Why it’s Always Good to Check Your Sources: A Lesson in Selective Reporting

A New York Times article linking a recent survey of teen athletes to the culture of cheating prevalent in professional sports has been getting major play in the internet the last two days. The article’s contention is that cheating is fundamental, that “sports culture conflates all forms of cheating with succeeding,” and “that it’s the new teenage sex: Everybody is doing it.”

The article also engages in the kind of selective reporting and fact manipulation that confuses the unsophisticated sports-basher and infuriates the critic – me, for instance – who’s tired of seeing sports stars sacrificed at the alter of Today’s Headline by people who don’t really know anything about sports.

Where should I begin? Perhaps by saying the study, conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, is actually insightful and does reveal some troubling facts about teen athletes:

43 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls said it was proper for a coach to teach basketball players how to illegally hold and push.

41 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls saw nothing wrong with using a stolen playbook sent by an anonymous supporter before a big game.

37 percent of boys and 20 percent of girls said it was proper for a coach to instruct a player to fake an injury.

29 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls said it was acceptable for a coach to urge parents to allow an academically successful athlete to repeat a grade in middle school so that the athlete would be older and bigger for high school sports.

I stopped nodding my head when I got to this last statistic. See, I don’t know how I feel about this one. I had friends who repeated a grade because their own parents wanted them to be bigger for high school sports. Is it somehow different when a coach is the one ‘urging’ the parent? What about the kid who is genuinely undersized? What about the kid for whom that year might make a difference in whether he goes to college, good grades or not? We used to call these guys “system beaters” back in the day, but to be frank about it we envied them a little. When you love a sport, you want the best possible chance to play that sport at the highest level. Besides, couldn’t state athletic associations police this issue if they found it to be such a huge problem?

The article condemns adults, coaches in particular. They are to blame for the teen athlete’s unsporting behavior, not the pressures to stay eligible, or simply difficulties managing their time given the high demands of sports. The coaches. It certainly doesn’t help matters that former world record holder and BALCO goat Tim Montgomery pleads guilty to a million dollar bank fraud scheme orchestrated by his former coach, but the article goes to such great lengths to single out coaches as corruptors of innocent youth (“…the sports culture conflates all forms of cheating with succeeding”; “A young player who has been conditioned to confuse winning with beating the system is an easy target”) that the reader is left wondering what its real point is. Is it that kids who play sports are ethically impure? Or that they are victims of unethical adults?

Actually it’s neither. But before we get to that, check out a quote from the study that the NYT article didn’t bother including

The good news is that the majority of high school athletes trust and admire their coaches and are learning positive life skills and good values from them. They are less cynical about ethical issues and less likely to steal than their classmates.

Let me get this straight. Although high school student athletes are less ethical than their non-athlete counterparts because their coaches are corrupt, they are less cynical about ethical issues and less likely to steal because of their positive coaching influences. Interesting…

Why wasn’t any this in the NYT article?

When I got to the Barry Bonds portion of the article I realized that what the article was really interested in doing was assailing Bonds as reckless and professional baseball as the ultimate game of cheaters. And why not? The season has just begun. Everyone is talking about baseball. Why not adding another incendiary coal to the fire?

Here are the quotes the NYT article doctored:

“What is cheating?” as Barry Bonds said during a news conference two years ago. A month later, he added: “We need to forget about the past and let us play the game.

“We’re entertainers. Let us entertain.”

Here’s what Bonds actually said in the article from which the quotes were pieced together:

Bonds returned to a theme from his Feb. 22 news conference, asking what is cheating? He wondered if it’s cheating to make a shirt in Korea for $1.50 and sell it for $500. He also said, “You can’t see, things look fuzzy, so what do you do? You go get glasses. Is that cheating? You get glasses so you can see, so you can do your job. What’s the difference?”

And,

“So we all make mistakes. We all do things. We need to turn the page. We need to forget about the past and let us play the game. We’re entertainers. Let us entertain.

The first NYT quote makes it seem as though Bonds is being glib and dismissive when in fact he was asking a probing question that implicates us all. The second quote makes it seem as though Bonds is saying we should forget about a untarnished past, accepted the new status quo and let the players play when in fact he’s saying people make mistakes and should be forgiven for those mistakes.

I wish it ended there, but it didn’t. Next the article uses the high-ranking sales of a recently released book, The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball, to argue that the entire culture is in the clutches of a cheating epidemic! I went online and did a little research on my own. Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about the book:

[Zumtag] argues that baseball has evolved hand-in-hand with the aid of its scoundrels, scamps, and shifty characters-and that doctoring the ball or stealing signs necessitates teams, umpires and even fans adopt more complex strategy. Zumsteg draws the line at gambling, game fixing and steroid use, showing little sympathy for the Black Sox and even less for Pete Rose.

In the introduction Zumtag explicitly states,

Everything that’s called cheating is not cheating.
All cheating is not morally objectionable.
A particular act of cheating may not be entirely right or entirely
wrong — there is a great deal of room for personal interpretation.

These words just about sum up everything that’s wrong with the NYT article. All cheating isn’t equal nor is all cheating clearly defined as such. There are certain black and white areas that we can clearly define, but in sports as in life there are shades of gray that, depending on who you ask, are fair game. I agree that we have very real ethical shortcomings that need correcting in this culture. I don’t agree that what happens on the playing field or is taught in the locker room is at the root of those shortcomings.

One final notable omission: The study found that the overwhelming majority of high school athletes value winning but would much rather play for a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team and believe winning is not essential for the enjoyment of the sport.

I guess this tidbit didn’t make the cut…

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