Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Heroic Tale Ethics, Part 1: Gary Thorne, the Bloody Sock, and Curt Schilling's Good Name
(4/29/2007)

"The Natural" is one of my favorite movies, but I had always felt that director Barry Levinson miscalculated by showing blood leaking through Roy Hobbs' uniform before his climactic home run; it was just too corny. Then came Curt Schilling's heroic pitching performance in Game Six of the 2004 American League Championship play-offs, when he beat the Yankees despite a loose ankle tendon that had to be sutured to his skin to allow him to throw. The TV cameras showed the blood stain on his sock as he labored through the pain, and after he performed the same feat in the World Series, with new sutures and another bloody sock, his courage and his stained footwear came to symbolize the improbable 2004 World Championship of the Boston Red Sox, one of the great sports stories of all time. The World Series sock went to the Hall of Fame, Schilling went into ankle surgery, and the tale became legend.*

And I never doubted Barry Levinson again.

This week, two years later, an ESPN announcer who does play-by-play for the Baltimore Orioles cable broadcasts casually told viewers that the legend was a fraud. "It was painted," Gary Thorne said on the air. "Doug Mirabelli [the Red Sox back-up catcher then and now] confessed up to it after. It was all for PR." This stunning revelation was immediately seized upon by the national sports media as if it had been revealed that Michael Jordan was really from Mars, and the Boston media, which typically puts matters Red Sox above life and death, went bananas. Reporters swooped down on Mirabelli, Schilling, and Sox manager Terry Francona. They called the Hall of Fame; they reviewed videotapes. Bloggers called for DNA tests. An amazing number of people, a motley group of Yankee fans, Schilling detractors, conspiracy theorists, cynics and dolts, simply took Thorne's words as proof. Schilling's A Fraud," headlined one blog. "his is priceless. IT WAS PAINT! What a fraud!"

Occasionally there is a story that reminds me why I launched the Ethics Scoreboard, and this is one of them. I started the Scoreboard because I became increasingly disturbed at how news stories that were primarily about ethics never were reported that way, and how so much of the public seemed incapable of distinguishing the basic rights and wrongs of conduct. The Gary Thorne/Curt Schilling controversy is not about a bloody sock, but about ethics.

First it is about journalistic ethics, or in Thorne's case, the lack of them. As his comments came under scrutiny, he revealed that he had "overheard" something Mirabelli said in the clubhouse---over a year ago!---and "misunderstood" its meaning. This meant, of course, that Thorne's statement that the catcher had "confessed up to it" was misleading and inaccurate; a listener would assume that Thorne had received a direct statement from Mirabelli. But even if Mirabelli, who was not even Schilling's catcher in either "bloody sock game," had actually told Thorne that the blood was paint, Thorne had an obligation as a reporter and a journalist to confirm his story. Did Thorne contact Schilling? No. Did he check with the doctor who performed the impromptu surgeries? No. Did he check with the Hall of Fame or try to examine the sock? No. Did he try to confirm what he thought Mirabelli had said with any member of the team, including Mirabelli? No, no, no. He waited more than a year, and just blurted it out on the air as fact.

This is the bottom of the barrel for a journalist, and make no mistake, a baseball broadcaster is a reporter, and subject to the requirements of basic journalistic ethics. He didn't just take hearsay as fact; he created a rumor out of nothing. As Schilling, who finally erupted in full fury on his blog, "38 Pitches," correctly put it,

Gary Thorne overheard something and then misreported what he overheard. Not only did he misreport it, he misinterpreted what he misreported.

What Thorne did is exactly like a New York Times reporter printing an unsubstantiated, unsourced rumor as fact. Such a reporter might well be fired. Not Thorne, apparently. His ESPN colleagues played the whole story as a silly firestorm over nothing, an incredible piece of hypocrisy on the part of the network. Sports is nothing? ESPN is a huge corporation that exists because of this "nothing." This nothing has a bigger national audience than any other form of recreation; more words are printed and written about it than any topic other than politics. American spend more time thinking and talking about sports than healthcare, cancer research, poverty and world hunger. It is a major part of the economy, a multi-billion dollar industry, which influences our clothing, conversation and culture. Sports, specifically baseball, was crucial in beginning the racial integration of society. Sports teaches values, gives us metaphors, creates heroes, and inspires literature. People certainly can take sports too seriously, and one can reasonable argue that sports are for more important to the public than they should be. But ESPN doesn't believe that. It had a duty to stand up for journalistic integrity in its own field; instead, it chose to close ranks around an incompetent colleague.

Stunningly, the Boston sports media didn't behave much better. Why? I strongly suspect that given the choice of delivering much deserved condemnation to a fellow sports journalist and allowing an outspoken athlete to be taken down a peg, they chose the latter. Schilling annoys most of the sportswriting establishment. He is opinionated, he is able to hold his own in an argument, he can write, and worst of all in a Democratic bastion like Boston, he is both openly religious and a political conservative. So instead of defending Schilling, who was unequivocally the victim of an unfair and unethical ambush, the biased and conflicted Boston media played the controversy down. They should be ashamed of themselves.

So should every media commentator, talk show, paper and blog that simply repeated Thorne's claim without doing their own checking. For his statement made no sense; it was absurd. Nobody denied that Schilling underwent the procedure that involved sewing his tendon to his skin. The Red Sox orthopedist practiced on a cadaver to perfect the technique. Here is what Dr. Bill Morgan said when he was finally interviewed:

"C'mon," Morgan said. "We all know what the reality is. I don't know where that [Thorne's claim] comes from. I drilled a whole bunch of holes in the guy's ankle when we put the sutures in, we put a dressing on them, and the blood soaked through the dressing. The sock is like a sponge. It doesn't take a whole lot of blood, but there's like a capillary effect…Anyone who's ever had stitches knows there's going to be oozing from the wound. I put a bunch of stitches in the guy, and then he had to go out there and pitch at a professional level. The sutures were tugging at the skin, it opened up a little bit. The thing expanded right before our eyes."

Schilling, on his blog, was more graphic:

If you have the nuts, or the guts, grab an orthopedic surgeon, have them suture your ankle skin down to the tissue covering the bone in your ankle joint, then walk around for 4 hours. After that go find a mound, throw a hundred or so pitches, run over, cover first a few times. When you're done check that ankle and see if it bleeds. It will. There was less visible blood in game two because we recognized the amount of bleeding from the first game and Doctor Morgan put extra covering to stop the blood from running to the bottom of my shoe as it did the first game.

Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame's spokesman confirmed that the bloody World Series sock's stain had turned brown, something that old blood does but old paint or ink does not. So Thorne believed the stain on Schilling's sock in the play-off game was fake, but the stain on the World Series sock was real blood. Does this sound plausible? For that matter, does it make sense that Schilling, barely able to walk, preparing to pitch one of the biggest games of his life with his team facing elimination, would be thinking about faking a blood stain?

That raises the second ethical issue, which is that Thorne's claim represented an unjustified and outrageous attack on Schilling's character. Throughout his long career, Curt Schilling has nurtured a reputation of being an honest man who cares deeply about integrity; indeed, it is this stance that has earned him contempt from some players and sports reporters. The unavoidable implication of Thorne's irresponsible statement was not just that Schilling had perpetrated a hoax, but that his whole public persona was a lie.

On Schilling's blog, a significant proportion of the 500+ responders to his angry and indignant rebuttal of Thorne's charge don't comprehend the significance of this, a sure symptom of "Ethics Deficit Syndrome." These members of the public think Schilling shouldn't care if people think he's a fraud, much as Barry Bonds, a prominent sufferer of "EDS," appear not to care that most of the country thinks he's a felon and a cheat.

All that counts, in their analysis, is that Schilling won the game. "Why don't you just laugh off their stupidity? Why write 50,000 words about it? All that matters is that ring you wear, not your sock man!" writes one. "Who gives a !@#….. You went on to the World Series and Won…. Enough Said!" concludes another. These and many others obviously were not moved by William Shakespeare's "Othello"…

Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.

Schilling, however, understands what Shakespeare meant. Thorne's words attacked his good name, and that is important to him, as it is important to anyone who tries to live by ethical values. Indeed, in terms of actual damage and lasting harm, Thorne's words were infinitely more damaging than Don Imus' slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team, because nobody believed that the young women were really "hos." Thanks to Thorne, however, some people will always choose to believe that Curt Schilling is a fraud, and a genuine and inspiring example of sports heroism will always be shadowed by doubt.


* As anyone who reads the Scoreboard regularly has probably figured out, I am a serious baseball lover and a life-long fan of the Boston Red Sox. I believe that the primary consequence of this is that I approach baseball and Red Sox related ethics stories with more authority than I bring to other sports on which my attention is less intense, but some may want to take my views on Red Sox-related matters as being potentially contaminated by bias.

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