Whither Thou, Honesty?

Whither Thou, Honesty?
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Smile, Rog.  We’re all watching you.

The oft-quoted and somewhat dubious sentiment that proclaims “May you live in interesting times” is a many-faceted jewel…or a bowel movement of varied color, depending on whose perspective you subscribe to. I prefer the latter, but it’s not just because of my typically juvenile take on many things, but more so because our times truly are interesting, in a darkly disturbing, richly-hued manner, usually tinted by the sleight-of-hand dexterity by which our popular media, and – certainly not without exclusion – our sports coverage is presented. In short, it’s often a pile of crap.

In the last week, news watchers and sports followers have been treated to blatant, alarming examples of that very style of presentation in equal measure without displaying any honesty or attempts at verification, and the initial and predictable outpouring of angst and righteous indignation has been somewhat warranted, given the exposure of attempts to bilk the media-viewing public into buying the claptrap “feel-good” stories that our society has unfortunately invested in repeatedly, lending further credence to P.T Barnum’s old chestnut about a sucker being born every minute (supposedly by Barnum, as our crack staff of researchers have indicated that this may not have actually been uttered by Barnum himself), and it’s likely due to our innate desire for sensationalism. The bigger, more exciting, and more heart-warming the story, the more apt we will be to pay attention to it and accept it as fact. After all, something that good, that pure, can’t be bogus, can it?

Recently-deposed NBC anchor Brian Williams is the latest and most unabashedly public example of this sort of disingenuous headline-snatching journalism. Less than a week ago, Williams was hailed as the latest in a long line of excellent evening TV desk jockeys, ranging from, among others, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, the late Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Harry Reasoner, and the inimitable Walter Cronkite, all of whom established a legacy of honest, dependable, accurate reporting. What you saw was ostensibly what you got with those gentlemen, even at their wrinkly, rumpled worst. They may have admittedly colored their news with a bit of hyperbole and a sprinkle of personal bias, but it was largely those tools that brought them their notoriety.  After all, manipulating the straight dope is, in media circles, a time-honored tradition as long as the facts remain intact.

Williams’ “facts” were never intact, as they were indeed not facts but his own imagination, carefully tended and repackaged solely to inflate his journalistic societal standing. After all, missiles nearly hitting a chopper make for a far more interesting story than seeing them launched from six miles away, and witnessing bodies floating in flooded New Orleans alleyways is far more compelling than reporting that a bum in a very dry alley was raiding a local restaurant’s trash bins for a leftover po’ boy.

Sadly, Williams isn’t the first to spin this brand of drivel; he’s just among the more prominent media figures to do so. Most of the time, this sort of thing is limited to local papers plagiarizing other local outlets, which seldom captures our attention unless we’re directly involved in the story or the publication.

Equally offensive to most is the curious case of the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team, which gained notoriety this past year by becoming the first all-African-American team assembled in the 11 to 12-year old range to win the national title (although prior to the latest incident, that claim was somewhat disputed). Reports have indicated that the team was improperly assembled by recruiting and playing kids that hailed from districts beyond the ones defined for the team, and repeated attempts to cover up any wrongdoing, including deliberate (and feigned) ignorance of the teams’ makeup and composition have been duly noted and indicted. Little League International, the worldwide governing body of youth baseball, has decreed that Jackie Robinson West, as punishment, will effectively vacate their title and render all of their accomplishments moot, which is being hotly debated as either too harsh (“The kids didn’t do this! They were just playing baseball!”) or too lenient (“They deliberately circumvented the rules and should pay for it.”)

I initially had no idea where to stand on this, but I’m starting to.

The one thing that continually jumps out at me is the deception angle. There were adults behind every step of the long, tedious journey these kids made, orchestrating not just the fabric of the team, but their appearance, their statements to the media, and ultimately, their media-friendly, processed image.

It’s a lie.

Maybe not a Brian Williams-esque, look-at-me type of lie, but there certainly are parallels, as both were contrived stories meant to inspire attention and curry public favor. While I have a hard time believing that the players in this case were culpable, 11 and 12-year-old kids are certainly astute enough to know when they’re not playing in their own districts. But 11 and 12-year-olds are also not discerning enough to mistrust and question adults about something as seemingly innocuous as Little League divisional boundaries. Make no mistake; this is definitely an adult problem, of adult making. And it’s a shame that it won’t be adults that ultimately pay the price for it.

Our beloved National Football League (that is why you’re here, isn’t it?) has certainly been under a microscope lately for recent alleged and actual wrongdoing, depending on who you ask. Leaving the particulars of “Deflategate” out of the discussion, the fact that so many have assembled to point the finger at the New England Patriots and their embattled coach and quarterback is a sign that all is most certainly not well in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s happy little fiefdom. Regardless of the outcome of the latest Ted Wells investigation, however ineffectual it may be, this (seemingly) inadvertently-manufactured atmosphere of mistrust and scrutiny lies solely at Goodell’s feet, who, despite the marked profitability of his league, must someday answer for the growing toxicity of the relationship between the league and its fans. Don’t misunderstand – we are fans of the game, which is why we will continue to tune it in and shamelessly fork over our earnings to see it in all of its shining and at times depraved glory. We will cheer for our favorite players and teams and deride all others, saving our vitriol for the select few players and teams that truly, if unrealistically, offend our sensibilities. We do this in spite of Roger Goodell, as the NFL commissioner’s office has rarely been a popular one, dating well prior to his tenure.

But make no mistake; Goodell’s machinations have brought us to view the league’s internal entities with a cynical eye. Lest we be reminded, this is the same man who:

  • instituted a system of fines and suspensions without precedent
  • wavered repeatedly from that system
  • has been exposed for inequities in leveraging that system numerous times, yet has only recently begun revisions to it
  • concocted and published numerous polls among small, carefully-controlled focus groups specifically designed to further his agendas
  • failed in repeated attempts to establish a working and balanced system to distribute benefits to NFL veterans
  • hired his own investigators to review his own possible wrongdoing, and most recently
  • publicly bemoaned how much he’s suffered as a result of his own policies while pocketing $35 million in salary.

Trust is a fragile thing, no matter the circumstances, and regardless of your opinion of the game, there’s little argument that trust in Goodell has been largely broken on all fronts except possibly that of the owners, who seemingly tolerate him in direct correlation to the profitability level that the league attains.

Goodell’s dishonesty may be more insidious than that of Williams or Jackie Robinson West, because he has been able to operate under a shroud of impunity, allowing him to clandestinely maneuver and legislate under the protection of the league offices, the veneer of which was only exposed briefly during the scrambling and obviously bogus denials offered up during the recently-concluded Ray Rice Tape investigation. Otherwise, Goodell has enjoyed the benefit of secrecy, because his is not a vocal office, and it doesn’t require a level of accountability from him on a regular basis. Granted, as the commissioner of a major sport, there’s no real reason why it should, except that he’s been proven to be a liar (tip ‘o the cap to ESPN’s Bill Simmons for having the stones to baldly state it) and has deliberately misled his league in favor of his own interests.

So, during our quiet, presumably relaxed NFL offseason, we will see Goodell at least twice more before the start of training camps, whether we want to or not. He will preside over the draft in April-May, which fortunately won’t involve any politics or grandstanding beyond shilling it in prime time for a bigger take of ad dollars, and he will be required to appear to announce the findings of the “Deflategate” investigation, which will be either a welcome comic exercise or a foray into new levels of outrage.

We may even see him promote his latest rule changes a few more times, and he will invariably tell us that this is what we, the fans, want, and are overwhelmingly in favor of.

You know what? I’ve never been officially asked to participate in a single poll or to answer a single question regarding the state of the NFL or its current policies, despite the fact that I frequent the NFL’s website and often vote in their online tallies. It’s kind of amusing to see the results of these online polls posted there, then hear the commissioner cite the polar opposite when enacting his latest change.

So this is where we are. Do we know what to believe? What’s the unaltered truth? Is the news actually the news? Should we seek out and trust different sources? Or do we sit back and swallow it all by the forkful and hope that the media and our sports leagues at every level will eventually police themselves?

It really is quite the sentiment.

Interesting times indeed…


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