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A sporting chance—or just much ado about nil

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

It was a bad 24 hours for sportsmanship and grace.

First in Canada, Toronto Raptor basketball fans cheered Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles tendon. In fairness to our neighbors to the north, it’s unlikely many of them realized the extent of the injury, and of course cheering someone on crutches is a matter of context. Had it been a Raptor player, the cheers would have signaled an appreciation for his recuperative powers, or the fact that he was willing to take one for the team and then leap from his hospital bed to cheer on his comrades-in-arms. But when fans cheer an opposing player on crutches, it usually means “I’m glad you’re hurt—now we can win.”

Of course Toronto didn’t win that game, so the schadenfreude went to waste. Nobody likes to waste schadenfreude, not even in Canada.

But it was great fodder for Canadian sportscasters who spent the following day apologizing to the world for Canada’s newly minted black eye. It was refreshing to hear, but let’s try to remember the derivation of the word “fan,” and not get all gutted about it. Canada is sorry and I, who watch maybe one NBA game a season, accept. Besides, since no Canadian team has skated with the Cup since the Truman presidency (I think—I didn’t check), we should cut them some slack.

In France though it wasn’t the fans but the players, this time the World Cup Women’s team from America. Since everyone who criticizes their exuberant 13-goal fusillade against Thailand must undergo a charge of sexism, go ahead. Have at it. Don’t let the fact that I coach women’s teams interfere. Actually that fact really proves nothing if, for you, women’s is the the key word in that sentence. It shouldn’t be: teams is the key word—what is a team's responsibility to itself and others?

The only undeniable truth in this opinion piece today is that women, in most sports, are undervalued and underpaid. Ironically, the sport I coach—tennis—is one of the few exceptions: thank you Billie Jean King (with a nod to the late Bobby Riggs.) In soccer, however, according to CBS, while the men’s World Cup in 2010 brought in about $4 billion, the women’s World Cup in 2011 earned about $73 million. The men’s players got 9 percent of their event’s total revenue, while the women’s team got 13 percent of theirs. I’ll save you a lot of ciphering—the disparity is stunning, inescapable, and dishonorable.

Now as for the U.S. game with Thailand, I’ve been on both sides of contests like that as a coach and player. On the losing side, there isn’t much preparation: you hope nobody gets hurt, and since tennis is a non-contact sport, that’s a reasonable expectation. On the winning side, when I know we have a team overmatched, I always tell my girls to play hard out of respect for the opponent, but to understand that there is no necessity in pounding aces against players who cannot return the ball, or slamming overheads at neophytes who may not be able to defend themselves, or to wildly celebrate a victory that was a foregone conclusion. And never, never embarrass the opponent. Many of you will undoubtedly remember how, in 1916, Georgia Tech beat Cumberland 222 to football. Okay, maybe you won't, but there were vengeance and retribution involved in the matchup—Cumberland had disbanded its football team but was forced to play under penalty of a hefty fine. And Georgia Tech, having learned its lesson, never again rang up 222. (And if I know Georgia Tech, these days that's two seasons worth of scoring. Karma?)

Speaking of Thailand, which we were recently, that country is soccer-nuts. Their fans cheered and sang for the entire 94 minutes of that debacle with the U.S., and would have gladly continued for another 94 and another 13 goals. Their players seemed undeterred by the loss—loved the opportunity to play on the world stage. Afterwards there appeared to be very little animus toward the U.S. women, at least not on the part of the Thai fans or players.

So it's much ado about nil, a non-issue. But to me, it wasn’t sporting—like bunting or stealing a base in baseball with a 13-run led. Or kicking a field goal in football as time runs out to add to your 219-point margin. Or screaming at a basketball referee about a touch-foul when you’re up by 20 with the clock running down. I get the total goal thing—13 is better than 12—is better than 11—is better than.... It's the ostentatious rejoicing at 13, 12, and 11 that I found graceless, from whatever gender. (The 1916 Georgia Tech football team, all men, carried on abysmally As did their coach, also a man.)

I heard someone suggest a mercy rule: not feasible of course when total goals count. Besides, these women aren't children—they don't need a mercy rule. Having said that, sports can and should bring out the child in all of us; yet all the beauty and grace that make competition so compelling do not have to suffer because of it.

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