While up at bat at a crucial juncture in an important baseball earlier this month, New York Yankees captain and shortstop Derek Jeter pretended to be hit by a pitch from Chad Qualls of the Tampa Bay Rays. His acting convinced the umpire to award him first base. The next batter, Curtis Granderson, hit a two-run homer giving the Yankees the lead (they ultimately lost the game).
There has been much discussion about whether Jeter’s act constituted cheating. Apparently, under the rules of baseball, the answer is no. The umpire, based on what he thought he saw and heard, awarded the base to Jeter. Jeter “sold it,” as they say, but he didn’t force the umpire to make the wrong decision. As Joe Posnanski, columnist for Sports Illustrated, wrote on his blog, “Isn’t a big part of baseball selling the umpire on stuff that didn’t happen? Isn’t that what a catcher does when he tries to bring back strike three? Isn’t that what an infielder does by holding up the glove even when he misses a tag at second base? Isn’t that what an outfielder does when he lifts up his glove after he traps a ball? Isn’t that what a batter does when he tries to act like he checked his swing? Doesn’t a base runner pretend to have touched home plate even if he knows that he missed it?”
The same applies in almost all sports. Take basketball, for example. Players are taught to flop on defense so that the referee will call an offensive foul. They are also known to scream when they drive to the basket so that the referee is led to believe that they were fouled.
These Oscar-winning moves are part of the game and it’s up to the official to determine who is right and who is wrong. Therefore, in the context of the game itself, this is not cheating.
However, we can’t consider these acts in a vacuum. The lessons derived from such behavior can have wider repercussions, particularly when such conduct is engaged in by a “role model” like Jeter.
What message is a player sending to fans all over the world? He is telling them that you need to do whatever it takes to get ahead, that “winning is everything” and that “the ends justify the means.” Frankly, Jeter himself admitted this when he said in a post-game interview, “My job is to get on base.” It doesn’t matter to him how he gets there, as long as he gets there. What the average fan takes away from that kind of conduct is that it is okay to do whatever is necessary to succeed, not just in baseball, but in every aspect of life. It may not always be the most ethical, but that doesn’t matter.
One of the problems with today’s athletes is that they view their actions in a vacuum. They believe they live by different rules and what they do or say should not influence regular people in normal society. As NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley once famously said, “I am not a role model.” While some athletes and parents alike would wish for that to be the case, it’s not. For better or worse, many people view star athletes as role models and emulate their behavior. As a result, athletes have an obligation to set a good example for their fans, particularly the children who often idolize them.
Unfortunately, experience has taught us that pro athletes are often poor role models and therefore it is up to us as parents and teachers to teach our children and students “to play the game of life” the right way. We must explain that cheating in any area of life is wrong. Remember, in the game life, it’s not necessarily if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
Rabbi Joshua Hess is the spiritual leader of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden. He hosts The FANatic Rabbi blog, “a religious perspective on the hot sports issues of the day,” at thefanaticrabbi.com.