If you happened to miss it last week, sports’ latest fallen idol, Lance Armstrong – seven-time winner of the Tour de France and likely the only professional cyclist you know – admitted to America’s most-beloved former daytime talk show host what everyone knew already: that for decades he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
The anti-climactic mea culpa to a televised audience, a cliché since the invention of the medium, ended an era in America sports that began with revelations of widespread steroid abuse among professional baseball players. To great gnashing of teeth and bewailing of the loss of American innocence, the public came to know for a fact that its icons of athletic greatness did the unspeakable – they (gasp!) cheated. If you recall, an outraged Congress even held hearings on the debasement of America’s national pastime.
Unless you are naive enough to believe professional wrestling is unscripted, then the revelation that U.S. sports, from the major leagues to cycling, is riddled with cheats comes as no surprise. Indeed, so obvious was the problem that only the blind could have mistaken the hulking giants that perennially socked baseballs out of ballparks as normal human beings. Like East Germany’s female gymnasts, something was clearly not on the up-and-up.
Sports, however, is merely one part of a wider culture and reflects the larger society it is embedded in. That being the case, then the endemic cheating that became de rigueur for the men who get paid immense amounts to play games all day is as American as apple pie. Indeed, given the stakes involved in these increasingly winner-take-all professions, where a loss can mean millions in lost salary and endorsement revenue, cheating on a massive and organized scale is to be expected.
That the joy of the game has long since been replaced by the joy of the gain in our corporatized athletics is obvious to anyone who wants to notice. Big Sports is, of course, Big Business, with the valuation of even average teams in the NFL coming in at over a billion dollars. Even eternal losers like the Chicago Cubs can have team valuations of a half billion or more. From the price of an over-priced hot dog to the valuation of team collectibles, Big Sports has commodified and monetized every aspect of athletic competition. If the soulless MBAs who control MLB could have cut up Barry Bonds into tradable financial instruments that could then be sold to unwary investors, they would have. They certainly don’t care about the health and safety of the athletes who risk all to enrich the teams they play for.
Sports, however, aren’t the only facet of American culture to get the Moneyball treatment. As our country has become ever more unequal under the groaning weight of unfettered, globalized financial capitalism, our norms of honesty and fair play seem increasingly like quaint vestiges of a bygone era. Indeed, as globalized capitalism has grown more powerful, its amoral norms have trickled down on the rest of us – corrupting everything in its wake. As the subtitle of the aforementioned book suggests, when the game is unfair, anything done in order to win is acceptable if the stakes are high enough.
Take education, for instance. As blue collar paths to middle-class incomes have washed away in the wake of staggering economic changes, access to a quality education has become ever more important. Instead of making the investments necessary to bring a quality education to everyone, however, Americans have instituted a leaky system of standardized testing that has led to an epidemic of “juking the stats,” or manipulating data, in order to achieve management-set educational goals with little in the way of additional resources provided. Teaching-to-the-test, cheating, and demoralized teachers are but a few of the sins set loose by by-the-numbers management in a profession once dominated by an idealistic commitment to the public good.
Another key area of American public life ostensibly corrupted by the influence of commercial culture is, of course, the newsroom. The decline of U.S. journalism from a high-minded commitment of informing the public to a profit-driven orgy of partisan infotainment has been well documented, and its consequences fatal. News consumption at traditional outlets is at an all-time low, while the public goes uniformed or even misinformed on vital national issues. So badly has the media devolved that what passed for dark satire in 1976 is now standard fare today.
More examples could be provided, but to do so would beat a dead horse. The point is that as the grim, unyielding, competitive rat race that is modern America drives inexorably onward, the pressure to cut corners mounts. From Manhattan to Mayberry, the ceaseless quest for more has created an unhealthy culture where we all strive for a “good life” that is increasingly out of reach. That desperate people do desperate things is a truism, but in a country where the massacre of school children by the mentally ill has become commonplace, mere dishonesty is refreshingly, depressingly ordinary.
To be sure, the crass, corrupting power of commercialism is not necessarily all bad. Capitalism and the market, in their own way, can be both empowering and liberating. Indeed, there is a powerful argument to be made that the logic of the market – which doesn’t see black or white, just green – has played a powerful role in making our society freer and more inclusive. Efficiency, furthermore, is nothing to sneer at either, and every organization — no matter how high-minded and idealistic — has to ensure its economic viability to survive.
Market capitalism has many benefits and we would certainly be remiss in throwing out the baby with the proverbial bathwater, but nonetheless, it remains true that when you strip away all motivating norms except for the bottom line while simultaneously raising the stakes enormously, bad results are guaranteed to occur. Indeed, it is so predictable that a well-known sociological rule of thumb known as Campbell’s Law was coined to describe it. It states that the more a quantitative social indicator is used for decision-making purposes, the more subject it becomes to countervailing, corrupting pressure by those who labor under it – therefore making it useless as a meaningful measure to begin with.
Thus, the dilemma that many Americans face, famous athletes included, is that the rules, resources and incentives they are presented with in an America that only respects the short-run bottom line is that honesty and integrity are often detrimental to professional advancement. Armstrong’s defense, such as it was, was that everybody was doing it – meaning that an honest person could not hope to succeed in such an environment. If such an excuse sounds remarkably similar to the culture of corruption that led Wall Street to perpetrate massive, ongoing fraud for years, that’s because it is. The norms motivating Armstrong’s cheating and Wall Street’s fraud come from the same place.