Moral Greatness vs. Moral Degradation

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Super Bowl XLIX will take place this Sunday night and it is anticipated that it will be watched by more than 113 million people who will consume 1.25 billion chicken wings. And yet, the biggest story leading up to the game is not which quarterback is better, who has a better running game, or which team has the stronger defense. Coverage of the big game has largely been overshadowed by talk of “Deflate-gate,” the scandal involving the New England Patriots having allegedly cheated in the AFC Championship game by deflating eleven out of twelve of the balls they provided.


While the NFL has not yet completed its investigation, there is anecdotal evidence that the Patriots have once again violated the rules in an effort to gain an unfair advantage over their opponent. In 2011, their star quarterback, Tom Brady, was quoted as saying that he likes the ball deflated. A statistical analysis shows that the Patriots fumble the ball at an extremely low rate compared to all other teams and that the same players are more likely to fumble when they play for other teams than when they play for the Patriots.


In his book “By His Light,” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlit”a writes:


The significance of effort is very considerable in our hashkafa. This can find expression even in inherently trivial areas. For example, the world of sports is, in a certain sense, trivial; mature adults are running around trying to put a ball through a hole. Nevertheless, moral qualities can and do come into play: cooperation, teamplay, an attempt to get the maximum out of yourself, etc. The inherent effort of the person himself, or the loneliness of the long-distance runner in his isolation, are very significant moral elements… There is no question that within the essentially trivial world of sports, real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen.


Last week, another example of moral degradation in sports was displayed by a girls high school basketball coach. The Arroyo Valley High girls' basketball coach was suspended for two games after he mercilessly ran up the score. He used a full-court press for the entire first half to lead his team to a 104-1 advantage at halftime; his team ultimately won the game 161-2, humiliating the opponents in the process.


Competitiveness is a virtue if it builds drive, ambition, and determination. In sports, and in life, there is nothing wrong with seeking to succeed, to win, or to prosper. Indeed, Chazal teach (Baba Basra 21a), kinas sofrim tarbeh chochma, competition between scholars increases wisdom. However, competitiveness is a great liability if it supersedes other values, clouds judgment, and leads to unethical and immoral behavior like cutting corners or cheating.


In sports and in life, one can be competitive and at the same time show what Rav Lichtenstein calls “moral greatness” by being kind, considerate, honest, moral, and sportsmanlike. An epic tennis match between Raphael Nadal and Tim Smyczek took place last week at the Australian Open. For more than four hours, 27-year-old Smyczek from Milwaukee competed fiercely for every point against the 14-time Grand Slam champion Nadal. It was 6-5 Nadal in the fifth and final set. Just as Nadal served, a spectator shouted, the serve went long and was called out. As Nadal glared into the stands Smyczek motioned that he should retake the first serve, or as we would say, “take a do-over.” Nadal won the point and the match and the relatively unknown Smyczek won the respect of the tennis world.


Rafael Nadal (right) shakes hands with Tim Smyczek after winning a match at the Australian Open on Jan. 21.

Following the match Smyczek said, ''I don't know if the guy didn't know (Nadal) was tossing the ball or not, but it clearly bothered him. You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.'' Smyczek is just as competitive as any other professional tennis player. However, when given the opportunity, he chose to do what he called the right thing, and in that moment showed real moral greatness.


If indeed the Patriots are proven to have cheated, the NFL must punish them in a real way to demonstrate that while we encourage competitiveness, it must never lead to moral degradation. Some have argued that Deflate-gate is insignificant compared with domestic abuse, murder, steroid use, and safety, issues that the NFL has yet to deal with in meaningful ways. There is no doubt that those are critical matters the NFL must address, but it would be a mistake to dismiss or ignore cheating because it seems to pale in comparison.


In truth, while murder, domestic battery and concussions are hopefully not relatable to us and we are not in real danger of imitating what we see, the temptation to bend the rules to achieve success is ever present in all our lives and therefore deserves a significant response. While it may sound trite, 113 million people, many of them children, will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. If the Patriots are guilty and nevertheless get off with a slap on the wrist or are allowed to continue their ways of unhealthy, unbridled competitiveness with impunity, the world will have learned that winning is more important than achieving moral greatness.


Our Rabbis teach (Pesachim 118b) that kasha mezonosav shel adom k’krias yam suf, earning a living is as difficult as the splitting of the sea. It took God’s intervention to overcome the natural order and split the sea and it takes God’s graciousness to allow us to succeed in earning a parnassah. There is nothing trivial about getting the job, closing the deal, making the sale, earning the bonus or getting the raise. Earning a parnassah is difficult and challenging. Being competitive, driven, and having great ambition are important and admirable factors for success. However, that competitiveness and aspiration must never lead to cutting corners, cheating or being dishonest.


More than in sports, it is in our pursuit of a parnassah that real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen. Let’s be competitive and driven, but when given the opportunity, rise to the occasion and always do the right thing.