike cheating almost as much as I dislike lying, though if I’d been competing against Lance Armstrong drug-free, the ranking of the two infractions might easily be flipped – the definition of “What’s cheating?” is not always easy to determine.
Yes, all sports have rules (restricting the conversation to sports, but you can consider it a metaphor for any interpersonal confrontation.) The delineation here is unequivocal: If you go outside those rules, you’re cheating.
A boxer who secretes a rolled-up load of quarters inside his glove is cheating. (They may not get caught, but that’s not the issue; they’re still cheating.) Ditto a pitcher tossing a spitball. Or a basketball player who grabs their opponent’s shorts as they’re driving for a layup, leaving them to decide whether to go for the basket or protect their dignity.
All these are identifiable “No-no’s.” On the other hand, for reasons too complicated to go into, there was a period when baseball lacked anti-drug regulations, allowing players to use the, then, unbanned substances to upgrade their performances. Is that cheating? Even though they were doing it in secret, and their adversaries were performing drug free, and losing?
To quote a recent Nancy Meyers film title, it’s complicated. My expert and delightful gym trainer Eve tells me that, in bodybuilding, the two competition options are openly identified – there are bodybuilding contests for those who “juice”, and others for their considerably less “ripped” brethren and sistren who don’t. Which, by the way, do you think is more popular?
Which brings up another point. Some people don’t care about this issue. They figure it’s up to the athletes if they want to risk the, sometimes, serious side-effects to “juice up.” Those who do generally perform better that way, so hey, a guy bench presses a Humvee, who cares what he put in his body to do it?
“Let ‘em all take drugs”, goes the thinking. Then there’ll be parity again. And they’ll perform like monsters!
Perhaps, but, for me, at least, it won’t be the same.
And here’s where I wax poetically. Forgive me if I accidentally go over the top.
As I recently mentioned, I watched an NFL playoff game between the San Francisco Forty-Niners and the Atlanta Falcons. Though I did not care who won – this is not entirely true, as, for some reason, a rooting interest inevitably insinuates itself into the proceedings and I found myself here pulling inexplicably for the Niners – by any football lover’s standards – and overlooking the fact that, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, that Canadian football is superior to its American counterpart – it was an absolutely sensational game.
The Forty-Niners were down seventeen to nothing. And they came back, under the leadership of their second-year quarterback “Cool Hand” Colin Kaepernick, who had started only nine pro games in his entire career. (He had been a college quarterback at Nevada, itself hardly a football powerhouse.)
The Forty-Niner resurgence led to a 28-24 victory. With its tension, its grace, and its “do-or-die” execution, the game was a wonderment to behold.
Why most importantly? Because people did that. Guided by their coaches making split-second strategic decisions, young, supremely gifted athletes, working at the top of their powers, stared pressure in the face, and came through gloriously in the clutch, against a team of equally honed professionals, trying desperately to hold them off.
And all of them were people. Human beings, just like me, except that they’re way, way, way better than me at football. But still…
Not doped-up lab animals. Not genetically superior Superbeings from another planet. Not giant cyborgs, part human, part performance-enhancing machine. Sure, you could fashion competitions between any of those combatants, and they’d be crowd-pleasing, maybe even amazing.
But it wouldn’t be the same.
Because it wouldn’t be people.
It would be something else. Something I might eventually come to appreciate, but could never identify with. It may as well be Battling Buicks. Exciting. Explosive. “Grill-To-Grill” confrontation.
“Smash-mouth” entertainment. But it’s got nothing to do with me.
Unless I can put myself in their cleats – figuratively, because if I “for real” was down on that field, one play and I’m a flattened, little Jewish spot on the gridiron – but unless I can imagine myself stepping up over center ready to take the “snap” with the game on the line and the clock running down, identifying with living, breathing, heart thumping, injury and humiliation-risking human beings free of external supplementation…
The game would have no meaning for me whatsoever.
There is a moral argument against cheating. And it’s a strong one, especially, as I said, if you’re playing by the rules, and you lose. But beyond that, there is, in my view, a precious purity to witnessing unenhanced human excellence.
I, for one, would miss the humanity.