Rules, referees and a model of justice

On Tuesday in central Pennsylvania, Jerry Sandusky will rise in a crowded courtroom to answer more than 50 felony counts. In San Francisco on Friday, Barry Bonds will at last be sentenced for what he didn't say about what he claims he didn't do nearly a decade ago. And until further notice, Ryan Braun will be bound over in the court of public opinion. Eventually, in addition to the operatic censure of your local sports page, he'll face an actual 50-game suspension for what sounds like a failed PED test.

So it might be hard this week to remember that justice means more than punishment. Justice is the world's return to equilibrium. Justice is fairness. Balance. And part of the point of sports is to see justice done. Even if only metaphorically. Microscopically. Even if only briefly or imperfectly or long after the fact.

That the moral arc of the universe bends, we hope, toward justice is well-known. That our species' first piece of sports writing detailed the absolute need for an umpire to fight cheating is a foundational premise of this column. Thus, somewhere between the ideals of Dr. King and The Iliad of Homer; somewhere in the overheated tangle of human nature; somewhere between "nice guys finish last" and "cheaters never prosper," sports is the little theater in which we remind ourselves that the pursuit of justice is why we're all here.

The whistle, the flag, the thumb; caught stealing, interfering, encroaching: The rules are clear and the symbolic justice swift. The lessons of good and bad, cause and effect, crime and punishment lie in every infraction, every penalty.

And whether we're talking about Cincinnati-Xavier or Khan-Peterson, it's worth remembering that even brawls have rules. At least according to modern form and habit. And that in these rules we find the illusion of order, if not order itself; the illusion of decency, if not decency itself.

And in these illusions we find the promise of sports.

The promise that somehow -- by ethical leverage or force of discipline or judges' decision -- justice can be done and balance restored.

There is no such promise of equilibrium or restoration in the struggle and grunt of real life. And the collision of the one with the other is a terrible thing to bear. This is the late lesson of Penn State: that while the stakes of our games are infinitesimally small, the costs of our weakness are unspeakably high.

It is the singular genius of sports to demonstrate the lessons of justice to us again and again and again, because those lessons make justice seem possible. It is the signal failure of sports to promise us such a falsehood, as we watch justice so often go undone.

This tension plays out not just as a manageable little narrative in sports, but informs everything we think or say or do. The entirety of our art and religion and history are built upon it.

Right and wrong. Good and bad. That "the wheels of justice grind slow but exceeding fine" is so optimistic a promise that the very saying is attributed in some variation to every culture everywhere.

We all need to believe in a reckoning, however distant in time or space, because the ideal of a universal fairness is our one defense against crippling hopelessness and cynicism.

The human enterprise is the search for justice. And the premise of this column has always been a question: "What are sports for?"

Maybe this week, more than most, sports remind us that even when we fail to abide by the rules, that we ever made such rules is itself a kind of victory. And that even if perfect justice is unreachable, the pursuit of fairness, balance and restoration is worth everything we have.

Because it is everything we have.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.