Wednesday, June 1, 2005

If you’re anything like me, you are constantly having people e-mailing you nostalgia lists that ask you if you’re old enough to remember Blackjack gum, Jack Benny’s Maxwell and the Lone Ranger’s theme song. Yes, I’m afraid I’m old enough.

What I’m finding harder and harder to remember are examples of good sportsmanship.

What brings that to mind was a sterling example of it displayed recently by tennis professional Andy Roddick. He was playing in the finals of a tournament when the umpire called a double fault on his opponent, thus giving Roddick the victory. But, to everyone’s astonishment, Roddick over-ruled him. He pointed to the mark left by the serve that clearly showed the serve had in fact been good. What made Roddick’s action especially newsworthy was that, given new life, his opponent proceeded to beat him.

Of course Roddick had no way of knowing that his generous act was going to cost him a victory and a good deal of money, but he certainly knew that was a very real possibility. Still, he did the right thing. Isn’t it amazing, and very sad, that the right thing should be so rare in public life as to be worthy of comment?

I recall once reading an essay by the great English journalist Alistair Cooke. He had just arrived in America in the 1930s and his assignment was to inform his countrymen what Americans were really like. Thanks to the movies, they assumed we were a nation full of cowboys, Indians and gangsters. Cooke, a golf enthusiast, decided to cover a tournament in which the legendary Bobby Jones was a participant. On the last day, Jones hit his tee shot into the trees. While out of sight, he inadvertently moved a twig or some such thing. As a result of this, he called a two-shot penalty on himself. Because of that, he lost the tournament by a single stroke.

The story doesn’t end there, however. The next day, when the big story in the papers wasn’t about the man who won, but about Jones’ fine display of sportsmanship, Jones, a normally even-tempered fellow, blew his top. He was outraged to be held up as a paragon of virtue. As he put it, he had done nothing so wonderful. He had merely played by the rules.

It had a tremendous impact on Cooke, who felt that Jones’ action, as well as his response to the acclaim, was typically American, and he told his readers so.

Those days seem very long ago. Since then, we’ve seen the canonization of Vince Lombardi, whose inane comment that “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” has come to be regarded as being every bit as inspirational as the Sermon on the Mount.

These days we see professional athletes using steroids in order to defeat better men than themselves, and being rewarded and idolized when all you can say about them is that they’re cheats. These days, the infantile winning-is-everything philosophy is so pervasive that fights are as likely to break out among Little Leaguers and their coaches and parents as they are at hockey games.

I wonder if Cooke ever had occasion to write that second essay, the one in which he acknowledged that he might have jumped too quickly to a conclusion about our national character. While we’d all like to think that we are a nation of sportsmen, the fact remains that over 70 years separated the acts of Jones and Roddick, making such honorable displays just about as rare as appearances of Halley’s Comet.

Burt Prelutsky, author of “Conservatives Are From Mars, Liberals Are From San Francisco,” is an award-winning TV writer.

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