Two tales of trust: one fulfilled, another broken

There is magic in this time of year and sometimes it touches football, too. The story involving Miami Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas has a magical, Christmas quality, certainly. And, even better, his response to what happened last Sunday provides us with something to be thoughtful about.

Thomas had spent two years laboring in one of the NFL’s vineyards of anonymity, the practice squads that help the professional teams prepare for their next game. In his case it was with the San Francisco 49ers, where few of his teammates even knew his name.

An early morning phone call from the Miami Dolphins would change that. They wanted to sign him immediately to fill a gap in their injury-stricken defensive backfield. A hastily-booked cross-country flight, a new uniform, two more Dolphin player injuries, and he found himself on the field in Foxboro, Mass., playing in the critical fourth quarter of a game against the New England Patriots — for a coach who didn’t know his name. Yet.

Miami had a small lead, but the New England quarterback, Tom Brady, was leading one of his patented comeback drives and saw newbie defensive backs as scoring opportunities.

Sure enough, one perfectly thrown pass tested Thomas, but he was able to knock it out if the hands of the receiver. Then, with only seven seconds to go, Brady launched one into the end zone. Thomas read it perfectly and intercepted it, ending the game with a win for his new team. Now everyone knew his name.

It seemed like a dream. Certainly it is the recurrent dream of every player on every practice squad in the National Football League. But in Thomas’s case it was a dream come true.

One of the most interesting aspects of this magical story was the part that he found so remarkable. In an interview with Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald he said, “I’m going to remember this one for the rest of my life. My teammates trusted me, the newcomer.”

Trust is the air supply for all team efforts, from football to democracy. And it is in perilously short supply these days, most noticeably so when it comes to government and political leaders.

The decline of trust hasn’t been a sudden collapse. Each new revelation, each disappointment, moves us another small step away from the trust we want and need. The General Social Survey data, for example, shows that in 1972 the majority of Americans (just over 50 percent) said they trusted their government. By 2012, though, that number was down to one-third.

The revelations surrounding the trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich were probably not new enough to move the public’s trust needle further downward. After all, he was the fourth governor of the last seven from that state to end up behind bars. His appeal, though, now being considered by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, gives us something serious to think about.

Blagojevich is now in a federal prison in Colorado, serving an unusually harsh 14-year sentence for political corruption. His appeal contains two essential arguments: that the evidence did not indicate that a crime was committed or planned; and that the sentence was unduly long for the offense.

In the first argument he claims that the evidence failed to prove that his actions crossed the line between political “horse trading” and a criminal act. In fact, many people who listened to the evidence — recorded telephone conversations — thought much the same thing. As governor, Blagojevich had a valuable appointment to the U.S. Senate to make and wanted something for it in return. Welcome to the real world of politics.

The federal appeals court now has to decide where the line is between criminality and politics as it is played, and their decision is critical to the future of our democracy.

The nature of politics, and corruption, has changed and neither our legal system nor our perceptions have kept up with it. We have grown used to campaign rhetoric. Where is the line between campaign promises and criminality, though, when politicians and political parties buy votes with public funds? We’ve seen this become the “new normal” and morph into a process that drives cities into bankruptcy and rocks the foundations of states and even the federal government.

If the courts don’t draw the line between politics and criminality then we must do it ourselves, if for no other reason than to insure that our nation and our democracy survive.

But that’s for the coming New Year. Right now it’s time to savor the story of Michael Thomas and how things like hope and trust are still with us. Dreams still can come true. Merry Christmas.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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