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NOTIONS: Emerging from Eden, wanting to head straight back

February 25, 2008

Last week, my wife Cherí and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary with a trip to Turks and Caicos. We walked for miles along the white sand beaches of Grace Bay, snuggled in a hammock at sunset, slathered on sunblock and, between us, polished off 10 books at poolside.

By midweek, we'd finally chilled from the tension of the daily grind. Unfortunately, about that time, the anticipatory anxiety of returning home set in. "I don't wanna go back," was our common lament. Vacations (the good ones, at least) alter perspectives, shift priorities, distort reality. Walking hand in hand with The One, power plays and office politics seem pointless and petty. Gazing upon turquoise waters, slugfests over sentences and syntax seem silly. Staring at star-filled midnight skies, sports scandals, starlet-pursuing paparazzi and legislative gotcha gambits feel futile and fleeting. We flew home Saturday night, reluctant to face the backlog of news, needs and nagging realities. In his book "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart," psychiatrist Gordon Livingston says, "The problem with our longing for the paradises of the past is that it distracts us from our efforts to extract pleasure and meaning from the present."

And so, on Sunday and Monday, having literally left paradise on a Providenciales runway, I began wading through hundreds of e-mails and dozens of newspapers, craving everyday food for the soul.

In my e-mail box, I found a message from a young designer friend, sharing with me a front page of the Indiana Daily Student from last week trumpeting the story of NCAA charges against IU men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson.

"Lies," it said in gigantic type.

In The New York Times, I found stories about baseball pitcher Roger Clemens telling a congressional committee, under oath, that he'd never used steroids, and his trainer, under oath, saying that he had, in fact, injected Clemens with steroids.

In The Indianapolis Star, I found a story about my state representative, Jon Elrod, doing political campaign work on the floor of the House of Representatives, which Democratic Party officials videotaped from the balcony.

Online, I found stories about the National Football League destroying evidence in the New England Patriots videotaping spy scandal, and getting called on the carpet by Sen. Arlen Specter for an apparent coverup.

On the blogosphere, I found presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has repeatedly stolen lines from presidential candidate Barack Obama, accusing Obama of stealing lines from his friend Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts.

Barraged by allegations of lying, cheating, stealing, spying, perjuring and plagiarizing, I was eager for Eden once more.

Have we evolved into a society so caught up in competition, so obsessed with winning, so desperate for power and oneupmanship that we're willing to sacrifice our ethics, integrity, reputation (and, in the case of steroid-injecting athletes-our health and lives) in the process?

Judging by last week's news, yes.

Judging by swift-boating, push-polling, race-baiting, gender-slamming truth-smearing political campaigns, yes.

Judging by drug-injecting, blood-doping bicyclists and track stars, yes.

Judging by steroid-shooting, family-murdering, suicide-committing professional wrestlers, yes.

Judging by money-grubbing, insider-trading, pyramid-scheming businesspeople, yes.

Judging by election-rigging, violencebreeding dictators, yes.

And judging by win-at-all-cost professional and collegiate sports programs, yes, yes, yes.

In The Indianapolis Star last week, Indiana University President Michael McRobbie (who inherited Coach Kelvin Sampson from his predecessor) was quoted as saying, "I believe the most important measure of our success in intercollegiate athletics is not the win-loss columns. Rather, it is in how well we measure up to our own high standards of good sportsmanship, academic success, the welfare of our student-athletes and play by the rules."

But how many universities build incentives for such virtues into their coaches' contracts? Some. But more often, it's about victories.

To wit: When Sampson was hired, ESPN reported that his contract included a $50,000 incentive for reaching the Final Four and a $100,000 incentive for winning the national championship.

In short, the very win-loss columns McRobbie eschews.

The irony, of course, is that all of us-fans, alums, voters, citizens, employees, employers, investors, politicians, et al-end up losers when integrity is compromised in the quest for victory. None more so than the liars and cheats themselves.

The psychiatrist Livingston puts it this way, "The truth may not make us free, but to lie to ourselves in the name of temporary comfort is the ultimate folly ... To see ourselves plainly is, perhaps, impossible; it's hard to get through the day without a rationalization or two. It is when our dream of what we could be collides with the truth of what we are that the clang of cognitive dissonance both deafens and blinds us."

In other words: Paradise lost.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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