There are many times when I wonder if professional sports are beyond redemption when it comes to civilized behavior. The entire enterprise, regardless of sport, seems to be conditioned to promoting, encouraging and endorsing the worst behaviors in men and women and discards any objection to athletes-behaving-badly as a lack of understanding of the level and expectations that professional athletes must perform to.
Without justifying Serena’s behavior at the US Open, I think it is important to point out that her behavior was akin to the blisterings that John McEnroe gave many line judges over the course of his career. Name a highly visible athlete, and you are very hard pressed to find one that hasn’t blown a gasket or exhibited poor sportsmanship in a very public manner. There are definitely exceptions; “The Admiral” David Robinson comes to my mind, and of course there are many great philanthropists among today’s professional athletes (Troy Polamalu, Andre Aggasi, Jackie-Joyner Kersee). The list of professional athletes that give of their time and money is sizable.
But, it isn’t Polamalu’s philanthropy that pee wee football players are emulating when they talk trash to another elementary school-aged adversary that they just tackled. It isn’t Jack Nicklaus’ coolness under pressure or his recent charity events to support research into paralysis that high school varsity golf players are patterning when they smash a club into the ground. When someone intentionally swings a flagrant elbow to someone’s face in a junior high basketball game, I’m guessing they aren’t thinking about all of Magic Johnson’s hard work in helping youth.
And that may be the flaw in our culture. We idolize, and are fed a constant diet of, the gladiator standing in the center of the arena drenched in his opponent’s blood. We want to see the carnage, the worst that an athlete can do. We don’t want to see the team we hate beaten, we want to see them destroyed. Something about sports, particularly professional sports, brings the worst out in spectators, fans and athletes. Our sports behaviors as athletes and spectators have not evolved much since the days of the Roman circus. Winning at all costs is directly opposed to the ideals of sportsmanship and civility.
The noblest moments in sports seem to be reserved for the amateur ranks. Have we ever seen a professional sports equivalent of Sarah Tucholsky being carried around the bases by members of the opposing team? Not that I can recall. But we do get to see Terrell Owen’s dancing on an opponent’s sacred star – only to hear sports commentators near and far say “well, that is T.O. just being T.O.”. Really? That is as critical as we can be about bad sportsmanship? It isn’t just the popular media that excuses bad behavior. Player’s unions actually fight to have fines and penalties overturned or reduced for bona fide bad behavior, crimes and rule breaking – even when the player is undeniably guilty of the accusation.
The American public continues to uphold bad behavior at all levels in sport; no matter how many parents kill each other over blown calls at high school sporting events, no matter how many professional athletes commit murder, manslaughter or assault. No matter how many cleats are applied to another player’s calf in the pile, no matter how many forearms are thrown at the face of a guard driving for a lay-up in traffic. No matter how many arguments and screaming tantrums that is directed at the very officials that are tasked with enforcing the rules.
In Serena’s case; was the call a bad one? Yes, it appears that it was a bad call. Was it a high pressure situation? Yes, it was. Does it excuse the incivility exercised by Serena? Sadly, I think many readers will say; yes it does.