Sunday, November 4, 2007


The Reverend Fredric J. Muir, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Maryland was so impressed with a story told by Stephen Carter, American law professor, writer, columnist and the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School in his book Integrity (Harper Collins, 1996) that he made it the focus for one of his many moving sermons which he appropriately titled, With Integrity.

The Reverend Muir recounts Carter’s words which reflect my sentiments,

“A couple of years ago as I sat watching a television football game with my children, trying to explain to them what was going on, I was struck by an event I had often noticed but on which I had never reflected. A player who failed to catch a ball thrown his way hit the ground, rolled over, and then jumped-up, celebrating as though he had caught the pass after all. The referee was standing in a position that did not give him a good view of what had happened, was fooled by the player's pretense, and so moved the ball down the field. The player rushed back to the huddle so that his team could run another play before the officials had a chance to review the play.

National Football League officials can watch a television replay and change their call, as long as the next play has not been run. But viewers at home have the benefit of the replay (from many different angles), and we saw what the referee missed: the ball lying on the ground instead of snug in the receiver's hands. The only comment from the broadcasters: "What a heads-up play!" Meaning: "Wow, what a great liar this kid is! Well done!"

Let's be very clear: that is exactly what they meant. The player set out to mislead the referee and succeeded; he helped his team to obtain an advantage in the game that it had not earned. It could not have been accidental. He knew he did not catch the ball.

By jumping up and celebrating, he was trying to convey a false impression. He was trying to convince the officials that he had caught the ball. And the officials believed him. So, in any ordinary understanding of the word, he lied. And that, too, is what happens to integrity in American life: if we happen to do something wrong, we would just as soon have nobody point it out.

Now, suppose that the player had instead gone to the referee and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I did not make the catch. Your call is wrong." Probably his coach and teammates and most of his team's fans would have been furious: he would not have been a good team player. The good team player lies to the referee, and does so in a manner that is at once blatant (because millions of viewers see it) and virtually impossible for the referee to detect.

Having pulled off this trickery, the player is congratulated: he is told that he has made a heads-up play. Thus, the ethic of the game turns out to be an ethic that rewards cheating. Perhaps I should have been shocked. Yet, thinking through the implications of our celebration of a national sport that rewards cheating, I could not help but recognize that we as a nation too often lack integrity, which might be described, in a loose and colloquial way, as the courage of one's convictions.”

I certainly agree with the Rev Muir and Stephen Carter that integrity remains a major issue though I question whether it necessarily relates to one’s convictions. If rejecting honesty and integrity (the absence of a moral code) is a convention by itself, then we may agree. I believe that many in our society sincerely believe (viscerally) that the end justifies the means not unlike Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character in the 1987 movie Wall Street where anything goes in his pursuit of the almighty dollar.

There’s a new energy in the old paradigm that all’s fair in love/war/business and in all aspects of our lives! It certainly appears that the only real negative admonition for not telling the truth is “Don’t get caught.” Instant replay on both the collegiate and professional sports levels and a renewed oversight in the business community (move over Dennis Kozlowski and Ken Lay) has further revealed the festering sore of our failing morality.

No need to get all George Washington misty and invoke the cherry-tree incident, the faux Parson Mason Locke Washingtonian legend that had George admitting that he had cut down the fictional apple tree? The act despicable though the sentiment admirable, punctuates a moral code that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. High Schools and colleges are now required to teach our children how to be honest and ethical. Bottom line: parents are not teaching their kids about honesty and many bookstores even sell books that teach their readers how to cheat?

Cheating has become acceptable behavior and a terrible influence that so-called “role models” (whether they be baseball or football players or businessmen) are having on our kids. Our children and the generations that follow are all seemingly doomed to fall into a moral abyss.

Now, just as soon as I’ve communicated that sentiment I can recall a Williams College football team and specifically their game with Amherst in 1961 on a cold, muddy, November Massachusetts field which was eventually won by Williams, 12-0. In this Biggest Little Game in America I learned a life lesson of honesty and integrity. For me it remains the best and most significant football game I have ever watched.

The field was filled with non-scholarship players (many without face masks) who bathed in mud, literally gave everything they had to earn a victory that would help define their collegiate experience. Former Williams College coach Dick Farley was known to say before each Amherst game, "Three hours to play, a lifetime to remember." Those words guided their actions which were shared by all the players on the field that day.

I remember one player (forgot whether it was Amherst or Williams) credited with a catch who honestly admitted that he had not caught the ball. This was no big deal, rather shrugged off instantly as just another aspect of the game. After all, is football played any other way? Today that act would literally make headlines on FOX and CNN .

Well, now comes along Charles Rozell "Chuck" Swindoll the senior pastor of the Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas who in his The Tale of The Tardy Oxcart, shares insights from his lifelong collection of his and others' personal stories, sermons, and anecdotes. One such story punctuates our theme.

“There was a young Christian man at a Southern university. He made the football team as the starting split end. And he continually was before God saying, "Help me in the climax of moments to be absolutely honest. I pray for honesty--that one mark of integrity. I want to be that, Lord, and I'll work on it through the season."

The rival team came that night, homecoming. He ran his route and went into the end zone. The quarterback shot him the pass and he got it low. He landed on it, and the referee shouted, "Touchdown!" But that boy knew he had trapped the ball. (For you who aren't into that, it means that he didn't really catch it. He landed on it while it was on the ground and it looked like he caught it). The stands were just cheering, you know, sending him on his way as the hero of the game. He said, "Wait a minute." Can you imagine this?: walked up to the referee and shook his head. He said, "I trapped it." The referee canceled the touchdown and they lost the game.

Now you may not understand much about football, but you know what it is to be a fan. And that boy stood all alone, not only against a team that said, "What does it matter, man?" but against the stands full of people. He said, ‘I can't take the credit. I did not catch it.’”

We don’t know nor did Swindoll reflect on the ultimate consequences of this young man’s honesty. We are, however, further reminded of an incident of honesty with documented consequences as related by Canadian Jim Clemmer who regularly comments on items of interest in our society.

“Seven-year-old first baseman, Tanner Munsey, fielded a ground ball and tried to tag a runner going from first to second base. The umpire, Laura Benson, called the runner out, but young Tanner immediately ran to her side and said, "Ma'am, I didn't tag the runner." Umpire Benson reversed herself, sent the runner to second base, and Tanner's coach gave him the game ball for his honesty.

Two weeks later, Laura Benson was again the umpire and Tanner was playing shortstop when a similar play occurred. This time Benson ruled that Tanner had missed the tag on a runner going to third base, and she called the runner safe. Tanner looked at Benson and, without saying a word, tossed the ball to the catcher and returned to his position. Benson sensed something was wrong. "Did you tag the runner?" she asked Tanner. "Yes," he replied. Benson then called the runner out. The opposing coaches protested until she explained what had happened two weeks earlier. "If a kid is that honest," she said, "I have to give it to him."

So, we see that honesty is ultimately rewarded as trust was established between player and umpire. What a grand life lesson this incident offers! You might like to know that Tanner was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 2000 and is now a catcher with the Cleveland Indians organization.

The smoke and mirrors of exorbitant money and self-aggrandizement has corrupted all levels of modern professional sports. Many professional athletes have even developed a disdain for the fans, rules of the game and for the rule of law. In an ultimate paradox many of those competitors who kneel in prayer with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes before and following their games lie, cheat and deceive in order to bring victory to their camp. The so-called Christian concepts of honesty and integrity are left in the backwash of victory - whatever the cost. Legendary Packer coach Vince Lombardi would have rejected a victory won at the expense of honesty and integrity.

Our desire to have our place in the sun, to win, to achieve fame has to be balanced by principles of integrity. As Carter continues, “We need to encourage and promote wholeness, completeness, the undivided self, the summation of emotional, physical and spiritual life - we are all about integrity.” Athletes, at least, need to be counseled to play the game, not the referees.

I recommend that we reward those who embrace and live by the principles of honesty and integrity and punish those athletes who lie and cheat their way to mediocrity or stardom. Players caught cheating (especially documented in a replay situation) should be red-flagged, booted from a game and sanctioned by the league. Teams should be penalized both during and after the game (read my lips Coach Belichick).

Some folks wax eloquent and state that pushing boundaries is only human and comes natural to us. That humanity, however, cannot remain an excuse to cheat and gain an unfair advantage. Those that admit a Jekyll & Hyde personality that reflects both good and evil; that cheating and being a good sport are normal and a reflection of our humanity are just plain missing the mark. These are the ultimate enablers and an incredible part of the problem.

NBC Sports commentator Jimmy Roberts recently placed a New Year’s wish that would see, “a football or baseball player admit to an official that he didn’t really catch the ball – that it hit the ground.”

Now that would be something to see! Wouldn’t that cause a ruckus! If we could just replay that November, 1961 Williams-Amherst football game where, for reasons no greater or less than honor and integrity, those student athletes competed on the gridiron?


Ned Buxton

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