The Iliad is famous as one of the earliest written works of Western literature, but it also contains one of the first game recaps. It’s a strange one. Troy has fallen, the Greeks have rescued the girl and slain the bad guy, and we’re winding down to a nice heroic conclusion. Instead, after Hektor’s funeral, Achilles (and Homer) decide to devote 20 of the last 40 pages to a series of athletic contests, chariot racing and wrestling, for prizes.
We get a blow-by-blow of who tackles whom, and even an analysis of what each fighter has to look out for going into the ring. By the familiar narrative structure of today’s stories, this rather detailed sports talk, coming on the heels of a giant war and a bunch of bronze armor and spears clattering in the dust, strikes one as jarring. But sports have always been a companion, and now in many cases a substitute, for war, and the prizes and heroism that go with it.
It’s a natural connection–both feature people pressed to the absolute limit of physical exertion in direct competition–but there’s also one very important distinction. Total war distorts all priorities, casts aside all rules and manners. When the alternative is death, both of the individual and their state, all secondary considerations are discarded: war means winning at all costs, regardless of atrocities. Throughout human history we’ve fought, even during our wars, to avoid this state. We’ve created limitations on how wars should be entered, and how they should be conducted; we’ve banned chemical weapons, formalized a prisoner of war system, instilled military codes of honor.
These codes hold up until they don’t, and in the modern era–with its destructive tools, its mingling of combatants and civilians, its omnipresent governments and ideologies–they often don’t. The transition from limited to total war has progressed for a century now. U-boats couldn’t afford to save the sailors of the boats they sank without exposing themselves to other enemies; mustard gas filled three years of trenches before being banned by Geneva; bombing missions required calculus between accuracy and pilot safety. And in modern times, we’ve lost all categorization of what a soldier or even what a war is. The rules of war, jus in bello, morality in war, seem more idealistic and impossible each year.
Contrast this with sports, which are defined by their limitations. If war is the ends by whatever means, sports are the means, literally a set of rules that restrict activity. Even The Iliad supports this: during the “celebratory” chariot race, Antilochus attempts to pass a competitor, Menelaus–24 hours before, a comrade he would have died for–on a narrow band of the track. It’s a dangerous move, and Menelaus eventually submits for the safety of both him and the other man, who goes on to beat him. His response is to demand an apology for putting sport ahead of health, and publicly complaining about the other man’s prize. The unwritten rules were as strong for the Ancient Greeks as they are today.
The rules give our sports their comfortable boundaries, upper and lower, that allow us to define success. They give us baselines and limit the size of gloves, dictate how to act and how to score in every situation. And for the unforeseeable circumstances that need to exist to give any sport its sense of mystery, athletes have built up their own jus in bello to handle it, to keep things from getting out of hand. Sometimes these customs are ridiculous or quaint, like throwing at someone when their team has thrown at you or not stealing when up five runs, and in some cases we’d be better off having written rules to cover up for custom. But in all cases the idea is the same: that there’s a virtue greater than winning, something to prevent total, destructive exertion. There are ways to keep baseball a limited war.
It works, for five months out of the year. Then, we hit October, and something like this happens.
The recap: Rajai Davis lifts a first-inning Jon Lester pitch into the meager right-field foul territory of Wrigley Field. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Jason Heyward all run toward the ball as the line judge, John Hirschbeck, sprints out of the way. It is Heyward’s play, however. As he sprints into foul ground, you can hear someone–is it Baez, whose hand is held up?–calling out “no no no no no.” It turns out that there is a man in the middle of the baseball field.
Heyward slides and appears to make contact with Indians bullpen coach Armando Camacaro, who is not sitting in his seat and who is not, it seems, interested in getting out of the way. The ball lands on the dirt and bounds silently into the stands. There’s no rule for this situation, written or otherwise. The on-field bullpen is a rarity these days, and hopefully soon an artifact. But regardless of the outcome (no harm on the play, and Lester retired Davis shortly after), it’s the hazy uncertainty of the situation that leaves a bad taste.
Was Camacaro bound to remain in his seat, regardless of whether the ball might land on him? Are he and the other Indians bound to flee like Hirschbeck? If it is indeed morally acceptable for Camacaro to stand up, exactly how much could he inhibit Heyward’s attempt at the ball? Make a noise? A feint? Stick a leg out? The answer is that there is no answer. Two days from now no one will remember that the play even happened; circumstance differentiates between the Camacaros and the Bartmans of the world. But it does point to a troubling weak point in the entire system of baseball: that the very existence of rules have made everyone less equipped to handle what goes on outside of them.
Which, again, 99 percent of the time doesn’t matter. The players can police themselves when the stakes are low. But in October, winning really is everything, or everything imaginable. And so you have these troubling juxtapositions between the morality of winning, and the actions required to help your team, with the morality of plain morality. If Camacaro steps out of the way and Heyward makes the catch, is he in some part working against his team? Are all players required to sacrifice their short- or long-term health for the sake of the trophy?
Or to go even further, are they compelled to push against every boundary, bend every soft spot in the rules, in order to maximize chances of victory? Even the rules of the game become, somehow, part of a bigger game. For example, is it worthwhile or even exemplary to cheat, on probabilistic principles? Should a fielder claim to have caught a ball he clearly muffed, or go along with a botched call? Or, alternatively, if a player feels truthfully that a call is erroneously in his favor, would it be immoral for him to call himself out and jeopardize his team’s championship? Can you imagine how a fan base, on a crucial Game 7 play, would react to such honesty?
The answer to this almost always lies with the umpire. Umpires and referees are universally despised by their customers and their customers’ customers, and yet when it comes to ethics, we’ve all ceded complete control over the truth to the men in the masks. It’s why MLB has been so hesitant to undo an umpire’s ruling, even when it’s egregious or, in the case of Armando Galarraga, life-changing. The rule on the field (or, as we determine, in the review booth or someday in the center field camera’s eye) is the truth, what goes into the box score. The more subjectivity that enters sports, the more gray area to dwell in, the more the enterprise breaks down.
And if that’s true that the umpire is the sole legislator, it frees players from all moral responsibility. It’s no longer wrong to do something immoral; it’s wrong to get caught. This is a code of ethics we’d find reprehensible in our spouses or our elected officials, and yet it’s perfectly acceptable in our athletes, because we’ve hired people to be moral for them. The fact that they attempt to wrest control over this morality, to make their own flawed, barbaric code, is actually fairly impressive. But in the playoffs, in the atmosphere of do-or-die, it’s impossible to maintain. There is no sportsmanship in foxholes.
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