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David Hegg: Examining ethics in the sports world

Posted: October 21, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 21, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Even if you are not a sports fan, there is much to learn from the ethics that are on display during competition. In fact, it is during the most stressful times, when winning and losing are on the line, that the true ethical values of the individual or team come to the surface. Crisis brings out character, and too often, it’s not pretty.

As the current professional football season began, a decision by the regular referees to strike meant that the first several games were presided over by replacement referees whose experience and ability apparently left much to be desired. Crucial mistakes were made leading to victories that will forever be recognized as unearned. Week after week, the story wasn’t about brilliant plays and clever coaching, but referees failing to see and call penalties for illegal actions on the part of the players.

Does anyone else see a red flag here? I know this will sound really ignorant, but I want to ask the simple question: Why do we need referees in the first place? Can’t professionals be expected to stay within the rules, and when they don’t, just fess up? I can see it now: A player goes the length of the field for an apparent touchdown, but then an offensive lineman is seen sprinting up to the captain of the other team to confess that he broke the rules, nullifying the apparent score.

OK so this is laughably absurd! After all, professional athletes in the throes of heated competition can’t be expected to act fairly and honestly. And the possibility of “getting away with something” only adds to the competitive experience of the game, right?

There is no getting around it. Athletic competition demands the presence of a referee, a rule-keeper who can make sure that the natural tendency of competitors to break the rules doesn’t unfairly decide the contest’s outcome.

This illustration from the world of sport is telling. It demonstrates a tragic principle that has become part of the fabric of our culture: If you can get away with it then it really isn’t wrong, especially if it helps you win. The standard for ethics is increasingly not an absolute belief in right and wrong, but the pragmatic idea that “wrong” actually means getting caught. And even then “wrong” can be marginalized and rationalized away by understanding that everyone else is engaged in the same behavior but they just haven’t gotten caught yet. This new definition of integrity is being played out on the political and business stages of our society even as those called to “referee” our national ethics have apparently gone on strike.

Not long ago, I was watching a golf match on television. I find golf is the perfect Sunday afternoon napping environment. But my twilight slumber was broken when the announcers got all excited about an extraordinary occurrence. It wasn’t a great shot or putt.

What had them all ebullient was the fact that one of the golfers had given himself a penalty stroke for inadvertently replacing his ball an inch from its original lie.

In golf, once the ball is on the green, the player is allowed to place a ball mark where the ball lies, pick up the ball to clean it, and then replace it without penalty.

It seems this golfer had placed the ball mark, cleaned the ball, and then placed his ball back to the side of the mark instead of directly in front of it.

The difference was an inch or less, but as soon as he placed the ball he realized his mistake.

No one saw it, and no camera caught it. But he knew that he had broken the rules of the game. He also knew that the integrity of his heart, and his love for the game of golf demanded that he announce his culpability.

It has long been known that inner compliance is vastly preferable to outer compulsion. That we need laws and those who enforce them are unarguable. But that our families and neighborhoods, cities and country would be greatly advantaged if our ethics were self-policing no one can deny. Maybe we should all take up golf, fall in love with the gentlemanly ethos of the game, and clean up our own messes instead of seeing just how much we can get away with.

David W. Hegg is senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita.


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