Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Integrity Shmintegrity

In yesterday’s New York Times, Tony La Russa made what I thought was an interesting comment about Mark McGwire’s integrity. He said that he had it.

La Russa cited, as an example, the fact that McGwire retired with two years and $30 million left on his contract—without asking for a buyout—because he didn’t think he could be effective anymore.

Was that an admirable thing to do? Sure, of course. I guess. Though, in theory, we shouldn’t think it's that admirable. Because it’s actually just plain old decent. I think we’ve just become so accustomed to dealing with greedy athletes that our standards are low. But, regardless, admirable though the act may have been, one admirable act does not a person with integrity make.

Integrity can be defined as an adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty. And adherence is steady or faithful attachment. So it follows that a man’s integrity can’t be defined by one act. It’s defined by all of his acts.

The bottom line is that the use of performance enhancing drugs—AKA cheating—isn’t an adherence to any kind of moral and ethical principles. And, ultimately, this is the act for which McGwire is currently being barred from the Hall. A person gets into the Hall because of his merit as a player. Apparently, not everyone feels comfortable voting someone in if they feel like he’s come by his merit dishonestly. You see, whether or not McGwire asked for a buyout on the last two years of his contract is sort of beside the point, La Russa.

I understand that for some it can be hard to reconcile the inconsistencies in people’s actions. Let me quote our soon-to-be-former President, who recently said in his farewell address that “good and evil are present in the world and between the two there can be no compromise.” That would appear to be La Russa’s take.

Well, to paraphrase the words of another philosopher, “It may be hard to understand, but compassion and cruelty can reside side by side in the same heart.” OK. So maybe that wasn’t a philosopher as much as it was the epilogue from an episode of Desperate Housewives. (What? I’m not above it.) The principle, however, is sound.

Take, for example, La Russa, who can be, well, a jerk. Who likes to defend the honor of other jerks. (See Bill Belichick.) Who makes public his grievances with players and reporters. (He of course also gets DUI’s, but I’d say that’s less evidence of jerkiness than of a drinking problem.) But then here’s the confusing part: La Russa loves kittens. No, like, really loves them. And also puppies and pretty much everything cute and furry. So much so that he’s a vegetarian and has an animal rescue foundation. As someone who loves most puppies and kittens more than I love most people, this definitely scores some pretty major points with me.

So, then what’s our assessment: good person, bad person? Person with integrity or no integrity?

Perhaps, McGwire’s steroid use—I’m sorry alleged steroid use—is not evidence of a black soul as much as it is evidence of an insane and tragically unrelenting need to excel and be perfect. Just as it’s possible that his decision to retire with two years left on his contract may have been less of the result of an exceptional character as a guilty conscience. I don’t presume to know. The point is that people are complicated, as are their motivations. But that doesn’t matter. The world doesn’t judge us by our motivations but by our actions. And the common perception is that Mark McGwire gave himself an unfair advantage by taking performance enhancing drugs.

So, La Russa, it’s not just about the fact that we’re at odds about our definitions of integrity. It’s about the fact that if McGwire never finds his way to Cooperstown, it won’t be so much about his integrity as it will be about the unfair advantage. I mean, seriously, if it was about integrity, they’d find a way to bar Manny, and I assure you they won’t.

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