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It’s how you played the game

Occasional Observer

“. . . When the master referee scores against our name, it won’t be whether we won or lost but how we played the game.”

Grantland Rice, sportswriter, circa 1920


Watching the TV news with all its incessantly grim behavior can become  very depressing. So a few weeks ago I turned to Wimbledon, the world’s premier tennis tournament (since 1877) then currently underway. As a boy growing up I loved sports and  my favorite was tennis. 

The rules were clear and so were the customs or “unwritten rules.” Unlike some of the team sports, there was little room for bad behavior. Players called their own lines and were expected to be honest and then some — if you weren’t sure whether a ball hit by your opponent was in or out, it was in, thus favoring your opponent (and avoiding unnecessary conflict between players). Those who failed to follow this rule were considered “cheaters”, about as low as a boy could be (I’m sure the rules and customs were the same for girls but girls always seemed to be better behaved and followed these guidelines automatically.) Miscalling the score, not acknowledging a second bounce, and other infractions were similarly unacceptable and those who failed to play by the rules and conventions were later disciplined or at least ostracized.

Also beyond the pale was being a “bad sport”; we were all taught to be “good sports.” This was more a matter of manners than rules. A good sport didn’t question his opponents’ calls even when he felt certain they were wrong. Not trying one’s best was considered very bad sportsmanship. Heckling an opponent during play would have been considered so improper that it almost never happened except in jest. When playing doubles, it was of primary importance to keep your partner’s spirits up (you’re a team, remember); displaying anger or scorn for your partner’s mistakes was totally inexcusable. Same with scowling when the opponent hit a winner; instead, it was customary to say, “good shot” or something comparable. 

At the end of the match, opponents meet at the net and congratulate each other with friendly remarks, the winner offering at least some consolation to the loser. A (very) bad sport who lost, on the other hand, might just walk off the court without a handshake or graceful compliment for his opponent. Needless to say, bad sports quickly became unpopular.

Tennis may have begun as a game for the well-to-do elite but by the time I learned to play it had become much less so. The competitors in sectional tournaments came from all walks of life and most were not children of privilege.

When I first started watching top flight tennis, it was all amateur and the country was organized geographically into sectional Tennis Associations. Mine was the Eastern, which was New York State plus New Jersey and Connecticut within 50 miles of New York City (Lakeville would have been in the New England section).

The very best American players and those from the rest of the world formed a group of a few hundred players (both men and women) who, while officially amateurs, were closer to being professionals. They had all come up, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, through amateur associations including schools and colleges and with the same written and unwritten rules of conduct as the ones I had experienced. 

Long before the “bad boys of tennis” arrived on the scene in the 1970s, I remember a top player at the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) not for the first time arguing with the umpire and other officials. It was subtle yet clearly misbehavior and stood out as unacceptable; later in the year he was banished from all forthcoming major tournaments! By today’s standards this punishment was certainly excessive but back then it seemed almost reasonable.

At first glance, the conventions associated with competitive tennis in the middle of the last century may seem quaint. But even today, the rules and customs of that earlier time are still observed.

Cooperate with your fellow players. Play fairly. Be polite (diplomatic). Give your best effort. Treat the other person as an opponent, not an enemy.

Does this look into the past remind you of anything more recent? Consider how the traditional ethos of sports is more and more missing from much of our civic life. Many of the public utterances of our most notable political leaders are harsh distortions of the truth and their rival’s positions; or worse. Our last president, who is said to cheat when playing golf, refused to admit he lost the last election and was unwilling to congratulate his victorious opponent or wish him well. 

Although times have changed, we might consider paying more heed than we have been to the values of good sportsmanship in our lives.


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.


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