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Original Issue

Morality Players

You try to live by your principles. But when you step out of that low-flow shower and into your vegan underwear, when you pull on that wool-free sweater and hike up your pleather pants, what do you see all around you (if you see anything at all in the wan light of those energy-saving bulbs)?

Sports fans see a minefield, a million moral compromises to be made every day, and that's before next month's NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway, which as of this year is sponsored by the National Rifle Association. No one rides shotgun at the NRA 500—but the fastest qualifier might win a shotgun, and even before the NRA got involved, victors at the Texas race traditionally celebrated by firing two pistols into the air, Yosemite Sam--style.

Granted, this is only a problem if your enthusiasm for motor sports is in inverse proportion to your enthusiasm for firearms, in which case the once-neutral act of watching a car race turns into an unintended endorsement of the gun lobby. If you can't resist watching, you must abandon your principles at the nearest frisking station—if there is any call for frisking stations at the NRA 500.

That's what we usually do when our pleasures and convictions collide: cave. A great man said, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them, well, I have others." But Groucho Marx was being funny. What's my excuse?

On the same Saturday as the NRA 500, the third round of the Masters will play out at Augusta National, historic citadel of chauvin-, sex-, rac- and other -isms that never stopped enthusiastic throngs (me among them) from enjoying the escapism of the tournament, not to mention the $1.50 pimento-cheese sandwiches. You just want to wile away a Saturday watching cars and golf, but you're suddenly troubled by an angel on your shoulder asking awkward questions about your passive complicity. Welcome to the third millennium, when lying on the couch with the TV on is fraught with moral implications.

For instance: Does paying a cable subscription fee—or joining a fantasy football league or buying an NFL ticket—make me an accessory to brain trauma? Because watching games, I often feel like one of those silent witnesses to an assault, the anonymous pedestrian who tells police, despite a troubled conscience, "I didn't see anything, Officer."

If you profess to be appalled by the NFL's epidemic of concussions, suffered for your entertainment, then why don't you (and by you, I mean I) look away? For the same reason I (and by I, I mean all of us) will soon revel in March Madness, abetting the exploitation of free labor (student-athletes) by their oppressive overlords (member schools of the NCAA). Why do we keep enabling this feudal system—or, for that matter, using the phrase student-athlete, an Orwellian coinage of the NCAA's, whose scholarships go to athletes who are no more "scholars" than our scholars are "mathletes"?

Answer: Because most of us have reached a comfortable cruising altitude, an autopilot that allows us to watch, celebrate and subsidize the sports we like while halfheartedly lamenting the problems we're compounding.

As for the sports we don't like (boxing and mixed martial arts, in my case), we can refrain from watching what we wouldn't watch anyway and then dismiss it as wrong. That which is not to my taste is distasteful. Then again, hockey fights aren't my cup of teeth, but they don't stop me from watching hockey, because I enjoy the sport, and it's hard to stand on principle when you're wearing skates.

Living virtuously can be exhausting, requiring one to ask, "What animal died for this golf glove? What factory conditions produced these shoes? What chemicals were used on this course?" And that's just on your downswing.

So we occupy a world of hypocritical half-measures, treading in hemp shoes across a living-room floor made of some reclaimed (or repurposed or recycled or renewable) wonder substance, but we still end up in front of the TV, watching some sanctioned act of violence that wouldn't be countenanced if there were a People for the Ethical Treatment of People. And we tell the angel on our shoulder to lighten up, to give us a break, that it's O.K. to eat a chicken taco at a baseball game without knowing whether the poultry in question was farm-raised, hand-fed or homeschooled. "Do not be too moral," wrote Thoreau. "You may cheat yourself out of much life so."

The more brazen among us will go a step further and pretend that we're part of the solution, that drinking beer at a baseball game is a righteous act of global good citizenship, for it forces us to use the low-flow toilets or waterless urinals at, say, Citi Field. In doing so, we feel doubly relieved, for by flushing (in Flushing) we become eco-warriors, an environmental consolation prize for being a Mets fan.

And yet you can't quite forget, as you read this page, that trees were felled for your momentary diversion. So please recycle this column, or compost it. Some of you will no doubt "repurpose" it.

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Can you be a sports fan without checking your principles at the gate?

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