Friday, December 29, 2023

The Sanctity of Competition

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Remember when humans made telemarketing calls?  The next-level annoyance of the computer voice on the other end of those calls now makes one nostalgic for the uninvited, person-to-person contact of yesteryear.  Or what about when phones couldn’t suggest finishing words to text messages?  Or when homes lacked voice-commanded doohickies that could change the television channel or settle a trivia argument with a spouse?  How about stubborn automated phone trees for everything from a doctor’s office to a credit card?  Good luck circumventing these tangled systems to reach a live human.  And remember to listen to the message in its duration because “Our menu options have recently changed.”  Being lost in a corn maze has nothing on the hopelessness of a phone maze.

As for the writing craft, I do wonder what the future holds.  Perhaps it is time for a disclaimer to accompany this column: every single word you are reading was generated by a human (me).  No ChatGPT here, my friends.  Never.  Ever.

Professional integrity aside, artificial intelligence has arrived, and it promises unreconcilable change: a mind-scrambling coexistence of fantastic improvements, random frustrations, amazement (how far we’ve come) and fear (too far?).  As George Will once said, “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”  And here we are.

Sports remain largely an analog-based respite from technology.  Sure, much has changed – how games are played, in-game communications, advanced statistics, athletic and orthopedic improvements, and the consumption experience (high-definition television, high tech stadiums, go anywhere viewing on handheld devices) – but sports are still about getting the better of the opponent on an individual or team level.  Did the ball go in the basket?  Was the puck buried in the net?  Was the ball barreled up at it crossed the plate?  The scoreboard is final judge and jury.  It is raw, unpredictable and fantastic. 

At the heart of sports’ allure is the sanctity of the competition itself – that unequivocable belief in the authenticity of the combatants’ struggle.  Without that, sports dissolves into nothing more than a charade.  The Big Lie, to steal from today’s toxic political parlance.  Something far worse than professional wrestling, fake reality television and faux live music concerts. 

It would be nice to report that such violations of trust never happen.  Nice just left the building, though, if it ever was present to begin with.  As with most things involving our species, the lure of fame, fortune, legacy and power has, on a few occasions, caused the integrity of sports to be recklessly peddled.  Quickly scan any moment in history and this is clear: hubris and greed are pervasive flaws. 

A few of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (Black Sox scandal) sought a pay day.  The New England Patriots (Spygate), the steroid users of the late 1990s/early 2000s and the 2017-ish Houston Astros (sign stealing) sought a competitive advantage.  Who knows what Pete Rose (betting on baseball) was thinking.  The famous are now infamous.  All wear a scarlet letter, their legacies graced with a well-earned asterisk. 

Unfortunately, that dubious fraternity may have another member. 

The University of Michigan football team, a speed bump on Ohio State’s path to the Big Ten crown no more, is now the conference’s elite team and squarely in the national title conversation.  With head coach Jim Harbaugh already under NCAA investigation and fresh off a self-imposed three-game suspension, the compliance hawks have returned to Ann Arbor amidst allegations of illegal sign stealing.  Pulling from a familiar damage control playbook, Harbaugh has denied any knowledge and a lower-level staffer has been suspended.  That we’re left to trust the NCAA, not exactly a bastion of business ethics, to deliver justice only intensifies the stench of this situation.

Beside holding our noses, where does that leave sports fans?  Simply to digest another alleged episode of remarkable arrogance.  What was the impact of Michigan’s willful disrespect for competitive integrity?  Like the Astros and Spygate, there was certainly some.  So much for sports being a safe space from artificial intelligence.  In a traditional sense, it is; but when it comes to nefarious information gathering, humans can be as troubling as the machines they create.     

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