Politics can wait this week.
Let’s escape to a more enlightening topic: Sports.
These past few months have been full of stories utterly embarrassing to the sports world — Michael Vick and dog fighting, Barry Bonds and steroids, O.J. Simpson and armed robbery, and on and on and on — so much so that it has been easy to forget why and how the world of sports can be ennobling. But one of the great things about sports is that they always have provided plenty of examples, of high achievement and high character, from which any good parent would want their children to learn.
Such stories are again creeping into the sports pages again, and Sunday saw two of them.
In football, there was Brett Favre, a consummate professional and team player, breaking the all-time record for touchdown passes thrown (while adding to his Cal Ripken-like record for consecutive games played in). Not only that, but at age 37 (he turns 38 one week from today), he’s is again playing like a superstar, leading his team to a 4-0 start this season. Yet after record-breaking performance, his words were humble, even deferential to Dan Marino and other quarterbacks whose records he is erasing. Good stuff.
In golf, the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup trounced the more highly rated International squad. All weekend long, again and again, the stories were repeated about how much credit today’s American players — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and the rest — gave to their captain, the incomparable Jack Nicklaus, all around good guy and sportsman extraordinaire. Nicklaus got the proceedings off on the right foot on the event’s first day when, with his team already having won the first five matches and an International duo facing a four-foot putt on the 18th hole just to tie the day’s final match, Nicklaus suggested to Mickelson that he should concede the putt in the spirit of sportsmanship.
In golf, character still counts.
With those examples in mind, herewith is a relatively random list of top athletes whose character any child would do well to emulate. (None of this is to say that these people were saints — few people are — but that they are people who strongly tip the character scales on the side of admirability.)
Nicklaus: The Golden Bear, the greatest professional golfer of the 20th century, spent an entire career trying to do the right thing. When he won, he sincerely credited his opponents for putting up good fights. When he lost, he smiled and praised his opponents for beating him. Off the course, he is famously devoted to his family, and he and wife Barbara are renowned for their charitable endeavors. ‘Nuff said.
Willie Mays: Not only was he arguably the most complete player, and the most mesmerizing, that baseball has ever known, but he consistently did the right thing when the chips were down. As a young superstar, he used to hang out with the children in his neighborhood, playing stickball with them. In a famous brawl precipitated by his teammate Juan Marichal hitting opposing catcher Johnny Roseboro over the head with a bat, Mays ignored the fray in order to rush to opponent Roseboro’s side, cradle his head, and use his shirt to try to stop the bleeding. And that would be far from the only time that Mays played peacemaker, most famously — in his final season — walking from the dugout to left field to ask his hometown fans to stop throwing objects at opposing star Pete Rose after Rose had a fight with Mays’ teammate Bud Harrelson.
Archie Manning: During a decade of taking frightful physical abuse while trying to lead the usually hapless New Orleans Saints to some semblance of respectability, Manning never complained about the lack of talent around him, never bemoaned his fate of being a superstar condemned to having little chance to shine. Meanwhile, his civic and charitable endeavors in New Orleans continue to be legendary, and his approachability, to any ordinary Joe on the street, has always been second to none.
Peyton Manning: A true chip off the old block. Not only is Peyton easily on pace to break whatever records Brett Favre leaves behind, but he takes after his father in classiness and civic-mindedness. And on his own initiative, he and little brother (and fellow NFL quarterback) Eli chartered a plane and lined up relief supplies to fly into his native Louisiana right after Hurricane Katrina, delivering diapers and food and water and all sorts of necessities just five days after the storm — even as the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself still seemed to be trying to locate New Orleans on a map.
Cal Ripken: Famous for his untouchable streak of playing in 2,632 consecutive games while putting up sterling statistics and doing everything “the Oriole Way” (meaning the right way), Ripken just as famously continues to put his heart and soul into working with young people, and his money into charitable causes such as research into treatment for Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Dikembe Mutombo: The longtime star NBA center, a native of Zaire, is a remarkable figure. He reportedly speaks eight languages; natural father of two children, he (and his wife Rose) also has raised four adoptive children; he is founder of an impressive foundation to improve living conditions in his native land; and he is founder and chief financial donor for a $29 million, 300-bed hospital near his hometown, the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.
Deuce McAllister: Like his fellow Ole Miss alumnus Archie Manning, McAllister went on to star for the Saints and to become an integral part of the New Orleans community, while continuing to be a huge financial donor to his alma mater as well. A class act in the locker room and on the field, McAllister was ubiquitous in New Orleans in the months after Katrina, and was one of the few Saints who outspokenly insisted that the team should return to the Crescent City in the face of all the devastation. (Forgive the heavy emphasis on New Orleans figures: But, obviously, the examples are so fresh in the mind, for such good reason.)
Bobby Jones: Jack Nicklaus idolized Jones — the winner of 13 major championships in a span of just 20 attempts — and tried to emulate Jones’s legendary sportsmanship. The best story about Jones is summed up nicely in Wikipedia:
In the beginning of his amateur career, he was in the final playoff of the 1925 U.S. Open at the Worchester Country Club. During the match, his ball ended up in the rough just off the fairway, and as he was setting up to play his shot his iron caused a slight movement of the ball. He immediately got angry with himself, turned to the marshals, and called a penalty on himself. The marshals discussed among themselves and questioned some of the gallery if anyone had seen Jones’ ball move. Their decision was that neither they nor anyone else had witnessed any incident, so the decision was left to Jones. Bobby Jones called the two-stroke penalty on himself, not knowing that he would lose the tournament by one stroke. When he was praised for his gesture, Jones replied, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”
The examples of great athletes of admirable character are almost endless. Other favorites might include tennis players Arthur Ashe and the latter-day Andre Agassi, golfer Ben Crenshaw, basketball player David Robinson, football players Bart Starr and Steve Young, baseball player Dale Murphy, basketball player A.C. Green, golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, speed skater Bonnie Blair, decathletes Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias, and golfer Arnold Palmer.
It is trite but true that athletics can both reveal character and build it. Perseverance. Teamwork. Overcoming adversity. Confidence. Tactical and strategic thinking (at least in some sports). Humility of the right sort. Hard work. And, of course, sportsmanship.
So the next time some thug who is famous for his on-field exploits gets arrested, fights with fans, or otherwise makes a nuisance of himself, remember that there’s another and far better side of the story.
And when the Golden Bear or Ironman Cal talk about doing what’s right “for the good of the game,” well…find a child, and make him listen.