On cheating

Human nature drives every individual powerfully to desire certain things:  wealth, sex, food, and power come to mind.  Law and morality exist to regulate the way in which highly desirable objects and situations can be obtained.  But neither law nor morality can make the craving go away.

The best way to manage illicit desire is to organize life properly, rather than to develop a iron will.  The Lord’s prayer, a source of wisdom even to the secular, doesn’t say, “Make us indifferent to those who seek to seduce us with money, sex, or power.”  It says instead, “Lead us not into temptation.”  If our life habits keep us away from seductive moments and places, we stand a chance.

Otherwise, we cheat.  Most of us, I’d wager, have done so at some point in life.  Because we are human, we are sometimes overthrown by weakness.  Despite the assumptions of certain Founding Fathers, morality isn’t simply following a happy feeling to right action.  At times, it’s a desperate struggle, a collision between our understanding of the good life and insatiable urges implanted in the human organism by millions of years of natural selection.  For some types of personality, the struggle is an endless, everyday affair.

The magnitude of the failure matters.  Stealing $44 million from the city government isn’t the same as parking near a water hydrant.  But most importantly, the frequency of the failure matters.  That becomes a question of moral formation:  of character.  People who fail consistently before small temptations will more likely succumb to large, life-shattering ones.  They have simply lost the compass of right and wrong, and the habits of resistance.  Behind the controversy surrounding Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions lay the feeling, among some, that a man who cheated so blithely could be trusted with very little.

This brings me to the Mitchell Report on the use of steroids and male hormones in Major League Baseball, and the moral outrage generated against those named in the report.  All the names belong to superior athletes:  even a marginal major leaguer is such.  Most are likely fiercely competitive types.  They wish to be better than their peers, and they want to be winners in every contest.  Against their own competitive desires, and the money rewards of winning, they showed a pathetic weakness.

One Washington National named in the report, whose talent appears just shy of big-league quality, surely craved to close that small gap by illicit means.  Another, just traded to the Nationals, went from a pretty good player to All-Star, with all the pomp and glory that entails in professional sports.  The temptation was there, and both succumbed.

But the cheating in baseball went deeper than that.  The Commissioner’s office, team owners, general managers, all knew what was going on:  it was happening right under their noses.  Normal players suddenly became monstrous.  Aging players reversed the natural cycle and posted fantastically better statistics than they had in youth.  Slap hitters turned into sluggers.  The responsible authorities of the sport were aware of all this, yet did nothing.

The reasons for this failure are known.  After the players’ strike of 1994, baseball was in deep trouble.  Attendance was down.  Teams were losing money.  The fans, disgusted by the stupidity and greed of both players and owners, were turning away in droves.  Suddenly, home run records began to be shattered.  The total number of home runs skyrocketed.  The game became more exciting, and the fans returned in record-breaking numbers.

Money and success derived from cheating was the temptation faced by those who manage Major League Baseball.  They too succumbed, and their cheating was even more egregious than that of the players.

What should be the punishment for cheaters?  First, there is the inner punishment:  the cheater knows every minute of his life is, in some sense, false, a lie.  That kind of hypocrisy, that division of the self, can be tolerated by some, but most find it a source of uneasiness tainting every triumphant moment.

Second, even the suspicion of cheating incites violent feelings against the perpetrators.  This is as much a part of being human as is our weakness before powerful desires.  We are hardwired to seek out cheaters and drive them from the community.

The cheater, once caught, is made to live in a kind of internal exile.  He is part of a community to which he no longer belongs, and which distrusts and despises him.  That is true of the cheating husband’s marriage, and of the steroid user’s participation in and history with the game of baseball.  I only wish the same could be said of the team owners.

What should baseball do to protect its vaunted “integrity”?  That part is easy.  Don’t lead the players into temptation.  Don’t turn a blind eye when they metamorphose into monsters.  Make the selection pressures work for restraint rather than cheating, by testing each and every player often, and instituting penalties that truly deter.

Let the cheaters be thrown out of baseball permanently.  That will turn the instinct of self-preservation to work for the rules of the game, rather than against them.

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