When the Fix Is In, You Can't Believe It

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I don't know about you, but I no longer look for innocent parties in the sports pages, and I accepted a long time ago that any notion of fairness had become old-fashioned. Still, the NBA game-fixing accusations threaten to make the worst cynic, skeptic or crank feel like a wide-eyed naif. Trust has taken it on the chin.

Everyone has their own level of tolerance, the tipping point at which they abandon ingenuousness. It's hard to find any plain honesty on playing fields this week; suspicion is everywhere: Barry Bonds, the slug who passes for a slugger in baseball, keeps hitting home runs. NFL quarterback Michael Vick is indicted for tormenting dogs, and at the moment banned from training camp. Steroids have supposedly shown up in golf, and another Tour de France leader is accused of doping. If games reflect a society's values, then welcome to Rome just before the fall.

Where, in this litany of trespasses, do we place referee Tim Donaghy and the assertion that he fixed NBA games for the mob? In meanness and criminality, his alleged offense is probably worse than performance enhancing, but not as cruelly heinous as slamming a dog on the ground until it's dead. These are the charming measurements we get to make this summer, when all we want to do is stare at pretty green fields and watch games.

Still, the Donaghy scandal comes with the most collateral damage and potential for outrage, because it robs everybody, you and me both, of belief. The Vick case is about a vile and sadistic practice, but Vick is just one player. The baseball steroids issue is a cool scandal, about the nature of performance and the definition of cheating, a topic on which we're not unanimous. In fact, large numbers of fans don't seem morally outraged at all, judging by the box office. An argument can be made that Bonds still had to hit the ball.

But the Donaghy allegations cause a place to go cold in the pit of the stomach, colder than a pond of dark water. A referee shaving points messes with the authenticity of, well, everything. You have to be able to believe your own eyes.

Games are actually our most intense form of reality show. Compared to them, "American Idol" is an actor's sketch, staged and over-managed. Audiences can accept that a TV show might be a tad fraudulent, but it's simply intolerable on a field of competition, because the substance and usefulness of sport depends entirely upon the fact that we wholeheartedly believe that what we're watching is emotionally truthful and impulsive, and therefore instructive about our behavior and values. We suppose baseball represents old-fashioned bucolic rural values. We suppose that football represents newer, military-industrial values about strategy and power. We suppose that games teach children survival, introduce them to skills, social relationships and the complexities of success and failure.

The French philosopher and anthropologist Roger Caillois wrote a treatise called "Man, Play and Games" in which he explored why we need games, and why we try to preserve them from corruption. The short answer is that they're civilizing. Games are about mutually agreed-on rules of civility, a "universally acknowledged rigor and spirit of play." They are how we temper conflict. Games, he said, "discipline instincts and institutionalize them."

Caillois would argue that in the above catalogue of sports offenses, Donaghy's alleged game fixing is more destructive than anything. Even a cheat, according to Caillois, indirectly verifies the legitimacy of games. "The cheat is still inside the universe of play," Caillois wrote. "If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical. He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the convention he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules. If he is caught, he is thrown out. The universe of play remains intact."

True corruption, Caillois remarked, "begins at the point where no referee or decision is recognized." When that happens, all breaks down and what's left is either unlimited ruthless chaos, or a meaningless circus. One person who seems to thoroughly understand this is NBA Commissioner David Stern, who isn't attempting to minimize the crisis. Rather, NBA officials are simply hoping that Donaghy acted alone, that he was strictly a one-man basketball version of the film "Breach," and that containment is possible.

But the potential corrosiveness of the Donaghy case is suggested by handicapper Brandon Lang's comments to ESPN. Lang's distrust of the officiating is rampant, even runaway. "Listen, this is just the first guy to get caught," Lang says. "I think, without question, there are more officials out there who have shaved points. I guarantee you there are. This is just the first guy to get caught."

What if that's true? What happens, Caillois asks, "When the universe of play is no longer tightly closed? When it is contaminated by the real world in which every act has inescapable consequences?" He answers: "What used to be a pleasure becomes an obsession. What was an escape becomes an obligation, and what was a pastime is now a passion, compulsion, and source of anxiety."

Sounds a lot like the last few days.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company