March 1, 2013

Looking for Stewardship

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

—Simon and Garfunkel

You likely recall that no one—no one—was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. Five hundred or so sports writers pored over the nominees in January and flatly turned their backs on glittering players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, among others. Players whose numbers, be it home runs or strikeouts, put them in the all star ranks year after year, and perhaps still in the memories of many fans.

But Bonds and Clemens, allegedly, also stood out for using performance-enhancing drugs and then lying about it to everyone from league officials to law enforcement agencies. Put bluntly, they disgraced themselves and the game that paid them so well; all of us, really, who believe that professional sports should be an honorable enterprise, an example of healthy competition and character building for our kids. 

The reason I can’t get this sorry story out of my mind is my growing concern and realization that this is not just a sports story. It is, instead, a story of how men who would be heroes betrayed us all, and how this violation of public trust is all too common. It is a story of too many in public life today, in sports, in business, and of course in politics who are infected with such a profound sense of entitlement that they see nothing wrong with ignoring their obligation—sacred, if you will—to honor the institutions they serve and the people who put them there. 

We sadly know now that professional sport is rife with drug abuse. The writers who select baseball’s hall of famers at least had the integrity to take seriously their obligation to examine the character, as well as the field performance, of this year’s candidates.

However, in business and politics, as we have learned to our dismay, standards of honesty, integrity and fair dealing are all too easily pushed aside in a frantic drive to “hit the numbers.” How else to explain a Madoff, an Enron, or a Countrywide Financial, which congressional investigators found practiced high-volume, scurrilous and misleading mortgage sales that helped plunge the country into economic chaos. How else to explain a Senate that absolutely refuses to pass a budget, or sit down and stop screaming across the aisles and solve our most pressing policy dilemmas. 

We look, in vain, for that sense of stewardship that we expect from the people who run our institutions. Whether we are directing a corporation, managing a trade association or playing baseball, we have an obligation and a responsibility to the institution. We have been honored with the opportunity to preserve and protect the integrity of that with which we have been entrusted.

These betrayals of public trust are having a profound impact on this country and its citizens. We are a people who want to believe in our institutions, in companies large and small, and in our political system to do the right thing. Our hearts are vested in that belief. It is part of who Americans are. And when that belief is shown to be starkly misguided, when that trust is violated, each time it erodes a part of the fabric that binds us together as a nation.

We are justifiably proud of the economy we have built, immensely reverent of the daily sacrifices of the men and women in our military, and still clinging to the possibility that our political system will right it itself. We love heroes. And we need them to help preserve the social contract, the mutual respect so vital to insuring this country remains strong.

These days, however, all too frequently we seem to be echoing those words from the Simon and Garfunkel song: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

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