Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sonics: Lies throughout history

November 17, 1973: "I have never profited, never profited from public service. I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got." - Richard Nixon to a televised audience

June 23, 1972: "Of course, this is a, this is a hunt, you will-that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there's a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further." - Richard Nixon to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman

January 26, 1998: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." - Bill Clinton to the White House Press Corps

August 17, 1998: "I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that." - Bill Clinton to the nation

April 17, 2007: Tom Ward: "Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?"
Clay Bennett: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!"
Ward: "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year."
Aubrey McClendon: "Me too, thanks Clay!"
- E-mail exchange among Sonics owners

August 17, 2007
: "As absolutely remarkable as it may seem, Aubrey and I have NEVER discussed moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, nor have I discussed it with with ANY other members of our ownership group, I have been passionately committed to our process in Seattle, and have worked my ass off. The deal for me has NEVER changed: we will do all we can in the one year time frame (actually fifteen months) to affect the development of a successor venue to Key Arena, if we are unsuccessful at the end of the timeframe, October 31, 2007, we will then evaluate our options. I have never wavered and will not. Further I must say that when we bought the team I absolutely believed we would be successful in building a building." - Clayton Bennett to David Stern

A lie just doesn’t carry the same weight any more. Nixon? Damned to eternal public vilification, more because of his efforts to cover up crimes than what he actually did. Of course, being caught in a lie on tape played a major role. Clinton? Got off on a technicality, became a best-selling author, and is now a key spokesman for his wife’s presidential campaign. Bennett? Well, nothing’s happened to him yet, and the sordid tale of how he’s been lying through his teeth for the last several years didn’t even crack the front pages of the sports sections outside of Seattle. That doesn’t mean their crimes were equivalent, but it does seem to suggest that the value of the truth has gone down.

On the sporting side, consider Rafael Palmeiro, caught on tape wagging his finger at a congressional committee and insisting he’d never used steroids, less than five months before his positive test. What was his punishment for promising to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? An even better example is Blue Jays’ general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who told the media complete fabrications about an injury to B.J. Ryan last year, and then uttered the gem “They're not lies if we know the truth?” Surely, a high executive caught in such a sleazy act would have been demoted or forced to resign, right? Nope: as we speak, Ricciardi continues to slither his way through life as a major-league G.M. What about Sepp Blatter and his cronies, whose underhanded dealings journalist Andrew Jennings has done a great job of exposing?

There are countless other examples, but the point is made: there’s no public outrage over lies in sport any more. The same is true in the business world. In an Forbes article I read the other day, over half of the human-resources personnel interviewed said they'd caught someone lying on their resume. The same survey showed that 18 per cent of applicants were estimated to have lied. More shocking, though, was that seven per cent of the managers who caught lies still hired deceitful candidates. Lying's all over the place in the corporate world as well: just look at executives like Kenneth Lonchar of the ironically-named Veritas Software or RadioShack's Dave Edmondson.

Perhaps the largest reason for the devaluation of the lie is a widespread intense cynicism that doubts if anyone still tells the truth. The media itself has been frequently called into question, and on many occasions, it has been found wanting. Consider the cases of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Stephen Glass of The New Republic, or Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe, who completely fabricated stories, people and quotes. They were eventually caught, but their outing perhaps caused some to wonder who can still be trusted.

It's been pointed out by eminent personalities such as Slate's Jack Shafer that the vast majority of journalists are telling the truth, but these kind of scandals cause people to wonder. There’s also pseudo-newspapers like the British tabloids or the American celebrity sheets that routinely print fabrications and exaggerations, reducing the trust quotient of the medium. Even serious papers, radio and television programs mess up frequently, further damaging the reputation of the press: check out Craig Silverman's terrific list of the best errors of last year for more examples. Thus, many people doubt what actually is true. As George Orwell cynically predicted, "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history."

Another aspect may come from the promotion of the liars in popular culture. Frank Abagnale Jr. spent a lifetime lying, impersonating doctors, airline pilots and lawyers. His reward? Well, he wound up being played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Blair wound up writing a book about how he deceived the Times, and Glass' story was turned into the movie Shattered Glass (although it remains to be seen if having Hayden Christensen play you is a good thing). In light of these examples, it would seem more profitable to lie your way to the top than struggle to the middle by telling the truth. As Terry Pratchett wrote in his excellent novel The Truth, "A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on."

I don’t want to get dragged into nostalgically reminiscing about the morals of the good old days, as there were still plenty of liars back then too. I’m not crusading for greater morals in sports, either: athletes can have all the sex, (non-performance-enhancing) drugs and rock and roll they like in my books, and Dock Ellis is one of my heroes. However, truth goes beyond morality, and should be valued above it. Lying used to be a significant offence. Now, it’s as if no one’s interested in the truth, and people aren’t bothered to find out that someone’s been lying to them. I’m undoubtably biased, coming from a profession that still aims to seek truth, but it’s awfully disillusioning when you get the story, you catch them in the act, and nobody cares. That doesn't mean we should stop trying, though: as Orwell once said, "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

Hopefully, David Stern and the rest of the NBA will come to their senses before April 17’s meeting. If they've got any brains, they might realize that it isn’t a fantastic idea to have an owner in their exclusive club who’s been lying to them all along. In the best-case scenario, Bennett would be forced to sell the franchise to Ballmer and co. and slither back to the Oklahoma City grass where he belongs sans SuperSonics. We’ll have to see if repeatedly and blatantly deceiving your business partners still deserves punishment, or if that too is now part of the game.

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