The Sport of Ethics — Looking in the wrong moral playbook

Expanded from the 7-28-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

Social philosopher Karl Marx decried religion as the opiate of the people. The 19th century writer and father of communism railed against the idea that workers should accept suffering and exploitation in this life as a form of paying dues for a prime place in paradise.

Many religions found prosperity by furthering the interests of the monied ruling class. This directly resulted in the constitutional ban against U.S. governmental entities playing footsy with pet parsonages.

That prohibition today endures escalating assault by those who assert that cosmetics such as rote recitation of prayer in schools will cure the ills of society. The preachers are prescribing the wrong potion.

In this country today, religion has been replaced as the official drug of choice for the aggrieved masses. The modern opiate of the people is sports.

No less than UNR journalism Prof. Jake Highton — socialist, sports fan and sports critic — conceded in a Tribune column a few years ago that people need sports as a relief from the strictures of an increasingly pressurized existence. He's right.

The American worker today remains the most productive in the world. We put out more goods and services per hour worked than anybody else. We continue to do so as our major employers influence governments to grant them generous corporate welfare from taxpayer funds. America's companies set up intricate evasion schemes to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Corporations were responsible for 24 percent of U.S. tax revenue in 1960. By 1998, they had shaved their share by two-thirds, contributing only eight percent.

So who's been stuck with their tab?


Individual rates have skyrocketed while corporate rates have been cut. Adjusted for inflation, U.S. wages have basically been stagnant since 1973. Still not satisified, big companies have been rigging the system and even getting government subsidies to move U.S. jobs to third world countries which don't trifle with nuisances like worker's rights, job safety or environmental regulation.

General Motors closed a couple dozen factories in the U.S. and opened up the same number in Mexico. Now, U.S. companies are closing Mexican plants and moving to places where wages are even cheaper, like Viet Nam. U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba will miraculously relax as soon as some greedy corporate executives want to move a plant there.

Politicians and sanctimonious moralists of all stripes have for years cried crocodile tears about the slide in personal responsibility. That's usually been a code word for bashing the poor or political opponents. Now that hyper-rich corporate execs have been found morally wanting, criticism has at least moved up the food chain.

What's the real problem? A failure of older religions to imbue the faithful with a moral code? About nine in 10 Americans admit to a religious affiliation. But much of it is religion with an asterisk. The Catholic Church's longtime subjugation of women has resulted in Americans listening to a sermon on Sunday and ignoring what doesn't suit them for the rest of the week.

More plays on morality

Litany of broken hopes —
A tale of three popes

Bad character references

Pope John Paul II

Selling God


The finger of God

A future fatal fable

The Founding Fathers and God

I don't fault religions or schools for our society's moral and ethical failings. There is something much deeper in the American psyche which leads to the depredations of church sex scandals and corporate piracy.

Both the symptoms and the cure may be found in the sporting life. First and foremost, disabuse yourself of any notion that sports activities "build character." More than 30 years ago, San Jose State professors Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko torpedoed that myth.

Reporting their work in the October, 1971, edition of Psychology Today, they wrote "for the past eight years, we have been studying the effects of competition on personality...from every sport, at every level from the high school gym to the professional arena...We found no empirical evidence for the tradition that sport builds character. Indeed, there is evidence that athletic competition limits growth in some areas...Athletic competition has no more beneficial effects than intense endeavor in any other field.

Horatio Alger success — in sport or elsewhere — comes only to those who already are mentally fit, resilient and strong."

Ironically, that edition of the magazine carries a full page ad for the Ford Pinto, one of Lee Iaccoca's exploding gas tank disasters. Older Ford Mustangs have the same problem, as do today's Crown Victorias, now banned from purchase by Arizona law enforcement agencies. Some older General Motors pickups suffer from the same malady caused by profitmongering corporate executives.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch knows how to use sports to further his monopolistic obsessions. First in Australia, then the U.K. and now in the U.S., he pays exorbitant prices to acquire sports teams, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, and event broadcast rights. He knows the escapist masses will watch. Those eyeballs then become susceptible to the promotion of his other media enterprises, such as his newspapers or various Fox networks.

If sports have become the greatest wedge into people's minds, most sporting events provide anti-moral education. Michael Jordan is rarely charged with a foul just because he's St. Michael Jordan. When a baseball player blows a tag but still gets an out call from a myopic umpire, have you ever seen that player agree with his outraged opponent that the decision should be reversed and the runner called safe?

Little leaguers are taught to shut up and let such a play stand. What kind of moral education is that? The kind that produces a social pandemic that getting caught is the only wrong.

One sport stands as a bastion against such moral obtuseness. Golf, of all things. Golfers participate in an honor system in which they are expected to report infractions on themselves. In a pro tournament a few years back, one superstar did so. It cost him a stroke during a final round.

Competitive sport is a throwback to the law of the jungle and often brings out our baser primal instincts. Watching boxers makes me nervous as the brutality brings out a subconscious defensiveness. Police across the nation report that NFL Sundays and Monday nights produce their highest number of domestic violence calls.

Only when athletic stars start correcting calls erroneously made in their favor will sports evolve from being the principal source of immoral education for so many.

See you at the game.

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Copyright © 2002, 2005 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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