Why so few? Because everyone in sports — whether player or coach, commissioner or owner, broadcast partner or team trainer — knows that cheating, defrauding the public, strikes at the existence of their business.
The stakeholders battle to keep their game clean, not because they are noble but because it is profoundly in their self-interest. It is an issue of continued existence.
A normal person finds it easy to grasp how many eyes are constantly on both teams in any game for high stakes. The umpires are paid to enforce rules. The opposition team has every incentive to spot — and expose — cheats. The entire sport needs to defend its integrity if it wants to keep selling its product. The media would give their eye teeth to break open a big scandal.
Ever since the 1919 Black Sox fixing scandal (exposed quickly) nearly killed baseball, the sport has obsessed on preventing fixes — a team trying to lose a World Series, something vastly easier than finding a way to cheat to win one. Pete Rose, the hit king, was banned for life for gambling on the team he managed — to win. That was enough. Integrity of the game is the third rail.
If it’s incredibly hard to throw a title series or cheat to win one, if a face-of-the-sport star can’t get away with gambling on his team to win because so many eyes and so many people’s jobs and interests are aligned with keeping the game clean, then how unfathomably hard, with a massive number of culprits, would it be to orchestrate cheating on a massive scale in a presidential election?
Yet the human mind operates in curious ways. We are reasonably good analysts of events that happen in the scale of our own lives — for example, cheating in a game. We can imagine how it might be attempted. But as knowledgeable sports fans, we also know how many levels of cops are built into the fabric of the institution.
But human imagination also has limits — different limits for different people. Some subjects seem too vast for many people to believe they can grasp them on their own. They are paralyzed by size and stop trusting their own judgment, just when they should be relying on that common sense most.
Yes, a World Series and a presidential election are similar — except in size and importance.
America’s whole political system is just as dependent for its viability, for its very life as a democracy, on the credibility of the final score of its elections as sporting events are on the integrity of their final scores.
And everyone in politics, just like everyone in sports, knows it. So from inside and outside the system, they are watching and have been watching since the maturation of our modern political enterprise — to spot cheating and fraud, to catch dead voters and duplicate voters, to check and cross-check the accuracy of any machines that might be tampered with.
This isn’t new. Each generation improves the methods to watch and catch the other side if it tries to play outside the lines. This isn’t about tactics — some legal, some not — such as voter suppression and redistricting. This is just counting votes.
And America is damn good at it. Because at every level down to the smallest county precinct, for every Republican that’s near a ballot — making sure his or her side isn’t cheated out of a single vote — there is a Democrat nearby with the same job.
At the heart of our elections are the hundreds of thousands of people — regular, decent people — who maintain the honesty of the process. They take enormous pride in that job because it is their personal contribution to democracy, regardless of who wins. Because they are sane, they know their candidate wins sometimes, loses sometimes, and sometimes Uncle Ned writes in the dogcatcher for president. We have had 200 years of practice.
In sports, and politics, only one thing is unthinkable, so destructive that it is a kind of ultimate vandalism toward the game or the country: to claim that you have been cheated, on a massive scale, out of victory without any solid evidence to prove it.
Imagine a coach in the Super Bowl who claims, before the game, that his team will either win or be beaten by cheating. He says there’s no third choice. We think it’s “gamesmanship” — getting in the other guy’s head.
But then he loses and for a month goes on conspiracy-ridden tirades about why his team didn’t lose by the clear margin shown on the scoreboard. The refs were crooked, his players were drugged, the balls were slippery when his team had possession and on and on. He demands replays and gets them, but the decisions stand as called. His charges, based on nothing but his anger and dishonesty, are eventually so bizarre, so far outside what people in the game know could possibly happen, that even many of the coach’s closest allies, those in his own organization, concede they lost, that the final score of 306-232 was not just sort-of-accurate but precisely correct.
“Come on, Coach,” they say. “Don’t be a sore loser. Don’t damage the game. Because you’re famous, some people may really believe that you lost because of a conspiracy so perfect that it leaves no evidence.”
In sports, such a coach — and there has never been one like this in any major sport, ever — would be told to accept defeat or find a new job. In fact, just one such false cheating charge, without proof, might get a Vince Lombardi fired.
Current polls show that only a fraction of those who voted for Donald Trump believe he honestly lost the election. That means tens of millions either still think he won or are not sure. His national margin of defeat of about 7 million votes: Why not wish it away?
Millions, their good sense numbed by the size and gall of the lie being fed to them, now doubt the integrity of the game. When that happens in sports, the game dies.
Now the “game” whose integrity is under attack, whose justification for existing is undermined every day by the president of the United States, is democracy itself.
If this happened in sports, we would have no problem analyzing the issue. We would not bother to put some technical, psychological name on the coach’s problem. In sports, you can say the obvious.
My grandfather, Joshua, and his brother, Rollie, born in the 19th century, would have kept it simple while rocking and spitting tobacco into their coffee cans on a front porch in a farm town of 1,500.
“That fellow’s crazier than a chicken with its head cut off,” one would say. They had chopped off chicken’s heads.
You couldn’t have fooled my grandfather and his brother. They had common sense. And they knew crazy.