Jeter the cheater. At least it rhymes. But there is serious debate among sports fans and ethicists about whether the acting job by the Yankees shortstop, recently, when he feigned being hit by a pitch, crossed the line that separates cheating from fair play.
The bigger issues, perhaps, are how this particular sports controversy is shaped by shifting societal norms, and to what extent youngsters are affected by the on-field behavior of sports heroes.
When the pitch from Tampa's Chad Qualls appeared to hit the Yankee captain's hand, Derek Jeter did what most Major Leaguers consider to be a routine part of the game: he yelped and gestured that he'd been hit, and ump Lance Barksdale awarded him first base. A few seconds later, Jeter scored on a home run, but replays showed clearly that he had not been hit by the pitch and should not have been on base.
So, fair or foul? In the baseball world -- indeed, in most pro sports -- it's open and shut. Jeter did the right thing, because the competition among players and referees is as much a part of the game as the bout between teams. When outfielders claim to have made a catch knowing full well that the ball bounced; when NBA players flop to draw a foul; when soccer stars roll around faking serious injury in hopes of getting a yellow or red card for the opponent; when NFL players believe that illegal moves are only wrong if the refs or replay cameras happen to spot them, it's all part of the game.
In golf and tennis, things are different. Golfers call penalties on themselves, especially when no one's watching, because individual honor is integral to the sport. Tennis players will often correct an official, even when doing so is against their interest.
In team sports, anything goes. So, is it coincidence that sports in which certain forms of "cheating" are condoned are also those in which it is most difficult to enforce rules against more serious forms of foul play? Baseball encourages players to claim to have been hit when they weren't, and to have made a tag when they didn't, but then wonders why players take illegal drugs, use doctored bats, and try to steal signals from hiding places in the centerfield bleachers.
Which brings us to the school yard. If cheating -- or, at least acting, fibbing, call it what you want -- is an acceptable part of the game, where are the lines drawn? A survey at my son's high school last spring revealed that 82 percent of students cheated at least occasionally on homework or tests. Even more troubling was that neither teachers nor administrators at the school were particularly surprised by the data.
Tech tools and the Internet have blurred the lines for both kids and adults when it comes to righteousness. The person who would never steal a CD from a store might filch its content via the Internet without giving it a thought. Students who wouldn't copy a passage from a book and claim it as their own work, routinely copy and paste from documents on the web.
Do you believe it's OK to cheat on your taxes unless the IRS catches you? Is it acceptable to drive 20 miles over the speed limit if there are no cops around? When you pay to open the newspaper vending machine is it fair to take a second copy for a friend?
Many of us have no problem with the broad strokes of ethical behavior, yet stumble on the little things. As the list of little things grows, society suffers.
Jeter's no cheater, because there's no rule in baseball about telling the truth. However, try as we might to make it so, sports doesn't always supply perfect metaphors for society.
We should never trick ourselves or our children into believing that cheating is part of the game of life. As my high school coach was fond of saying, winners never cheat and cheaters never win.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.