At a Time When Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Neal Gabler is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s morality squad is always quick to jump on a presidential indiscretion or flog Hollywood for some depravity or other, but where was it a week ago, during the introduction of the all-century baseball team before a World Series game, when fans in Atlanta gave Pete Rose a thundering ovation, the same Rose who was banned from baseball for betting and who served prison time for income-tax evasion? Where were they when fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden gave a similar ovation to Knick star Latrell Sprewell, the same Sprewell once suspended for choking his coach?

Perhaps these effusions are another form of American contrariness, rooting for the bad guy, which occasionally sends the needles of our moral compass spinning. But it is possible they aren’t just momentary moral lapses by stadiums full of sports fans swept up in the emotional tide. They may reflect the rise of a whole new moral standard, one for which sports, so often reflective of the larger society, is just the most obvious arena.

What the ovations for Rose and Sprewell, neither of whom has shown much remorse, suggest is that it doesn’t matter whether you transgress or not anymore-- at least not if you’re famous. Barring something heinous, like murder or child molestation, the only thing that seems to matter is how successful you are. Even for those horrifying crimes, there may now be a statute of limitations. Success can wash away your sins.

Maybe that’s why the morality police have been so quiet when it comes to miscreants like Rose, baseball’s all-time hit leader. Especially for conservatives, success has been one of the most hallowed values in America, a state of grace to which we all aspire. President Bill Clinton’s misadventures don’t lasso him into the argument, not because what he did wasn’t wrong, but because presidents are no longer members of the success club. Like the Calvinists of old, for whom affluence was a sign of divine favor, Americans are encouraged to regard beating the competition and growing rich as moral activities.


Apparently, it has worked. An earlier generation treated billionaire John D. Rockefeller as a predatory pariah for doing just those things. Today, Microsoft’s Bill Gates is a nerdy hero endlessly valorized in the media as the “richest man in the world.”

Though this phenomenon cuts a swath through society, nowhere is the morality of success more vividly demonstrated than in sports. Athletics have long been a repository of moral values. No doubt one reason Homer included a book in “The Iliad” on the funeral games for Patroclus is that the Greeks saw these contests as opportunities not only to show one’s skill, speed and strength, but also one’s determination, courage and spirit. In short, they provided an opportunity to exhibit what used to be called “moral fiber.”

Sports has never lost that moral element. We gasp in awe at Michael Jordan shaking off his fever in the 1997 NBA finals to carry his team to victory and then having to be assisted off the court; or at Muhammad Ali rallying from the heat and the fistic punishment to win the “Thrilla in Manila” from Joe Frazier; or at gimpy-legged Kirk Gibson socking a home run in the 1988 World Series and then limping round the bases. Rightfully, we see these as moral dramas: individuals having to dig deep within themselves to triumph and, in so doing, giving us a glimpse of the best we have in us.

It didn’t only have to be wounded gladiators for the moral lesson to work. There was--and is--in sport the moral pleasure of excellence, of something done beautifully and well: a steel-nerved putt, a record-breaking race, a clutch pitching performance. The philosopher Michael Novak, himself now a neoconservative moralist, once said that listening on the radio to a game of Sandy Koufax, the nonpareil pitcher who was the god of my youth, was a perfect illustration of Nicomachean ethics, by which he meant that Koufax’s studied application of reason on the mound was an exercise in virtue as well as athletics.


The beauty of this morality was how simple it was. We didn’t know our heroes might be less heroic off the field than on. We only knew their performance. But this was often willful ignorance. Most of us didn’t want to know about our heroes’ off-field activities precisely because we didn’t want their perfection to be compromised by human fallibility. We understood that if we knew Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic or Magic Johnson a womanizer, they would be tarnished. Important as athletic success was, we recognized there was a larger morality. That’s why, in baseball legend, the little boy implores disgraced outfielder Joe Jackson of the Black Sox, accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” It made a difference if it were so, even though Jackson batted over .400 in the contest.

How different that is from the ovation Rose received--not “Say it ain’t so,” which Rose has been insisting all along, but “Who cares if it’s so.” Anyway you cut it, Rose is no hero. According to John Dowd, who conducted the investigation of Rose’s alleged gambling for the baseball commissioner’s office, the evidence is conclusive that Rose not only bet on other professional sports, a grievous violation of baseball’s rules, but that he bet on baseball, thus striking at the integrity of the game. Yet, it was NBC reporter Jim Gray who was excoriated for having the temerity to ask Rose questions any halfway decent journalist would have: Are you ready to admit what you did? Are you ready to ask forgiveness?

Sprewell is no hero, either, though his jersey is now reportedly the bestseller among Knick fans, even after he insulted his teammates and coach by going AWOL during the first week of practice. Neither is Mike Tyson a hero, nor Florida State receiver Peter Warrick, who pleaded guilty in a department-store scam--though you’d never know it from the treatment they’re accorded. But they are all poster boys for the new morality, which asserts that their success as athletes trumps everything else. Only those not successful, the bench warmers, seem subject to traditional moral judgments.

Which brings us to the question of why success seems to have become our highest moral value. The conspiratorially minded might chalk it up to a clever bit of brainwashing by a plutocratic elite, and since virtually no one seems to question the success ethic, this is probably not all that far off. It is curious that, at a time when the disparity between the richest in America and everyone else is growing, the media keep extolling the idea of success, which makes the rich seem deserving and consoles the less affluent with the balm that if they were exceptional they, too, would be successful. Presto, just like that, a serious social issue gets converted into an issue of personal morality.

One could also make a phenomenological argument. In a society like ours, in which so much is done for display, to demonstrate superior place in the pecking order, there is a premium on things that are tangible. Character, one basis of traditional morality, counts less in this sort of society because you can’t quantify it and you can’t see it. So how is anyone supposed to know whether you have it? Success, on the other hand, is there for all to see, just as athletic accomplishments are. It shouts that one has done well, which is easily confused with having done good. It makes for a simple, visible morality.

But there is another, simpler explanation, this one empirical. We have only to look around to see that successful people get pretty much whatever they want. As Elsie de Wolfe once embroidered on one of her pillows: “A fool and his money are soon invited everywhere.” There are no limitations for the successful as there are for the rest of us; they seem to suffer none of the travails of life that we must suffer, and when they do, the travails soon disappear. Moreover, we are constantly told how wonderful they are, how deserving of our homage.

Maybe it was always so. Though one can’t help but think it is truer now, when the mass media constantly present the rich and famous as the only people worthy of attention. It is hard not to feel the vicarious exhilaration of their accomplishments, the same sort of elation we feel over athletic accomplishments. It is also hard not to feel exhilarated by the power their success brings them. Once embodying our dreams of excellence, they now embody our dreams of absolute freedom from all the things that hold us down.

In cheering for Rose, fans may be cheering for their wish never to have to be held accountable. That is why we are so forgiving of virtually anything celebrities might do. Their success has elevated them beyond judgment. But be forewarned. When the fans roar for a felon and coach choker, can a cheering throng for O.J. Simpson be far off? *