What do you do when the culture's corrupt?

Chip Somodevilla

You might have heard about this U.S. Air Force scandal -- the latest U.S. Air Force scandal, I mean -- wherein a large number of missileers were found to have been cheating on their certification tests. Which is hardly a new development. Actually, the opposite of new:

Cheating has been a fact of life among America’s nuclear launch officers for decades, crew members and instructors said. “When I saw that they got something wrong, I would say, ‘Go back and look at No. 5 again,'” said Brian Weeden, a former launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana who said that he routinely asked new crew members to show him their test answers before they turned them in.

The same help, he said, was offered to him by his own instructors when he first began a tour of duty in which officers are expected to score 100 percent on the monthly written tests, and anything below 90 percent is a failing grade.

Last week, 34 officers were said to have cheated on their monthly proficiency tests. The first thought of many, upon hearing that news, was probably something like, "OhmyGod, who let those 34 bad guys loose amongst all the heroes?" Because that's the way we're first made, and then programmed by society, to think. But the truth is that there are very few bad guys and even fewer heroes. Most of us do bad things, most of us do heroic things, and most of spend the great majorities of our lives somewhere in the middle.

In this case, cheating was simply the culture, for which we can blame ... well, us. Someone probably realized at some point that us would settle for nothing less than perfection among our missileers, so perfection was essentially mandated. And once you've mandated perfection, you've got a choice: give easy tests, or permit cheating.

The Air Force institutionalized cheating. Once that was done, were the cheaters bad people? Or even dishonorable? I'm not sure. But I'm inclined toward sympathy.

I bring this up today because -- and yes, I'm highly aware it's not a perfect comparison -- the Air Force scandal did remind of something that's happened in baseball. Dave Gallagher played in the majors in the late '80s and early '90s, and NJ.com's Dave Searles asked Gallagher about steroids during that time. A snippet:

Q: Then why didn't the clean players call for the ban of PEDs and testing?

A: I think that is a fair question and I always feel a certain percentage of guilt towards that. I don't have a good answer but the only thing I can say is this had to have been talked about in Executive Board meetings but the common player never finds out what is said in those meetings. However, I can't push that away because we have every right as individual players to go to the Players Association and they will tell you because you have the right to know. The only answer that I have personally, and it's probably not a good answer, when I looked around there were only a couple of guys where I would say oh yeah he is definitely using.

This seems like an honest, accurate portrayal of the average player's attitude during the early '90s. There's now an opinio -- granted, a minority opinion -- among baseball writers that any player from that era must be held accountable for what happened. More to the point, that all players, roughly speaking, are equally accountable; if you're going to blame one, you have to blame them all.

But it seems to me even more reasonable to suggest that when a culture is created, it's unfair to think too poorly about those within the culture, because so very few of us would have the courage to raise any objection. At the moment, roughly 65 percent of Hall of Fame voters have concluded that Roger Clemens committed a serious moral or ethical breach. Clemens was immersed in a culture that permitted, and at least implicitly encouraged, drug use and public dissembling. Would 65 percent of Hall of Fame voters have the courage to stand up and say something, if the culture of sportswriters was essentially corrupt?

I wonder.

Dave Gallagher's public comments, 20 years later, are a valuable piece of the puzzle. In the coming years, more and more players will discuss their thoughts and motivations during that era, and our ability to understand what happened, and why, will grow and grow. As it does, we'll come to understand that there were very few villains, even fewer heroes ... and hundreds of guys in the middle.

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