It’s been a weekend for thinking about the meaning of “the right thing.”
In the summer school session that starts tomorrow, I’m teaching what’s probably my favorite course, Media Law and Ethics. The “ethics” part of that title always presents some good opportunities for talking about what’s the right thing to do in the context of reporting and presenting the news. We get into issues like fairness, conflict of interest, matters of sensitivity and taste, and most important, telling the truth.
I’ve also been reminded of the value of “doing the right thing” in SportsWorld on several occasions this week. “SportsWorld” is a term borroved from the great sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, who wrote a book by the same title in 1975. The major premise in this book about the role of sports in American culture is that SportsWorld honors the winner more than the race, the result more than the process. Concepts like integrity and sportsmanship take a back seat to finishing first in SportsWorld.
I’ve been thinking about three exceptions this weekend that give some hope that it doesn’t always work out that way.
(1) Covering the Charlotte Eagles minor league soccer team, as I did last night in their game with the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders — is a consistently positive experience, win or lose. I’ve written about this organization previously, a team which combines on-field competition with a Christian ministry accomplished through camps and international touring.
I try not to be a blathering fan of the teams I cover, but it’s hard not to like the Eagles, who play hard but clean — a yellow card is rare and a red card is a calamity that occurs as often as a total solar eclipse. They stay out of trouble and keep winning in perspective. (In addition to everything else, they’re good — perennial contenders in their United Soccer Leagues division and twice league champions.) Longtime coach Mark Steffens has told me that he’s declined to sign talented players who aren’t a good fit for the team’s mission.
And — most telling to me — after each home game they can be seen lingering on the field to talk to fans, particularly the young ones — and sign autographs. Nobody’s ignored, and they seem genuinely glad that people have come out to see them. It’s just the right way to do things.
(2) That sort of consistency and integrity seems to be what people are remembering about legendary former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who died yesterday at the age of 99. Of course, he’ll be best known for winning all those national championships — 10 from 1964 to 1975 and for the Bruins’ record 88-game win streak in the early Seventies. It was the greatest dynasty college sports has ever known.
But most of what’s been written this weekend has been about the man himself –not his strategies or his recruiting, but his values and philosophy and the way in which he never deviated from them in 30 years of college coaching.
It was simple, really, almost platitudinous, but he was able to communicate it effectively to his teams during a time in the Sixties and Seventies when players no longer did things just because they were told to. “To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail” is one I particularly remember.
Much of it, he said, he got from his father: “Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books — especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.”
Again, just doing the right thing.
(3) I’ve written before about the decline in civility in our society, not just in sports, but in politics and other areas of public life — you don’t like something, whether it’s an official’s call or the result of an election or somebody else’s views on something, just go off on a profanity-laced rant. It’s OK. It’s the 21st Century way.
That’s why I was heartened by the aftermath of a blown umpire’s call which cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game (pitcher retires every batter he faces) with two out in the ninth inning of a game with the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday.
Umpire Jim Joyce was clearly wrong when he called Indians’ batter Jason Donald safe on a ground ball to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Gallaraga touched the base a step before Donald arrived there, but Joyce called the runner safe, turning celebration into disbelief.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland argued the call and several Tigers players confronted Joyce after the game. Gallaraga’s response was restrained, but real — he said the obvious, that he was disappointed in being denied the historic feat. (There have been only 20 perfect games in big leasgue history, although in 2010 they’ve been as commonplace as, well, complete games — two so far this season.) But he also said that he realized that people make mistakes.
I’ve read some calls for an NFL-like system of appeals and video review in major league baseball in the aftermath of all this, or folks urging MLB commissioner Bud Selig to reverse the call. I suppose we could eventualy see a replay, but Selig wisely has declined to use his office to reverse the outcome. Human error is as much a part of sports as human achievement. Players aren’t going to hit every shot, catch every fly ball, etc., and even the best officials are going to miss one every once in a while. It’s life.
For his part, umpire Joyce didn’t run and hide and was man enough to admit that he had made a mistake. He expressed his apologies to the pitcher.
Both guys did the right thing. Wish it would happen more often.