Persistence is an admirable quality in any creature, but it manifests itself most strongly in species biologically incapable of learning.
When a dying wasp flies at a window for the hundredth time we might look upon it and see the Myth of Sisyphus, the audacity of hope, as portrayed by Albert Camus in his meditation on man’s futile search for meaning in the face of a world devoid of truths. In fact it is no more than an algorithm repeating to fade. The wasp is not hardwired to compute that the game is up. Its mind is mindless. It is born and it dies with all the intelligence it will ever have. That is its lot in life.
Such oblivious defiance is rare in beasts higher up the ladder in the field of critical reasoning, but not completely unheard of. Years ago, I used to teach American schoolkids on summer camps at British universities. Watching a 15-year-old boy presented with photographs of himself, from his own digital camera, in which he appears open mouthed beneath the pouring tap of a miniature keg of Stella, still continue to claim there was “absolutely no way” he had been drinking was, the staff came to agree after his mandatory expulsion, almost heroic. The denials continued, even as I drove him round the M25 to Gatwick and on to the first flight to Boston Logan, where, we must assume, he immediately took up work in the legal department of the New England Patriots.
The publishing of text messages revealing that one of the team’s ball boys was jovially nicknamed “The Deflator” would, you might think, mark the point at which you can no longer claim not to have clandestinely deflated your match balls to give you a competitive advantage in crucial matches. Yet the New England Patriots, via an 18,000-word document, continue to deny all culpability for what the NFL has called “egregiously under-inflated” footballs found at their games.
Fortunately for them, the ball boy in question, Jim McNally, is a rotund fellow, leading them to claim this most unlikely sobriquet, that looks and smells like the smoking gun, was in fact a big in-joke about his most recent weight-loss drive. The Deflator! Get it? No? Come on!
The reasons why none of this matters are many and varied. The Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez is currently in prison for murder, having shot a man dead in a gangland execution in a Miami car park. He awaits trial for the murder of two further men, nightclub bouncers who possibly intervened when someone spilt his drink.
Running back Ray Rice has been released from the Baltimore Ravens after CCTV in an Atlantic City casino showed him dragging his wife out of a lift, having punched her and knocked her out.
And the brains of dead former players keep being shown to have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that comes with repeated concussions; the league is on the verge of paying $1billion compensation to 4,500 former players, who are still alive and suffering.
So what’s a few soft balls? And why, over here, should we care at all? Well, all sport now follows the money, and where America leads, we are sure to go. The US is more relaxed about relentless commercialisation – it’s the American way after all – but Jacksonville Jaguars fans aren’t all that happy about losing regular-season matches to Wembley (attendances are so down they’ve made room for a hot tub and party deck in the corner of the stadium). Remember the Premier League’s 39th game? It will get there in the end.
If we accept that sporting success turns on those much-discussed small margins, when there’s as much cash at stake as there now is, the largest marginal gains to be made are the ones we’re not supposed to know about. A soft football that’s a bit easier to catch is an advantage of fractional proportions, yet the biggest and best team around, and the most luminous star quarterback, Tom Brady, were prepared to risk their dignity and reputation on it.
Anyone who went to one of Ronnie Biggs’s Brazilian barbecues used to hear one of his favourite lines: What’s the biggest heist there’s ever been? Well, we don’t know because they’ve never been caught.
In a basement somewhere right now is a teenage girl who went missing a decade ago. And someone, somewhere, at the very highest level of sport, is doing something unimaginably appalling. Maybe we’ll find out about it in a few years. Maybe we won’t.
In the meantime, Mr Brady has a four-game ban to deal with. The rest of us just have to stomach the further chipping away at the integrity of sport, the further sullying of that beautifully pointless thing to which we dedicate such a ridiculous portion of our time and money and emotion. And when the integrity of the contest is gone, there is nothing left.
On his way through airport security, that schoolkid finally broke and cried his eyes out. The punishment was harsh but correct. He broke the rules and lied about it.
We could have handed him a four-lesson ban but that would have been the wrong thing to do.