Skating Around the Truth

January 29, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

In celebrity issues that have seized national consciousness, truth no longer matters, only what you believe.

This may descend from deconstruction in the academic study of literature. That idea pushes the study of the context of a work until the text has no meaning of its own, only what the critic imputes.

So, in this value system, what you believe is important for what it says about you. Whether it is true is of no concern, on the theory that there is no truth. What has gone out of fashion is the notion that truth is truth, and that what we believe about what we do not know is of contemptible worth.

The new way of thinking was apparent after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. ''I believe'' buttons sprouted. Some people took on faith that Anita Hill had told the truth, others that Clarence Thomas had. Believing was what mattered, knowing of no account. The possibility that the truth was somewhere between was not considered.

This happened again in the Bobbitt affair. One school of thought held that Mrs. Bobbitt must have been abused to the point of justifying what she did or she would not have done it. The other held that since nothing justifies what she did, the question of prior abuse is irrelevant. That neither side knows is a matter of indifference to each.

But certitudes based on faith cannot cope with the conspiracy to maim Nancy Kerrigan.

The rival skaters are both attractive, amazingly skilled, dedicated athletes who rose with superhuman perseverance from humble origins. Their rivalry is not a moral parable.

It is possible to disagree which is a better skater (though Ms. Kerrigan placed higher in their last five competitions). That is a matter of taste in a sport that is judged subjectively on form. If athleticism is more important, Tonya Harding is better; if gracefulness, Ms. Kerrigan.

If Ms. Kerrigan was wounded by an assault contracted by persons in Ms. Harding's training camp, the U.S. Figure Skating Association should take away her championship. She was, and it should.

The federation should not require proof of Ms. Harding's complicity, only of her associates'. Otherwise, it would encourage coaches and trainers to plan these crimes as long as the competitor is kept innocent.

However, there is no hurry. The federation can await the verdict of the courts before reconsidering the championship. In staffing the U.S. team for the Olympics, however, the federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee must act before knowing. They can let a woman who may be guilty represent the U.S., or ban a woman who may be innocent. They must choose one.

They should deny Ms. Harding a place on the team only if she was morally (a broader concept than legally) guilty. But Ms. Harding is entitled to a presumption of innocence unless proved otherwise.

Nothing will be proved before the Olympics. If Ms. Harding is charged or indicted, or branded an unindicted co-conspirator before then, that would neither make her guilty nor take governing bodies off this hook.

Her public admission Thursday of both knowledge and fear after the fact may be what the U.S. Olympic Committee thinks it needs, but she also insists she had no prior knowledge and she wants to skate.

The U.S. Olympic Committee faces contradictory imperatives: It must not rush to judgment. It must act immediately. It must do what is best for the sport. It must create the best opportunity for Americans to win medals. It must be fair.

The committee has no choice but to act without knowing what it believes -- and what it fears in civil-law liabilities. To fail to act is to act (to fail to kick Ms. Harding off the team is to put her on it).

So any attempt to make a moral simplicity out of this breaks down. Sorry. This is the real world.

As a practical matter, the U.S Olympic Committee and the U.S. Figure Skating Federation have a rescuer in the wings. All they need do is put Ms. Harding on the team and tell the alternate, Michelle Kwan, to pack for the trip. They have. The International Olympic Committee can then decide in Lillehammer who may play in its games. (In fact, it has never said no.) The beauty of the IOC is that it eludes the U.S. courts.

Somebody tried to insure that Ms. Harding and not Ms. Kerrigan would get rich from skating -- and in doing so guaranteed the reverse.

It is hard to believe that anyone who does anything as well as Ms. Harding skates could botch anything as ineptly as this crime was botched.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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