Commentary

This Sporting Life: Say it ain't so, Flavio

Originally Published: September 18, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

More news today from the frontier outposts of human stupidity -- news from out there on the distant horizons of dumb, from way out there on the cutting edge of idiocy, from out there in the deep and farthest darkness of the human experiment, where we find the Edsel and the New Coke and the baseball career of Michael Jordan and the movies of Michael Bay, from out where the abyssal, abysmal research is done, and where, just when you think our scientific understanding of Stupid is complete, that we can do no worse, that humanity can be no dimmer, no dumber, no more selfish or contemptible a species, someone wearing a lab coat and blast goggles and holding a clipboard turns to us all and says, "Not so fast."

The short version: To assure the outcome of a race in Singapore last year, a Formula One team gave their own driver an order to crash.

The driver, Nelson Piquet Jr., is the son of a former world champion and was desperate to catch on in the same sport his father once dominated. To do so, he did what he was he told. The men accused of telling him to put his own car into the wall are Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds. They did this to assure a victory by Piquet's teammate. Until this week, when they resigned, they were the middle-aged brain trust at the Renault Formula One effort. Read our more detailed report here.

In the European tabloid press, this story is now being hyped as the worst instance of cheating in the history of sports.

That overstates things certainly, but it did put at risk a young man's life and the lives of those around him. And it raises the question: What is winning worth? Or fame? Or glory?

Cheating in all of auto racing -- whether F1 or NASCAR or IRL or WRC -- is commonplace. Cheating is the very air that auto racing breathes. That's because the illegal mechanical voodoo a smart engineer can bring to bear on a car is just too tempting to resist. And that powerful black magic is what every racing series chases with its stewards and its rulebooks and its inspections and its micrometers and its post-qualifying impoundments and on and on and on. No one minds as long as everyone cheats on a relatively level playing field, keeps it mechanical and within the bounds of precedent and decency. In fact, the tension between race officials and ingenious cheats is part of the appeal of the sport.

But to demand a car willfully crashed at the risk of injury or death to who knows how many innocent people ushers in a new age of low and contemptible team orders. Even in a silly, dangerous sport run by amoral billionaires like Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, this story has the power to shock. A postmodern, postindustrial, deathproof triumph of ends over means.

And it's all part of that fabled he-man falsehood -- the tough-guy racer boast usually attributed to latent bipolar suicide Ernest Hemingway -- that there are only "three real sports: racing, bullfighting and mountaineering," and that everything else is just a game. You still see this brag silkscreened on T-shirts at the track, worded in various ways and attributed wildly to everyone from Bill France to Emerson Fittipaldi to H. L. Mencken. Doesn't matter. It was never true. It was always just a way to keep your swagger while you whistled past the graveyard and lived your life on the adolescent assumption that chicks dig risk. At 17 this seems merely shallow. At nearly 60 it's at once astonishing, dumbfounding and heartbreaking.

Thus, auto racing goes on, sometimes in violation of Commandments VIII, IX and X. Sometimes II. (Most NFL players and coaches violate IV like clockwork, but that's a beef with the league scheduling office and therefore likely a venial, rather than mortal, sin.)

Go back even farther, all the way to Homer, and you'll find the chariot races in Book 23 of "The Iliad" beset by cheating, and you'll find one of the core questions we continue to draw from sports: Just how far will you go to win? What, and whom, are you willing to risk?

So 2,500 years on, we still teach that sports is a character-builder. The question remains, however, what kind of character are we building?

Understood in its broadest terms, this story is yet another watershed human moment in which greedy middle-aged men -- with their rapacious appetite and keen sense of privilege, and blinded by their ambitions -- put younger, dumber, even more ambitious men in harm's way. This they routinely do from the safety of the pit box or the board room.

And hungry on our own behalf for honor or meaning or mere diversion, we go along. We play along, and thus provide not just the means for the crime, but the motive and the opportunity, too. All those ovations and all that money and all that fame have to come from somewhere. They come from us. You and me. To think otherwise is to seek the overturn of human nature, and to crave the comforting denial of the worst kind of lie: the lie we all agree to tell ourselves.

Stupid.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.