Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Andre Agassi Does Something Strange

Normally an article like this would be assigned to the Ethics Hero department, for it extols the ethical instincts of one individual, pro tennis player Andre Agassi. But there is something more significant to be taken from Agassi moment of ethics heroism, and that is that, in America at least, sports fans won’t understand it at all.

For those of you who don’t follow tennis (he said with lightly disguised sarcasm), Agassi was locked in a hard-fought semi-final match against Guillermo Coria in the Rome Masters tournament, and about to win a set when a shot by his opponent was called out of bounds. But Agassi over-ruled the line judge; he thought Coria’s shot was good. The point was replayed, Coria won it, and Agassi lost the set and the match.

Agassi, at 35, is in the waning years of his career as a tennis super-star; he hasn’t won a major tournament since last summer. Nevertheless, he followed the ancient and increasingly anachronistic ethics code of tennis, one of the very few sports in which a competitor is encouraged to correct a faulty referee’s call to his or her own detriment. Encouraged or not, the vast majority of professional tennis players, with thousands of dollars on the line, no longer do it.

The fact that Agassi did and lost the match as a result of his ethical impulse was buried in most printed accounts of the match, which itself was buried in the nether regions of the sports pages. His conduct exemplified what was once called sportsmanship, and formed the foundation of the argument that sports were good for us, our culture, and our children. Now it is relegated to a fringe professional sport with a minimal fan base, and has become so alien to the ethos of the popular professional sports that it will provoke most fans to scratch their heads in puzzlement.

America’s professional sports are about winning and money. It is now clear that untold numbers of baseball stars improved their performance by using illegal anabolic steroids, and baseball fans have reacted by cheering the few whose use has been revealed, like Yankee star Jason Giambi. Hockey owners and players were perfectly willing to cause financial ruin for scores of small businesses dependant on the sport rather than come to a compromise on finances that would save the 2004-2005 season. Many of the most popular NFL players specialize in taunting opponents; ditto the stars of the trash-talking, hip-hop NBA. What aspects of sportsmanship, exactly, do our kids learn from watching today’s athletes?

Admittedly, tennis is different from, say, baseball: if a batter argued with an umpire that a called ball four should have been strike three, he’d probably be thrown out of the game and sent to the minors on the next bus out of town. But a gesture like Agassi’ replayed point is an excellent example of true ethics in practice. The sports media would be doing us a service if they reported it prominently, talked about it, and made sure that everyone was reminded that sportsmanship, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, isn’t completely extinct after all.

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