San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) fumbles the ball...

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) fumbles the ball as he runs from Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc, which was recovered by defensive tackle Malik Jackson (97), during an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif. on Oct. 4, 2020. Credit: AP/Jed Jacobsohn

Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive tackle Malik Jackson did something in a recent game against the San Francisco 49ers that was alternately described by sports commentators as "a total pro" move, "hilarious" and "heads-up football."

What he did was cheat. With the ball just feet from the Eagles’ end zone and the Niners driving, Jackson surreptitiously pushed the ball a few inches back with a cleat when referees weren’t watching.

Don’t get me wrong. The move made me smile, and I’d love to have Jackson as a teammate. But he still wasn’t supposed to relocate the ball with his foot. Can we all agree on that?

Probably not. Many Eagles fans undoubtedly rationalized the move in an instant — bad spot by the referee; Niners should have been called for holding the play before; any lineman worth his salt would try that — while San Francisco fans saw the transgression clearly: the Eagles cheated. (Had San Francisco done the same thing in the next set of downs, their fans likely would have seen it as "justice" rather than a separate, stand-alone infraction which it would have been.)

Jackson’s misdeed turned out to be immaterial — the Niners scored on the next play — but it’s a great little example of how easy it is to rationalize away, or laugh off, that which benefits us. The chuckles from impartial broadcasters shows how inured we’ve become to rule breaking as a society.

The same has become true in government and politics, and there it’s no laughing matter. American inter-party politics have become, as Sherman described his 1864 March to the Sea, total war, meaning all courtesies, rules and norms are off the table in an effort to achieve complete victory. Many partisans now openly espouse that form of play in peacetime under spurious moral umbrellas of their making — to attain what is morally right immorality and rule-breaking are permissible.

Some clear examples: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel of Kentucky refused to hold hearings for Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. He cheated. Yet Republicans universally coalesced around the preposterous argument that Supreme Court nominees shouldn’t be considered in an election year because they didn’t want another liberal on the bench. (Republicans should have held the hearings, preserved protocol, and voted Garland down.)

With Republicans planning to push through a Supreme Court nominee of their liking days before the upcoming presidential election, as is lawful and proper, many Democrats now want to push the ball back with their foot in the false name of justice by packing the court, should former Vice President Joe Biden win the presidency and Democrats retake the Senate. That and Garland would have nothing to do with each other objectively — again, they would be separate, stand-alone offenses — but millions would no doubt conjoin the two out of intellectual convenience, saying Republicans had it coming.

President Barack Obama, in the name of social justice, wrongfully used executive orders to suspend immigration laws, raise the minimum wage and amend the Affordable Care Act without legislative input. That was cheating, too. Democrats looked away, the same Democrats who howled when President Donald Trump used his executive powers controversially, moves that many Republicans cheered.

Is there no moral clarity in America remaining? Are we doomed to subjectivity?

In football there are referees; in politics and government there’s only us. We need to begin checking our own teammates’ behavior lest the game become unplayable.

William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

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