Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Paul Hamm and the Right Thing

Ah, what would the Olympics be without an ethics controversy?

I don’t know…fun, maybe? The current soap opera surrounding American gymnast Paul Hamm’s wrongly-awarded gold medal is particularly annoying, because it has encouraged sportswriters to hold forth on a topic that is alien to most of them: doing the right thing.

Paul Hamm should give his gold medal to Yang Tae-young, the South Korean gymnast who was denied his victory because of a scoring error. Nothing could be clearer. The most basic ethical analysis arrives at that result; ethically, it’s a no-brainer. But the sports media has shown that the most basic ethical analysis is as difficult for them as describing the physics of a screwball would have been for Bertrand Russell.

Yang Tae-young earned first place; virtually nobody disputes that. He was, quite literally, robbed. Hamm’s medal is a windfall, like receiving too much money from a bank teller or finding someone’s cash-filled wallet on the sidewalk. In those situations, you return the lost item to the rightful owners. Rather than having to endure all the baroque machinations involving the timing of protests and which international sports organization has jurisdiction and whether two gold medals should be awarded, everyone…everyone…would benefit if Hamm just accepted the silver medal he deserved and handed the gold over to the Korean who won it, fair and square..

Hamm would benefit most of all. His gold, if he keeps it, is permanently tarnished; he knows and everyone else knows that it fell into his hands not because of his talent and skill, but because of some careless judging. If he does the right thing, however, Hamm will become a role model, an exemplar of ethical conduct, and a symbol of sportsmanship that will resonate worldwide while bringing honor to his country. He will be remembered far longer for righting a wrong than he will be for bringing home a medal that another athlete should have won.

No ethical system supports a result where Hamm keeps the medal. This is because a decision to keep the gold is necessarily based on non-ethical considerations, fueled by selfishness. “I want the honor, I want the title, I want the gold, and they gave it to me, so I’m keeping it.” Meanwhile, Hamm and his supporters have been bolstering his position by a flood of flawed rationalizations, led a version of that classic, “Everybody does it,” in this case, “No athlete gives back a win.” Following close behind are: “It wasn’t Hamm’s fault,” “Hamm is a good guy and deserves the medal,” and “It’s not his responsibility to fix the problem.” None of them, of course, address the real issue, which is this: the person who deserves the medal doesn’t have it, and it is within Hamm’s power to right the wrong gracefully and cleanly, at some personal sacrifice.

The sportswriters just can’t comprehend this. (A notable exception: the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins.) Read Jay Mariotti, who has a radio sports show and appears on ESPN:

…And in America, where some customs actually are more sensible than in other parts of the world, we don’t demonstrate mercy for judges who err by asking champions to return hardware after the fact. When umpire Don Denkinger made an incorrect judgment call in a World Series, baseball officials didn’t overturn the result and ask the Kansas City Royals to turn in their trophy. When Brett Hull was in the crease as the winning goal was scored in a Stanley Cup final, the NHL didn’t overturn the result and make runners-up of the Dallas Stars. When the University of Colorado football team was given five downs in a critical sequence against Missouri late in a national championship season, there was no request to cede the title. Hell, back in the 1972 Olympics, the Soviet basketball team wasn’t asked to return its gold when the U.S. team was gypped.

These are all poor analogies, which is probably why Mariotti couldn’t get into law school. His baseball, football and hockey comparisons involve mid-game official decisions that in retrospect appear to have effected the outcomes, but the team that was ahead at the end of the game was still correctly credited with winning the game. In the gymnastic all-around competition, Yang Tae-young had won and the judges didn’t realize it. That is a very different situation. The 1972 Olympic basketball debacle cited by Mariotti is much closer to being on point (the American team had won at the buzzer, and officials inexplicably added time to the clock permitting the Soviet team to eke out a tainted victory), and in fact, the right thing to do would have been for the Soviets to surrender their medals in recognition of the fact that the initial American win was valid. It is irrelevant that they weren’t “asked to.” They should have done it anyway. Mariotti’s argument boils down to “Everybody does it,” ethically no argument at all.

Here’s a more useful analogy. In 1992, Marissa Tomei won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her (hilarious) performance in “My Cousin Vinny.” For some mysterious reason, rumors circulated that presenter Jack Palance had read Tomei’s name in error, and that the real winner never was recognized, as the Academy followed through on the blunder to avoid embarrassment. There has never been any evidence that this is what really transpired, but imagine that it did, and that the favored nominee that year, Vanessa Redgrave, was the real winner selected by Academy voters. Now imagine that this was revealed shortly after the ceremony. Is there any question that Tomei’s only acceptable course would have been to give her Oscar to Redgrave, the true award-winner? Would anybody have been satisfied instead with Tomei insisting “It was given to me, I accepted it, I’m keeping it,” “It wasn’t my fault,” or “My performance deserves an Oscar” as justifications for Tomei taking home the honor that she didn’t deserve? Of course not. But this is exactly what Hamm’s position is now.

There’s something else that has been forgotten here, something important. The Olympics were always supposed to be about sportsmanship and the camaraderie of athletic performance. Granting Mariotti’s point that winning is all that matters in professional team sports (and NCAA football, which is the same thing), is this really what we want the Olympics to stand for? Hamm, a nice young man and superb gymnast, has a chance to make a gesture that displays all the traditional Olympic ideals as well as fairness, sacrifice, and justice, yet most American sports “experts” are screaming, “Don’t be a chump! The other guy wouldn’t do the same for you! Keep your medal! It’s winning that counts!” This is profoundly depressing. Have all values fled the world of sports?

Well, perhaps. Tennis pro Tom Gorman frequently gave points back to opponents in close matches when he felt the officials had made a erroneous line call in his favor, but today it is Gorman’s contemporary, John McEnroe, who hosts a talk show on cable TV, not merely in spite of his boorish on-court outbursts, but because of them. Athletes, who once were cultural heroes because we admired their courage, strength, dedication, sportsmanship and civic contributions, now rest their fame on commercial endorsements, astronomical salary figures, conspicuous consumption, showboating and trash talk. Hamm has a rare opportunity to remind people of the bright and noble side of sports that has almost been consumed in greed and hype, but time is running out. If he doesn’t give his gold medal to the Korean gymnast for the right reasons, gracefully, confidently and without coercion, the inspirational value of his act will be greatly diminished.

It has come to this: Paul Hamm needs to do the right thing in a sports culture that no longer knows what the right thing is.

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