Burnt Orange Glasses: Your Cheatin' Heart

"Your cheatin' heart will make you weep/ You'll cry and cry, and try to sleep/ But sleep won't come the whole night through/ Your cheatin' heart will tell on you." -- Hank Williams, 1952

Last Thursday night, I fell asleep on the sofa watching Sports Center's coverage of the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. I dreamed I met Sean Salisbury at a party. I was there by myself, along with guests I didn't know, but for some reason Salisbury latched onto me and wouldn't stop talking. I started acting like I was busy doing something else, but he followed me relentlessly around the party, yakking nonstop. I gathered my things and walked away from the group of people, but he still followed me. I started walking faster, and Salisbury kept after me, huffing and puffing from his constant verbiage. Finally, I turned and said in my best outdoor voice, "WILL YOU PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE!" The pundit's facial expression changed, looking like I'd killed his puppy, turned, and walked away.

Then I awoke, much happier, being the only person on the planet who can shut up Sean Salisbury.

But it didn't last long. As I slowly gained consciousness, the TV was still on, and Senator Mitchell's voice was there all over again, using words like "widespread" and "extensive." Fingers were pointed, not only at perpetual whipping boy Barry Bonds, but also at beloved Texas Longhorn icon Roger Clemens (because you're never a "former" Longhorn). Commentators labeled it "a sad day for baseball."

Later in the broadcast, there was some discussion of the ongoing lover's tiff between New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and New York Jets Coach Eric Mangini. The real question, evidently, was not whether Belichick cheated by secretly filming a Jets sideline coach to decipher hand signals, but whether the Jets had actually done the same thing previously.

Two months ago, track sprinter Marion Jones returned the gold medals she won at the Sydney Olympics after being enmeshed in a federal steroid and human growth hormone investigation.

In September Floyd Landis, the winner of the 2006 Tour de France, was stripped of his title after exhausting his appeals from a finding of blood doping.

The winner of this year's women's Ironman (Ironperson?) Triathlon in Hawaii, Nina Kraft, forfeited her win after testing positive for recombinant erythropoietin, or EPO, a drug that boosts endurance. "I screwed up," Kraft told the press in her native Germany, where the triathlon is an extremely popular sport. "I never really rejoiced over the victory in Hawaii. I was ashamed the entire time, especially in front of my family. I cheated."

Am I missing something? Am I a naïve fool to believe that sports was once about the joy of competition and the thrill of winning based on hard work, preparation, and superior performance? I feel like a horse and buggy, chastity belt, slide rule, and Vinny Testaverde all rolled into one – completely and hopelessly out of date.

Has it always been this way, and I just refuse to remember? I know there have been cheaters as long as there have been sports. Ancient texts prohibit certain "medicines" (i.e. stimulants) from being consumed in the Greek Athenian Olympics. I guess what bothers me is how pervasive the cheating seems. I can't watch five minutes of sports news without being bombarded with another negative sports story. Is that the result of more cheating, or better sports reporting? It sure seems like the former.

I want to be clear – I'm not talking about gamesmanship, or pressing every advantage in a contest. One of my favorite legal stories is about a now-deceased trial lawyer in Odessa, Ector County. Back in the days when you could smoke in the courthouse, this attorney would buy a long, thick cigar and shove a coat hanger wire lengthwise through it. As opposing counsel would begin his closing argument, the trial lawyer would light his cigar and just set it on the ashtray. While opposing counsel prattled on and on, the cigar would burn, but the ash wouldn't fall into the tray because of the wire. After a while, the jury quit listening to opposing counsel's summation, and became fascinated with the cigar with the extremely long, ever-lengthening ash. I consider such things gamesmanship, like the runner on second base stealing the catcher's signs to the pitcher. Being smarter or more clever is not cheating.

I came about my hatred of cheating honestly. When I was young, all the neighborhood kids played football in the street. The curbs were out-of-bounds, the Chevy pickup was the north endzone, and the Culps' driveway was the southern. "Two below" was the rule, meaning you had to touch the runner with two hands below the waist to tackle him. We played pickup basketball, call your own foul, "make it, take it."

But now, remembering those days, I just feel old, out-of-touch, and antiquated. I'm like those cranky old men who gather at the small-town Dairy Queen early in the morning to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, sit with one knee crossed over the other, and complain about everything that's wrong with the world. They remember when gas was a quarter a gallon, the movies cost a nickel, and everything's gone to hell in a handbasket since them long-haired hippie Beatles replaced Elvis, who was nuthin' but a good ol' boy who loved his momma.

There are a great many things about life I don't understand. I don't understand how you can take rhythm and words without a melody and call it music. I don't understand why it costs $300 million to run for president. I don't understand why our military folk get their asses shot off in Iraq to keep two violent, intransigent Muslim sects from butchering each other. And I don't understand cheating in sports when it robs the beauty, grandeur, achievement, integrity, and majesty from victory.

Thursday night, I saw a terrific women's basketball game between Texas Tech and #18 ranked Arizona State. The ladies played hard. They were quick and talented, diving for free balls, driving the lane like the charge of the Light Brigade. I didn't keep count, but the Lubbock paper said there were 13 ties and 12 lead changes, neither team having more than a four-point lead after halftime. It was a tremendous, physical, exciting game. Tech pulled out a win in the end, due to Dominic Seals, a 6'2" power forward with a sweet jump shot and quick first step and the tiny, hard-driving guard Maria Moore.

It was the best basketball I've seen all year. There were winners and losers, heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys, highs and lows, and lots of surprising plot twists. In the end, both teams left the court spent from physical exhaustion, but they also left with the honor, pride, self-respect, and dignity they earned during the game.

And nobody cheated.

Strike that. BECAUSE nobody cheated.

Hook ‘em.

Jeff Conner's political and pop culture-infused Longhorn commentary appears regularly in the Inside Texas magazine and at InsideTexas.com.

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