Friday, March 7, 2008

Does the End Justify the Means?

Given: My parents, grandparents, and most adults in my family and immediate community, including my teachers and coaches, were my role models. Based on my memory, they were not cheaters. To my observation and awareness, they did not lie, cheat, or steal to make short term gains or to get ahead. They worked hard. They were honest. They were selfless. They were self critical. They were creative.

Thanks to good leadership, they lived in an area with good opportunities to succeed. People were satisfied with making their lives better than their immediate ancestors. The culture encouraged and rewarded integrity and community. It punished shortcuts and people who broke rules to get ahead. Talent was recognized because standards were clear. Talent outweighed connections, and packaging.

Doubt: In recent weeks purported character flaws have dominated media outlets. A vaulted athlete (Roger Clemens) was accused of taking performance enhancing drugs. To raise its moribund basketball program, the country’s supposed beacon of higher education (Harvard’s athletic department and basketball coaches) was accused of illegally recruiting and admitting great basketball prospects scoring well below Ivy athletic admission standards. An executive with a local company was terminated for bribing a public official to gain business. A national figure was accused of brokering an oil deal for financial gain with a tyrant known to orchestrate horrific human rights violations.

In each case, there is overwhelming evidence that rules and laws were circumvented to gain a competitive advantage and power. Nicolo Machiavelli, in the 15th century, stated: “Politics have no relation to morals”.

Cheating in athletics disappoints me because its Greek origins were designed to test and elevate character, strength, and purity, for participants to gain self awareness and truth from victory or defeat. The goal was to improve participants holistically, to better society.

Trials: I’m not surprised but it is disappointing. Cheating is almost as common as integrity in my experiences. A few of my contemporaries took steroids in the early 1980’s, as did some of my competition. I shook my head reading their profiles prior to these games, ready to spend the afternoon blocking yet another player capable of bench pressing 500 pounds. I found solace knowing these behemoths, if really talented, would be playing in the Big Ten, or at least in the Big East. What they had in size, they lacked in foot speed and technique.

Regular students discussed cheating at every school where I studied or coached. There seemed to be an unwritten:”don’t ask, don’t tell” policy between some players / coaches regarding steroid use, and between some professors / students regarding cheating. Often, cheating signals were ignored.

A chemistry professor I know witnessed a student cheat on his final exam. As the student submitted his exam, the professor asked for the paper. The student asked the professor if he knew the student’s name. The professor did not, so the student lifted the pile of exams, tucked his answers in the middle, and walked out. This reminds me of the question: What do you call a medical student who cheated, or almost failed medical school? Doctor, but I hope not my doctor.

Harvard’s recent run of Ivy Football Titles was accomplished with several players making headlines for their off field criminal behavior. My high school coach always called this smoke screen and mirrors, or creating an illusion while being just as devious or corrupt as anyone else. It looks like the charade continues with Harvard’s basketball program.

To many, Harvard is the beacon of thought and behavior in Higher Education. If high school players and coaches, or competing coaches and players know Harvard cheats, or cuts its corners to maintain its perceived pedestal, some may interpret this as permission to take similar short cuts. Machiavelli also said: “One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived”.

As for Roger Clemens, if, in fact, he took performance enhancing drugs, he did not need them. He had the talent, technique, and the drive to make it to Cooperstown “the right way”, with hard work and good nutrition.

Transcendence: For every person who decides to cheat, there are more people who make good decisions. Good beats evil. Light beats darkness. Positive beats negative. A person cannot experience both of the dichotomies in these pairs at once. Most of my peers decided against taking steroids or cheating in their classes. Everyone has free will and the choice to do right.

Athletics are loved because they give us the opportunity to experience human potential and grace. When someone’s preparation and passion collides with opportunity a miracle can be made. Kirk Gibson's homerun, Franco Harris' immaculate reception, Michael Jordon's game winning shots, Tiger Woods' incredible shots, the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team's Gold Medal, are examples of transcending moments in sports, when sports lifted athletes and fans to a higher plane.

Does the end justify the means? Cheaters may experience short term gains, but are less apt to experience transcending moments because positive and negative forces can't coexist. Cheating undermines focus. For those who are patient and persevere for their opportunity, the end glorifies the means! Dedication to a cause prevails because the person focuses all his or her natural talents to pursue his or her passion. This galvanizes energy. It keeps hope alive. Please enjoy the attached video clip highlighting one such moment.