Commentary

Endgame: The arithmetic of payback

Updated: May 5, 2011, 2:18 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

You wake up one morning and it's a different world. We all rise today to news of "justice" and of "payback."

Sports fans recognize the terms.

Part of the attraction of sports, it seems to me, and part of their abiding beauty, lies in the simplicity of their accounting. In their perfect clarity. In cause and effect. In the clean bookkeeping of right and wrong, good and bad, win and lose. Bounded on all sides by rules and by borders, by lines of moral and ethical convention, by simple arithmetic, sports are one of the few areas of human endeavor in which we argue on our own behalf. In which we try to make the case for ourselves. In which we rise to meet our better angels.

Sports are a lesson. Sports are the tally of our progress. Sports are the daily reminder of our mythologies and our symbols, of our philosophies and our ambitions and our virtues, of our limits and our failures and our hate, of our love and our devotion and of the stories we tell about ourselves. Sports are what does not change in us. And what does change. Sports are everything trivial and important in our species.

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Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty ImagesU.S. Marines at Camp Dwyer in Helman Province of Afghanistan watch President Obama announce Osama bin Laden's death.

Sports fans know this.

By now, everyone everywhere has read the headlines. The news cycle will overtake that story as it does every story, fast, and in two days or three days or a week, it will feel to most of us as if this all happened a very long time ago. The wheel turns. Then turns again. And things have changed, we're told.

But sports fans know that isn't strictly true. Things are never final. Change doesn't stick. You win a game and exult, but you wake the next day to the rest of a long season. You win a championship, you raise the roof and celebrate, then wake to the uncertain reach of a distant future.

You wake up one morning and you're told it's a different world.

Sports fans don't make that mistake. Sports fans know that the world itself remains the same. We change in it. And do what little we can to keep our accounting straight.

"Payback" is easy. Payback comes out of petty cash. Payback is an elbow when the ref isn't looking; payback is a pitch up and in; payback twists your arm and steps on your hand after the whistle. Payback is short-form accounting.

But "justice"?

Justice reckons the infinite. Justice counts the cost of the universal and settles all debts. Justice doesn't truck with revenge. Better than anyone, sports fans understand that justice, true justice, lies far beyond the reach of any one of us. It is thus never ours to deliver.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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