Playing Fair, Even When Umpires Are Blind


Sometimes ethics means not having to go to the videotape.

Europe was in a tizzy this past week. The ruckus involved the finale to last week's World Cup qualifying soccer match between Ireland and France. In the concluding moments of the game, French team captain Thierry Henry rescued a ball that was going out of bounds by grabbing it with his hand. (For some reason known only to the inventors of soccer, this is a no-no.) Shuttling the ball deftly to his foot, Mr. Henry set up the decisive goal. The referee failed to catch the French footballer's cheating, and after the game Mr. Henry proclaimed that the ref's error absolved him of responsibility: "I will be honest, it was a handball. But I'm not the referee. I played it, the referee allowed it. That's a question you should ask him."

Mr. Henry's attitude is shared by athletes in just about every American sport. They believe anything the ref doesn't call is OK. With the burden of maintaining integrity entirely on officials, cheating is encouraged. Players hide behind a petty legalism that liberates them to cozen and counterfeit -- or worse.

"I watch a lot of sports today, and I swear it's a dirtier game," says Randy Roberts, a Purdue University professor who has written several sports histories. There is "more clipping" in football, he notes, and "more hitting out of bounds; more dirty shots." Then there are the low maneuvers that don't involve gratuitous violence: How often have we seen a wide-receiver dive for the ball, scoop it up in full knowledge that it has bounced off the turf, and then insist he caught it fair and square? That isn't wily play; that's dishonest play. Like Mr. Henry, a lot of current athletes take the attitude that it's fine to do whatever you can get away with. If you fool the referee, all the better.

Professional basketball has been ruined by this shabby fool-the-ref nonsense. Rare is the drive to the hoop where some defender doesn't go flying in a pantomime of blunt-force trauma, trying to dupe the referee into calling a foul where there was none. Chances are that the man making the shot is flopping around just as dramatically. The proliferation of pretend fouls helps explain why NBA games stop every three seconds.

Where do the wiles of an athletic Odysseus end and dirty pool begin? The rulebook is not the last word on this subject. As Paul Dickson observes in "The Unwritten Rules of Baseball," etiquette and mores have always had important roles to play. The referee's rulings can't always be the only judgments that matter.

As a measure of how sportsmanship has eroded, Mr. Roberts points to the very different outcomes of two extraordinary college football face-offs -- the 1940 Cornell-Dartmouth game and the 1990 match-up between Colorado and Missouri.

In November 1940, Cornell was cruising through a second year at the top of college football, undefeated in 18 straight games. When the Big Red went to New Hampshire to play hapless Dartmouth, it was hardly expected to be a contest. But the game, played in snow flurries on a slushy field, proved to be a shocker. Going into the last minute of the game, Dartmouth was up, 3-0. Cornell finally put together a drive to the goal line and on the final play of the game scored the winning touchdown. There was just one problem: Referee Red Friesell had lost track of how many snaps Cornell had taken inside the 10-yard line. The touchdown was scored on a fifth down.

Dartmouth protested, but the game was over. Cornell could have adopted the modern moral standard that anything the ref allows is allowed. Instead, when the game films showed conclusively that Cornell had won on an extra, illegal snap, the players, coach, athletic director and university president agreed to forfeit the game and did so graciously. Coach Carl Snavely sent a telegram to Hanover, N.H., saying that Cornell "without reservation concede[s] the victory to Dartmouth with hearty congratulations to you and a gallant Dartmouth team." Dartmouth wired back that it accepted the victory and saluted its "honorable and honored opponent." As Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that week: "Cornell had the sportsmanship to yield a success it felt it had not rightfully earned."

They believe anything the ref doesn't call is OK. With the burden of maintaining integrity entirely on officials, cheating is encouraged. Players hide behind a petty legalism that liberates them to cozen and counterfeit -- or worse.

Contrast that with the standard of sportsmanship 50 years later, when the Colorado Buffaloes, pursuing a national title, eked out a win against the Missouri Tigers on another (illegal) fifth-down finale. No forfeit was forthcoming. Not until Colorado's coach, Bill McCartney, was into a second career as founder of the evangelical group Promise Keepers did he admit to being "truly remorseful" for taking the unearned victory.

French footballer Thierry Henry may yet discover remorse for his grabby hand gambit -- especially if the fiasco puts a dent in his endorsement revenues. Let's hope so. A little shame-based self-reform would be a much better solution to what ails so many sports than the predictable proposals to line the field with extra refs and review every call in the booth. Adding more layers of adjudication just fuels the conceit that fair play is the concern only of the officials. It's worth noting that the game that puts the highest premium on honest sportsmanship today -- golf -- relies heavily on players to police themselves.

One wonders if the same dynamics affect life off the field. Has the proliferation of rules, regulations and enforcement-agency umps in the worlds of business and finance had the perverse effect of encouraging bad actors to get away with whatever they can? Will more layers of enforcement simply reinforce the notion that anything the financial referees miss is OK? Or what about legislators who regularly write laws that they know don't pass constitutional muster, leaving it to the Supreme Court to worry about such niceties. Shouldn't lawmakers strive to honor the rule of law instead of seeing what they can slip past the umpires?

Sometimes ethics means not having to go to the videotape.



Eric Felten. "Playing Fair, Even When Umpires Are Blind." The Wall Street Journal (November 26, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


Eric Felten writes the De Gustibus column for the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well.

Copyright © 2009 Wall Street Journal

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