Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Several years back I was watching one of those old Harvard roundtable discussions with the erudite law professor giving a distinguished panel hypotheticals about ethics. One of the panelists was Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary football coach. Joe was asked what he would tell a running back who has just scored the winning touchdown on the last play of the national championship game but who comes back to you, Joe, despondent because he knows, even though the refs didn’t catch it, that he stepped out of bounds before scoring. Joe, the professor asked, do you give back the trophy?

Now Joe isn’t Bill McCartney, the CO coach who apparently believed Jesus would take a fifth down to score the touchdown that led to the national championship. Joe is the paramount coach of principle by general acclaim. And Joe’s response was, well, it’s the refs’ job to catch those things. His guy broke the rules, Joe knew he broke the rules, but there are things more important than rules. Like winning a game.

I coached a little league baseball team one year that played against a team with a coach who insisted that the teenage umps were responsible for enforcing rules about advancing from base to base (the kids were small). It’s a dog eat dog world out there and you’ve got to teach your children to take whatever they can get because they’ll just get run over if they do silly things, like follow rules.

Why do I bring this up? Because of this article today, wherein Tony Gwynn, a guy I always loved to watch hit, says Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame despite clear evidence of having taken drugs and supplements to improve his performance, ingestions that others hadn’t done in the past and weren’t doing then. Gwynn’s justification? It wasn’t against the rules. It was giving him an unfair advantage, but no one was telling anyone not to. I was looking for “It’s a dog eat dog world . . . ,” but that quote must have been cut.

I’ve talked frequently here before about how our culture and values determine the level of unfair behavior, legal or not, far beyond the marginal effects of our crim just system, about how the perceived legitimacy of our laws (our “rules”) determines whether and how much we obey the law. So, when figures in the dominant form of entertainment in our society blow off the breaking of rules, of norms, of expectations of fair play (I’m not just ripping Gwynn here, also those who want Pete Rose in the Hall, for example, or approve of everything Terrill Owens does or says), do we pretend that doesn’t have an impact on what we do in corrections sentencing? When we give athletes two, three, four chances after USING ILLEGAL SUBSTANCES, when so many guys are spending the bulk of their lives in prison for the same behavior or less (not to mention now deceased Chief Justices), how can we be surprised at the levels of drug use, assault, etc., not dropping despite the strictest punishments in the Western world?

Corrections sentencing does not operate in a vacuum. It matters when people cheat, formal rules or just expectations of decent behavior or not, when they lie and distort as usual and general practice. We see too much of the “it’s a dog eat dog” approach in how prosecutors and defense deal with our justice system, how cops and offenders play off each other, too much of the sports world’s “ethics” in what we do every day the way it is. When young people look at our world and see “heroes” and “authorities” deciding that rules are for fools, that winning is what’s important and it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught, then we’re surrounded by what we claim to be fighting. “No rules” leads to "rules for others but not for me” leads to "no rules for anybody”?

I know. This is a cranky old person’s rant. But laws depend on acceptance, and a culture that condones (and even encourages) their violation in some areas has far less moral ground to base its legal and crim just systems on. And we never get the grip on what we need to be stopping that we try to. Tony Gwynn definitely is not advocating large-scale law-breaking or massive prison populations. But he was only great with a bat in his hands. Figuring out how to hit Maddux obviously took all his brain cells.

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