- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In football, the Spygate scandal is just now settling down (no thanks to Arlen Specter’s rabblerousing).

In baseball and track, BALCO keeps rearing its Barry Bonds-sized head.

In basketball, flopping has become so prevalent that the NBA is going to start penalizing it.

In tennis, meanwhile, players are being investigated for fixing matches.

And let’s not forget NASCAR, where fender-bending seems to have taken a back seat to rule-bending.

Makes you wonder whether you’re going to pick up the newspaper some morning and read:

“Sportsmanship died last night after battling serious illness for several decades. At its bedside was its close friend, Team Spirit. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that athletes and coaches check their moral compasses to make sure they’re still functioning.”

But wait! All hope may not be lost. I call your attention to two recent episodes in the state of Washington - one in college softball, the other in high school track. Coming as they did less than a month apart, perhaps they signal a proverbial turning of the tide. Then again, maybe they’re just heartwarming aberrations, reminders of what sports could be but rarely are.

You’ve no doubt heard some of the details, the incidents having gotten quite a bit of play in the media. In the first, a Western Oregon player tore up her knee rounding first base after hitting a three-run homer and couldn’t continue, so two opponents carried her the rest of the way - lest the only dinger of her college career be downgraded to a single.

This was no small gesture. At stake in the game was a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs, and Western Oregon ended up winning by the slim margin of 4-2. But the more important issue in the mind of Central Washington’s Mallory Holtman, who helped with the lifting, was that Sara Tucholsky “hit it over the fence and was in pain, and she deserved a home run.”

A mere 27 days later, barely 100 miles away, a similar scene unfolded in the state track and field championships. (Power of suggestion, anyone?) Nicole Cochran of Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep crossed the finish line first in the 4A girls 3,200-meter race but was disqualified for stepping on the inside line as she made her move on the next to last lap.

This didn’t sit well with Andrea Nelson of Spokane’s Shadle Park High, who was declared the winner even though she came in four seconds behind Cochran. So after the awards ceremony, she hung the first place medal around Cochran’s neck, explaining, “She totally deserves it. She crushed everybody.”

The other top finishers then proceeded to exchange medals until everyone got her just reward. It was simply the right thing to do, they decided.

Not that many athletes or coaches ever think that way. Indeed, over the decades, sports have become less about fair play and more about finding an edge, legal or otherwise. And so we have the Performance Enhancing Drugs Debacle and Bill Belichick’s Candid Camera and the (much imitated) Divac Flop and race cars flunking inspection almost weekly.

Fans are so suspicious - and rightly so - that when Usain Bolt blazes a 9.72 to break the men’s 100-meter record, the general reaction isn’t awe but “Aw, come on. He must have been juiced on .”

To think that in 1940, Cornell forfeited a football game after learning it had scored the winning touchdown on fifth down. It didn’t matter to coach Carl Snavely that his team was ranked second in the nation - or that it had an 18-game unbeaten streak. What mattered was that Dartmouth deserved the victory.

Fifty years later, Colorado forfeit a football game after learning it had scored the winning touchdown on fifth down. Coach Bill McCartney later regretted his lack of rectitude, but at end of that season he was only too happy to accept the national championship trophy.

Sports are what they are these days - Bulldog eat Bulldog. If the referee catches you breaking the rules, fine. If he doesn’t, even better. Winning isn’t everything, but it sure pays the bills.

There are times, though, when winning seems such a shallow pursuit, when How You Played the Game seems so much more meaningful. It was good of Mallory Holtman, Andrea Nelson and their co-conspirators to remind of us of that - for what it’s worth.

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