In All Fairness

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   August 6, 2020

“Fair Play,” as I understand it, means abiding by the rules. But what if the rules are unfair? That, in a sense, is the human predicament. No matter how honorable and decent you are, a tornado (which I like to think of as God’s air-raid) can wipe out everything you have, including your life – which is up for grabs anyway, when the unseen umpire blows his whistle.

We are taught that “life is unfair,” as though it were a mantra. But we still punish cheaters and lawbreakers if they are inept enough, or unlucky enough, to get caught. So what is all this about “sportsmanship” and “playing the game”? Another questionable precept is that “all’s fair in love and war.” Is it really fair for lovers to cheat on each other? I never thought so, and was never even tempted – and, when I myself was cheated on, I took it very badly.

As for war, people have been trying to make rules for it for a long time. As far back as 1625, a Dutchman named Hugo Grotius wrote three volumes on The Laws of War and Peace. Places like The Hague and Geneva have given their names to international conferences and agreements attempting to regulate the conduct of war. And even today we cling to the concept of “war crimes” as if war itself were not the greatest of crimes.

There must be some unifying principle behind the ideas of fairness, justice, and rights – but these somehow shade into proper behavior and simple good manners. Plato wrote a whole book – The Republic – on the theme of justice, with the not very surprising conclusion that justice prevails when people get what they deserve.

In quarrels between labor and management, the word that appears most commonly on picket signs is “unfair.” Even on the multitude of TV shows that now simulate courtrooms, with real and supposedly impartial judges deciding actual cases, the “post-mortem” interviews with winners and losers tend to center on the question of whether or not the judge’s decision was “fair.”

Mark Twain’s story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” hinges on an act of atrocious cheating: The champion frog is forcibly fed buckshots until it cannot jump or even move. The author did not condemn this piece of skullduggery – and the public lapped it up. In fact, it made Mark Twain famous.

The British enjoy a worldwide reputation for sportsmanship and for “playing the game.” This of course means more than respecting the rules. It means being a “good loser.” This idea stems partly from the game of cricket, to the point where simply saying “It’s not Cricket!” implies unacceptable conduct. But it also goes back to feudal times – to the days of knighthood and “chivalry.” A knight was supposed to be honorable in his behavior, even towards a defeated foe. In the American Civil War, those who supported the Southern Confederacy were supposed to have been inspired by this ideal. Before that war (in the romanticized “ante-bellum” era) they even used to stage mock tournaments, in imitation of their Medieval British ancestors.

But something happened to warp those chivalrous dreams. The honorable side (which of course was the rebellion) was not supposed to lose – but they did. It was the first time in history that a sizeable group of Anglo-Saxons had to accept permanent defeat. The unfairness of this outcome rankles the minds of many Southerners to this day.

Meanwhile, the game of cricket has spread to many countries that were once part of the British Empire, notably Pakistan and India, where success in cricket has provided an avenue to political office for accomplished players. (In other places, America included, it has been military success that has, a number of times, elevated commanders to the presidency.)

One of my favorite English poems celebrates the ideal of “playing the game,” with the message that the same spirit must carry on from the cricket field at school to the wider world. It’s called “Vitae Lampada” (“The Torch of Life”), written by Henry Newbolt in 1892. I’ll leave you with just one stanza:

             The sand of the desert is sodden red,

             Red with the wreck of a square that broke –

             The Gatling’s jammed, and the Colonel dead,

             And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

              The river of death has brimmed his banks,

               And England’s far, and Honor a name –

              But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

             “Play up! Play up! – and play the game!”


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