- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

Some consider it nitpicky that Michelle Wie was disqualified from a golf tournament Sunday for taking a drop about a foot from where she should have.

Others, no doubt, are outraged that Southern Cal’s Reggie Bush wasn’t penalized Saturday for aiding and abetting Matt Leinart as he scored the winning touchdown against Notre Dame.

Such little things. Such large consequences. And such great debates afterward about what the Right Thing to Do was.

The DQ-ing of Wie may seem extreme, but as a direct descendant of Hammurabi and a great-great-grandnephew of Ebenezer Scrooge, I am all for it. Some rules in golf, I freely admit, are just plain silly, but that’s one of the beauties of the sport. It’s utterly intolerant of rule breakers and tends to treat even a minor breach as a felony. The result: In no game are rules more respected, in no game is cheating less of an issue.

Wish all sports were as vigilant. If the officials in South Bend, Ind., for instance, enforced the letter of the law, we might well have a different national champion this season. Would Leinart had gotten into the end zone if Bush hadn’t given him a helpful — and illegal — push? We’ll never know.

On the other hand, the officials in San Antonio on Sunday did enforce the letter of the law and flagged the Saints for defensive holding on a missed field goal by the Falcons in the final seconds. You don’t see that call every day — or every decade, for that matter. Allowed a do-over, Todd Peterson booted the ball ‘twixt the uprights to give Atlanta the victory. But should there even have been a penalty? Did the holding infraction have anything to do with Peterson’s first kick veering wide?

If we’re startled by such a ruling, it might be because we’re so used to officials looking the other way. We’re used to NBA players traveling, palming, bulldozing their way to the basket — with nary a whistle being blown. We’re used to NFL teams bending the rules governing offseason workouts — as they once bent the rules regarding the injured-reserve list. And until the NHL underwent this miraculous transformation, we were all too familiar with defenders clutching, grabbing, obstructing — with virtual impunity.

It’s part of the fabric of sport, this get-away-with-what-you-can mentality. And it’s fueled by the belief — a valid one, no doubt — that “everybody does it.” That’s why, in most cases, the perpetrators show so little remorse. Oh, they might be upset that they got caught, that they cost their team the game, but there’s never much shame about breaking the rules.

And maybe that’s because they’re taught, almost from the moment they get involved in Serious Sports, that rules are made to be broken — or at the very least circumvented. The travel team coach sneaking an ineligible player into a game, the college athletic department hiring a “tutor” to do homework for the All-American, the NFL assistant teaching illegal (and potentially injurious) blocking techniques. At every level, sportsmanship is being elbowed aside by gamesmanship. Indeed, athletes appear more concerned with the violation of unwritten rules than of written ones, more concerned with one steroid user ratting out another than with the steroid use itself.

Funny that, amid all this, former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski should be showcased on “60 Minutes.” Romanowski is the veritable embodiment of sports’ Worst Self, a champion cheater and cheap-shot artist who admits to taking, basically, any performance-enhancing substance the league wasn’t testing for. Now he has a book to sell, so he tried to come across as contrite Sunday night in his interview with CBS’ Scott Pelley. But it’s hard to imagine the Real Romo regretting much about a career that made him so rich and recognizable.

As for Wie, sure she’s “only 16,” and the Samsung World Championship was just her first tournament as a pro, but none of that matters. The game is what matters. The rules are what matter. Rest Michelle won’t make the same mistake twice, which is the entire point behind rules and punishments — getting athletes to play the right way, leveling the field for everybody.

Take that away and you’ve got anarchy, you’ve got “Deadwood,” you’ve got … Romo Unchained. Nobody wants that, except maybe book publishers.

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