When I was 6 years old, I made two mistakes in one day at school. We had a spelling test. I spelt girl “gril” and with “wiht.” I’m reminded that they’re errors because I’ve had to override the autocorrect to keep them in this post. They were mistakes. I didn’t intend to write the words incorrectly. I didn’t premeditate and then choose deliberately to use unorthodox spellings. I made two errors. Simple. Never forgotten. Never made since.
There’s a difference between a mistake and a deliberate choice to do something wrong. Spelling errors are mistakes; texting an abusive message is not. Hitting the accelerator instead of the brake and smashing into another vehicle is a mistake; using your car in a smash and grab robbery is not. Forgetting to take a towel to the locker room is a mistake; stealing a towel from a person’s locker while they’re in the shower is not. In cricket, misfielding a ball is a mistake; the recent ball tampering incident in the Australian team is not.
A mistake is when we act with intention and integrity, but fail to achieve the intended outcome. When we act without integrity and get caught, calling our action “a mistake” is, well, no mistake. It’s a deliberate attempt to influence others to excuse, or ideally accept, the action by dressing it up as something it’s not. The choice of vocabulary smacks of trying to evade responsibility. Wriggling out of responsibility has been around a lot longer than the game of cricket—check out an early account here.
This distinction between mistakes and deliberate wrongdoing seems to have been lost in a lot of the discussion about the recent cricket cheating scandal. The coach, Darren Lehmann, said “They’re good young men and they made a mistake.” No, they didn’t. They deliberately did the wrong thing. They did not miss a goal; they erected their own goalposts and expected to gain an advantage by doing so. Their behaviour became a public issue because someone noticed. If they did make any mistake (that is, tried something but got it wrong), it was that they were careless enough to get caught.
“Mistakes have been made that have damaged cricket,” said the alleged chief culprit, David Warner, in a prepared statement. Notice the avoidance of responsibility: Not “I’ve done wrong”; nor even “I’ve made a mistake.” Mistakes were just “made”, as if by some invisible hand. But using “it just happened” language to avoid responsibility is a whole lot older than the game of cricket, too. You can read about that as far back as here.
Michael Jensen has helpfully pointed out that the problem is that we want to say there is no problem. But at the same time we know that in fact there is one, and it needs to be sorted. So let’s stop calling a calculated, rebellious action a mistake (as even Jensen’s article lapses into doing at one point). Let’s call it what it really is. Then let’s indeed, as Jensen suggests, be ready to reflect the nature of a forgiving God to those who acknowledge they’ve done wrong.
But let us also be alert to the words that are used. The prepared statement of Cameron Bancroft, the one caught red-handed, included expected words about disappointment and regret. But when he went off script, he said that he is heartbroken. By what? “The thing that breaks my heart the most is the fact I have given up my spot in the team for someone else for free.” Not that he has let down kids who looked up to him. Not that he has done something wrong. Not that his actions have exposed his real values. The worst thing is that there is enough moral backbone in the institution that employs him for there to be financial and career consequences for his action. Unstated, but unmistakably present, is the idea that Bancroft would have had no regrets if he had not been caught.
Coach Lehmann said “We need to change.” The thing is, when you make a spelling mistake or two, you don’t need to change. That is, you don’t need to change you. You just need to change the way you spell. When you act deliberately to gain an unfair advantage for yourself, it is actually you that needs to change. Not just your behaviour, but you. At least on that, Lehmann got it right.
A former team official who understands the stress elite sportspeople face has made the suggestion that we have to work out how to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. Great idea. But how do we avoid the corrupt behaviour that springs from corrupt hearts, when, as Jeremiah put it, “the heart is deceitful above all things?” Calling the behaviour a mistake is deceitful and won’t help. Telling those involved that they’re actually good people who had a momentary lapse of character that they needn’t worry about probably won’t help either. Acknowledging that all behaviour is in fact symptomatic of character, rather than excusable as a momentary exception to it, might. Recovering a willingness to acknowledge the darkness of human hearts and the danger of idolising sports stars might in the long run help by reducing pressure on elite athletes to win at all costs.
This is a good time for a reality check. Ball tampering, it has been said, is just not cricket. But the truth is darker than we like to think. Ball tampering clearly is part of the reality of cricket at elite level. And there are other distasteful truths we need to acknowledge as well. Behaviour actually does reflect character and values, contrary to what Bancroft said in his press conference. The human heart really does have a dark side. There really is need to acknowledge our wrongdoing. There really is something more to ethics than the question, “Will I get caught?” How we live really does matter, whether anyone sees or not.