On Sunday morning, 25 March 2018, Australians were jolted into a serious awakening. Overnight, the captain of their favourite national sporting team had openly admitted to premeditated cheating. As multitudes condemned the action, it spoke to the spirit of our nation. Above all, we want to play fair. Better to lose than have winners who cheat. Even the Prime Minister became involved, well aware that a core Australian ethic was at stake.
A few days later, Steve Smith received a one year ban from playing for Australia, and a two year ban from captaining the team again. It was one of the most extraordinary and quickest falls from the sporting summit in Australian history.
The trophy of integrity
The Australian national (men’s) cricket team has often been ranked world number 1, and is the current holder of the World Cup with trophies aplenty in their cabinet. But right now, it is being vilified globally, and even more so in its own country.
The videos of the incidents are hypnotic viewing. Particularly telling is a young man who hides a piece of yellow tape in his pants, and, like a magician, brings out a black handkerchief when asked by the umpires to reveal what’s in his pockets.
When Steve Smith appeared before the media after the day’s play, his psychological distress was visible (watch the 30 seconds from 1.04 to 1.34 in the mea culpa). The nation cringed. He is ranked the number 1 batsman in the world, he has just dominated an Ashes series, he was a national hero but his mental cabinet was dishevelled.
Much is at stake financially as well as morally. Smith is one of CBA’s three ‘cricket ambassadors’ (now withdrawn), and is also sponsored by Sanitarium (makers of Weet-Bix) (now withdrawn). Other sponsors (of the team or the players) include Qantas, Nestle, LG (now withdrawn), Magellan (now withdrawn) and the Nine Network. Broadcast rights are under negotiation with free-to-air and Pay TV providers.
Fortunes can change overnight, but the fall that is crystallised by a loss of integrity is harder to bear, both externally and more crucially, internally.
It may feel good to have tombstones, Euromoney accolades and Morningstar awards in our closet, but the trophy of integrity lies deep inside our mental cabinet. No one can steal it. Not even a dastardly framing that succeeds in getting a person falsely incarcerated can deprive us of this treasure. That’s the way the gods smile on those who imbibe the spirit of fair play when under no obligation by law or the rulebook. Many Australians treasure Adam Gilchrist’s honesty in ‘walking’ despite being given not out at crucial moments. In real life, it can vary from acknowledging the driver who first spotted the empty car spot in a crowded carpark to not playing fast and loose with words in the high-stakes game of business.
The spirit of the game
Smith’s actions, they said, were not only against the laws of the game, but also against the ‘spirit of the game’. Is this a furore amongst cricket aficionados with no relevance to everyday life?
Think again. Cricket’s spirit of the game ethic is supposed to put ‘playing fair’ above ‘winning at all costs’. In 1981, then Australian captain Greg Chappell acted within the laws of the game, but outside the spirit of the game and soon, prime ministers on both sides of the Tasman got into discussions like there was a threat of war. Now the underarm incident is an endearing bit of trans-Tasman history.
No one remembers how many runs Greg Chappell scored that day. No one cares. But a show of character leaves a legacy, as many recall Chappell’s teammate Rod Marsh openly dissenting on the field.
And that battle – playing fair versus winning at all costs – imbues every human endeavour, from politics and family to business and sports.
While the Royal Commission into financial services may seem like a political football, the cries for it to be set up arose because there was already a widespread perception that bankers and advisers do not play by the spirit of the game. The hearings demonstrate that brokers have been selling what’s in their best interest as long as the fine print protects them, that bankers motivated by volume bonuses wrote inappropriate loans, that a man known to a bank as a gambling addict was given three credit cards and a large limit.
In investment banking, I have been both adviser and been advised, and, more than anything else, the one thing I detested was the fee structure in M&A transactions. It was typical to award, to the advisory firm, a fee being a percentage of the value of the transaction only if successful. In an auction situation, the advisory firm could win millions by encouraging the client into paying more to win the asset, but it won zero if the client bid no more than true value and lost to a higher bidder. The fee structure created an Olympian hurdle for integrity in the banker’s mental cabinet to leap over.
When an airline leaves you stranded by departing four hours late, they are under no obligation to compensate you. But giving you a voucher for a $10 free meal while you dawdle at the airport is probably in the spirit of the game, and for 200 passengers, that’s $2,000, peanuts for an airline company anxious to restore faith.
It’s well-nigh impossible to cover every eventuality in a rule book or contract, but more than the 30 cameras around the field, the human eye has an innate ability to detect fair and foul play.
Above all, our mental cabinet
Amidst the cries for retribution, there are already voices concerned about Smith’s mental health. Will he hold up for what’s to follow?
We can easily spare ourselves that sort of mental trauma by not becoming agents of our own undoing, and encourage everyone in our business to do the same.
The balance sheets of our companies and of our own self have an asset called Reputation. That can be unfairly lost. But our mind space can, and should, have a well-guarded trophy called Integrity. Lose that, and life can become hellish.
Over 350 years ago, the immortal wisdom of a blind and impoverished John Milton, writing in Paradise Lost, spoke to that mind space:
“The Mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Vinay Kolhatkar is Assistant Editor at Cuffelinks.