On Tuesday I started writing about Greg Maddux winning his 300th game and somehow ended up writing about sportsmanship and American exuberance and arrogance at the Olympic Games. There was a connection, I think, but I'm afraid to go back and look.
I got a lot of interesting letters, though, about sportsmanship and the American image abroad. I'd said that while I admire Maddux's quiet, modest way of going about his business, I also enjoy the much-maligned, over-the-top antics of people like the U.S. 400-meter relay team in Sydney, whose members acted like complete dopes after winning the gold medal.
And I was a little sad to hear about American athletes getting lessons in etiquette and general light-hiding prior to the Athens Games, all in the name of discouraging the world from thinking we Americans are rude and arrogant, which we are.
It's about to get real busy around here, so I wanted to give those letters, many of which disagreed smartly with my point of view, an airing while there's a chance. I think this issue, how the world perceives the Iraq-invading, Summer Games-dominating Americans, will be an interesting one to keep in mind as the Olympics progress.
First of all, though, reader Hillary Brown points out that while Maddux did indeed used to wear his glasses like a good boy when he wasn't starting, those glasses are gone following laser eye surgery. My mistake.
Joseph Stone: I think the main issue on "celebrating" during or just after a sporting achievement has to do with crossing the line to taunting. Within the same culture, differing views of the appropriateness of a celebration probably stem from how sensitive someone is to being taunted. As between cultures, the differences in the meaning of certain gestures (e.g., give the "peace sign" to an Australian) could turn what was intended as a polite celebration into an unintended ruckus. There is little doubt in my mind that our Olympians need to be clued in on such important points.
Cheryl T. Strauss: There is a connection between inflated egos and the unethical behaviors you do pick and choose to decry in your column from time to time.
King notes: Strauss was the reader who scolded me about ignoring Maddux in the first place.
Timothy Denton: I guess people don't say "right on" anymore, but nonetheless, right on with your comments on exuberance in sports. A gold medal is a really big deal. What's wrong with being excited? The last time I won something big I was so high I could hardly breathe. I believe what people may dislike, along with the fact that the winners are Americans, is that, well, umm, they won. The U.S. is always a huge presence at the games because American athletes are so good.
Patrick Guinan: In supporting American athletes' right to, as you say, "act like idiots" when they win something, I think you've made a big mistake, and missed the point entirely.
As one who recently ran Craig Kilbuzz and his sportscaster ilk into the ground for their flatulant, self-congratulatory, self-referential verbal masturbation, how can you turn around and support an equally obnoxious form of self-congratulatory stupidity from athletes? The point, I think, is simply that human beings should try, under most circumstances at least, to be kind and respectful of themselves and one another, if not privately then at least in public, and especially when fierce competition is involved. You have offered nothing better than a lame excuse for being childish and insulting, and no one, American, Brazilian or otherwise, ought to be encouraged to act that way.
And no, I won't go for the "Oh, don't be so white, and boring, and proper, and old" response, even though I may be all of those things.
King replies: Oh, don't be so ... OK, never mind. But without disputing the rest of your letter, I'll answer your question by saying that winning athletes have earned their moment of self-congratulation and Craig Kilborn has not.
Brian Janaszek: International soccer is one of those sports you mention, where celebration is a big part of the game. Here's the thing though: It's one thing to celebrate a goal (which may only happen once a game), but it's another thing to celebrate after a tackle. Let's say a defender on the English national team makes a fine tackle. The crowd goes wild, but the defender goes about his business.
Fast-forward to an American football game. A linebacker makes a routine tackle. Chances are, he jumps around as if he's just saved the game. Or a receiver spikes the ball after a routine first-down catch. That is a bit excessive. I consider myself to be a fan of the Greg Maddux camp. Act like you've been there before.
John Mize: While I don't want everyone to become Greg Maddux, I would like to see a few more Madduxes and a few fewer Rickey Hendersons. Baseball still isn't too bad, but, for me, the free expression in pro football makes the game hard to watch. I loved seeing Johnny Unitas shred the opponent's defense while showing no emotion at all. Just another day at the office. Walter Payton didn't need to strut when he scored.
Now we see a defensive lineman sack the third-string quarterback. Our hero gives credit to his God, his mother and his agent. He does a moonwalk. Then he pulls a cellphone out of his jock and calls his mother, his ex-girlfriend and ESPN. Sackboy doesn't let the fact that his team is trailing 45-7 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter temper his naive enthusiasm. I suddenly feel the urge to switch to QVC to see what color the fake diamonds are this week.
King replies: OK, point taken, but I wrote about celebrating victory, not celebrating a sack when you're down 45-7.
Randy Byers: I thought one of the great moments in the last Olympics was when the Australian swimmers played air guitar in the face of the Americans that they had just defeated. I seem to recall that the Americans had been bragging about how they were unbeatable. Well, boys will boys will be boyoyoyoys, and the enthusiasm of those Aussie boyos was just fun to see. Or maybe I just enjoy seeing furriners act like Americans. More evidence of cultural imperialism!
Eric Cardinal: I think there's a difference between spontaneous exuberance and excessive and sometimes literally choreographed celebrations that insult your opponent. In the aftermath of a hard-fought contest the line can blur, but preening on the medal stand crosses the line by a pretty wide margin. And I think people around the world see this distinction also. They appreciate and admire Americans' confidence and enthusiasm, but not our too-frequent arrogance and rudeness.
Many sports do have the kind of self-corrective mechanisms you mention (plunking the hitter who takes a slow-motion home-run trot), but the Olympics typically do not, and the stakes are higher. I hope the etiquette lessons stick.
Matt Reynolds: I think you're wrong about what people don't like about exuberant American victory celebrations. I think most countries get really excited when they win something really important (even us Brits). It's when those celebrations seem to be more of a "ha ha we won and you all suck" rather than "we won, we really won!" that people get annoyed.
Joseph Alexis: Without going crazy about your point on the difference between the way whites and blacks celebrate in sports, I'd like to gently refer you to European soccer. There, you'll see very exuberant celebrations by white players.
King replies: It really annoys me when you people don't read my mind! I should have made it clear I was referring to the differences between black and white culture in the United States.
Ardis Wade: I could never and still don't understand why it's "bad sportsmanship" to spike the ball after a touchdown -- damn, if I just made a touchdown I'd probably do more than that! And for the other things you mentioned, this elderly white lady enjoys seeing winners celebrate in whatever glorious buffoonery healthy young men and women can come up with and remain (sorta) decent. Who are the deadheads who came up with these "politeness/sportsmanship" concepts?
You're absolutely right that to celebrate the diversity of what it is to be American, acceptance of all forms of celebration should be a given, and that people who hate Americans are gonna hate 'em anyway: Modesty will be interpreted as smugness; exuberance will be interpreted as "in your face." Can't win -- except hopefully at the Games.
Jerry L. Gale: What you are saying is that you really don't care about sportsmanship. It's OK to be a bad winner and a bad loser. Show me a bad loser and I'll show you a loser. Show me a bad winner and I'll still show you a loser.
Also, you are forgetting the trickle-down effect of bad sportsmanship from the major leagues to the little leagues. It's one thing for a paid professional athlete who just lost a game having to put up with a bad-winner celebration, but does a 10-year-old who is supposed to be having fun have to put up with another 10-year-old doing a victory dance after winning a baseball game 10-0? I would rather have my kids following the model of Greg Maddux. You're wrong on this one.
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