Scoop Jackson, James Blake, and What it Means to Cheat

Casey MichelCorrespondent ISeptember 17, 2008

As I traipsed along Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens the other day, flanked by Gray-Headed Flying Foxes and the serene Circular Quay, I decided to treat myself with a dollop of hazelnut gelato.

And after I had returned to the confines of my dorm, crashing wearily into bed and flipping open the awaiting, I checked the recent musings of Scoop Jackson.

Two scoops. Two things I enjoy, gelato and sports writing.

But only one left a good taste in my mouth.

Leaving the fact that I love hazelnut to the side, it really wasn’t that hard to decide which scoop I could digest easier. Scoop’s column begins innocuously enough, posing a simple question. "What should Fernando Gonzalez have done?" (Apparently, Scoop is practicing to be a third-grade teacher.)

Seeing as my eyes had been previously epoxied to the Michael Phelps extravaganza, I had barely registered that Gonzalez was the Chilean tennis pro who knocked off James Blake in the Olympic semifinals, one round after the American had trounced then-No. 1 Roger Federer.

Intrigued, I delved into the column, soon learning that Gonzalez had stolen victory, helped by a shot whose contentiousness made the Russia-Georgia conflict look like a pillow-fight.

On a “pendulum point,” the chair umpire botched what replays seem to have clearly shown: the rocketed ball, which would have landed Blake one point from his first Olympic final, actually skimmed off Gonzalez’s racket before landing out of bounds.

To his credit, Blake contained his inner John McEnroe and merely pleaded with the Chilean to come clean to the umpire; to tell the chair that he felt the vibrations, heard the thudding as the ball ricocheted off his racket and into the green yonder; to put Blake a breath from the height of his career.

‘What should Fernando Gonzalez have done?’

Now, I’m not sure what’s Spanish for "the right thing," but I sure as hell know how to say it en anglais. Because there’s no getting around it. Gonzalez, with a brush-of-a-bullet shot of adrenaline and a crumbling Blake across the net, saw his opportunity. And, ever the Machiavellian, he went for it.

Which is good enough for Scoop.

As the rest of his column goes on to detail, cheating your way to the top is acceptable—nay, admirable—as long as it takes place in the realm of sports. As long as the ref doesn’t see it, or if the zebras blow the call, all is fair in 40-love.

Apparently, Scoop missed the third-grade lesson about integrity.

For both the competitors and the game, cheating—or even turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to a transgression—cheapens the morals and the standards of both the competitors and the game. The fans don't get their money's worth, and the athletes, who fail to stand up to the challenge, blatantly diminish their skill-sets. Who wins?

Here’s Scoop’s logic, simple and concise: Since everyone else is doing it, there’s no reason for you to be different. Scoop writes, “What athlete in his right (or left) hemisphere would give away a point that critical?”

Let’s equate that to, say, politics for a moment. What presidential hopeful would, in the dog days of the election, clamp down on the 527s, the 21st-century swift-boaters? Honestly, none, but that doesn’t mean we don’t wish they would.

And if there was tangible, all-encompassing evidence that Obama or McCain had eradicated any semblance of these low-blowers, don’t you think the honesty could maybe, just maybe, give him a precious bump in the polls?

Furthermore, when Scoop allows conformity at this integrity-laden cost, do you know who he sounds like? Jose Canseco. Bill Romanowski. Any third-grader who makes faces behind the teacher’s back.

Sorry, Scoop, but I ain’t a lemming. If you want to be like everyone else and degrade both your morals and your stature, go right ahead. Me, I’ll wait to raise up an athlete who, as cliché as this may sound, plays the game as it’s meant to be played. The athlete should not govern the rules—the rules should govern him.

That being said, I suppose now would be a good time to come clean—that 3-2 curveball I saw with runners at the corners a couple years ago? Yeah, I didn’t check my swing. Not even close. But that’s not how the ump saw it. And according to Scoop, as long as the burden of failure lies on the umps’ shoulders, I have free run of the place. So why do I still feel like a jackass over that totally (ahem) truthful example?

Gonzalez choked, but not in the traditional sense. His unknown status has since been replaced by a dishonorable image, a slithering, slash-and-burn purveyor of the dark side of athletics. (Ah, hyperbole is the spice of life, isn't it?)

Fortunately, as Scoop’s column signs off, the idea of “karma” comes into play—and it is this ethereal influence (and raw, unabated talent) that landed Gonzalez under the sole of Rafael Nadal’s tennis footprint.

Third grade, like Gonzalez’s gold-medal hopes, may have come and gone, but integrity? That can last forever.

If only my hazelnut gelato could, too.