October 2009 Ethics Dunces
Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” is a talented professional football player whose specialty is self-promotion and media buzz. (His silly name change to reflect his uniform number is an example: his real name is the unspectacular “Chad Johnson.”) Several of his stunts have gotten him fined by the NFL, but he has received generally good reviews for his latest: a “Lambeau Leap” into the hometown Green Bay Packers crowd following a touchdown.
Ochocinco vowed to score a TD and then make a “Lambeau Leap” into the Green Bay crowd when the Bengals played the Packers. (The “Lambeau Leap” is a traditional celebratory maneuver reserved to Packer players, as Green Bay fans are not inclined to be hospitable to opposing team players invading their domain.) Johnson did make a touchdown, and did leap into the arms of fans in the end zone, some of whom appeared to be Bengal fans. It was an immediate sports show highlight. A few days later, the truth came out: Ochocinco had planted four fans for the purpose, buying them tickets and having them ready to catch him. The whole thing was a set up.
But Tony Kornheiser, the former Washington Post humor writer turned cuddly sports commentator on ESPN’s breezy show,“Pardon the Interruption,” pronounced the stunt “cool.”
No, it’s not cool. Athletes staging “moments” in games using paid confederates undermine the integrity of sports. There are people—my own father is one of them—who have reached the point of cynicism where he believes most, and maybe all, sports are like professional wrestling, staged for television and gullible fans. The fake “Lambeau Leap” reinforces his conviction, and makes even more trusting fans wonder, “What else is staged?” For his own publicity and fame (and the resulting increase in his value for endorsements), Chad Ochocinco took all of professional sports a little further down the road away from athletic integrity toward ersatz drama. And the reaction of Tony Kornheiser (not just Tony, to be fair; call this “selective ethics prosecution”) was that it was “cool.”
Fake masquerading as genuine and spontaneous is never “cool.” It is always unethical. In sports, fake threatens to permanently reduce the thrill and enjoyment of sports for everybody, by making fans wonder whether the amazing moment they saw was real.
People like Tony Kornheiser, who are paid to help us enjoy sports, should at least understand that.