The Agony of Defeat

I am and always have been an unabashed sports guy.

This assertion will come as exactly zero surprise to anyone who has ever had even a cursory interaction with me. I’ve played sports since I was a little kid — and I still play hockey on a regular basis. I’ve coached kids’ teams. I’ve been a rabid sports fan — especially for my beloved Boston teams — my entire life and I watch high-quality soccer pretty much weekly. I’ve enjoyed exploring and learning about new sports when I’ve had the chance: while living in northern Germany in the late ‘80s I watched cricket on British TV in an attempt to understand the game. I still maintain that seeing Bobby Orr rush up ice or Michael Jordan gliding through the air or Mikaela Shiffrin laying down a blistering giant-slalom run is to witness the fleeting moments of physical perfection the human species can achieve. And I still get choked up and cry when an Olympic gold medal or the Stanley Cup is awarded, or when Megan Rapinoe stands astride the world having just scored a goal that will propel her team (and gender) to new heights.

Quite simply: I believe sport is magical. And though I’ve always preferred doing to watching others do, I believe there’s something to be gained by watching the best of the best ply their trade and demonstrate those instances of human wonder.

That’s why it might surprise those who know me that I am THIS close to turning off the TV and giving up top-level sports forever.

The sign-stealing scandal rocking Major League Baseball is the latest — and potentially fatal — blow to my love of sports. I’m not going to get into the details of what the Houston Astros did, just watch this two-minute video.

It’s cheating. Out and out cheating. In blatant defiance of rules that expressly prohibit what the Astros did. And despite the declarations of those involved, it tarnishes the championship the Astros won.

And it’s only the latest example of organized, high-level cheating in highest levels of sport worldwide. The Russian government orchestrated a vast effort to facilitate doping across several Olympic sports — and yet still they’re appealing their punishment. Everyone knows what Lance Armstrong did during the year he dominated cycling — and yet countless other riders have been busted for doping since then. We’ve lost count at how many NCAA football and basketball programs have been penalized for paying players, bribing agents and other rule-breaking acts.

And then there are the infamous scandals plaguing the most successful (in recent years) of my Boston teams: the New England Patriots and their Spygate and Deflategate controversies. And despite having been caught and punished for such acts, the Patriots JUST THIS YEAR were busted for having a video crew filming the coaching staff of next week’s opposition. Jeez Louise! Have they no shame?

Even my beloved Red Sox, THE religion here in the northeastern corner of the country, is caught up in the sign-stealing scandal. Manager Alex Cora, who was part of the Astros’ scheme in 2017, and the Sox “mutually agreed to part ways.” It remains to be seen if the World Series the Red Sox won in 2018 will be tarnished along similar lines as Houston’s 2017 championship.

Does it even matter? There’s doubt now, and such doubt can never be fully erased. I have my doubts about the whole Deflategate scandal — but Tom Brady’s greatest-of-all-time career will always carry a stain, as well as persistent questions about what else he/the Patriots might have done during the unusually successful run the team had over the past two decades.

Cheating in sports is nothing new. It’s been going on since sports has existed. I’m not THAT naïve. But it seems different now: with all the money involved — even in putatively “amateur” sports — it’s just par for the course when doing business. And business is what sport was supposed to enable us to escape.

Maybe I’m being naïve when I ask this, but what’s the point of playing if you can’t play without cheating? Any victory you might gain would be hollow. Regardless of the dollars you might put into your bank account as a result, you’d still know deep down inside that you hadn’t earned it. You weren’t better than your opposition on that given day. You didn’t push yourself to a higher level than you’d ever gone before. In short: you achieved nothing BUT making money. More power to you but now you’re no different than anyone else trying to make a buck each and every day. But beforehand, before your cheating was exposed, you were akin to a god or some other ideal to which the rest of us might aspire. Now, you’re just one of us — and lesser than the rest of us who live and work honestly.

I’ll still tune in to this week’s Premier League games, and I’m thrilled my Celtics smoked the hated Lakers last night, but I’m slowly getting over it all. And I’ll stay focused on books and art and nature when looking for the poetry in this world.

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