Some thoughts on golf, tennis, and integrity

You’ve probably heard about the major infraction committed by golfing great Phil Mickelson at this year’s U.S. Open. Frustrated by yet another wayward putt, Mickelson chased down the still-rolling ball and whacked it back toward the hole. (For an explanation of how Mickelson avoided disqualification, see this excellent article on SBNation.com.)

He didn’t entirely come clean about his behavior until a couple of days later. His apology read, in part, “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by my actions. It was clearly not my finest moment and I’m sorry.”

His apology reminded me of a similar incident in tennis, during Milos Raonic’s 2013 Roger’s Cup match against Juan Martin del Potro. Raonic violated the rules by touching the net while the ball was in play. Unfortunately, the chair umpire didn’t see the infraction, and Raonic denied it when accused by del Potro. The point was awarded to Raonic, who went on to win the match.

In response to a reporter’s question several days later, Raonic made this unscripted and heartfelt remark:

“I feel like I made a mistake in the spur of the moment, something, I guess, because I hadn’t been faced with it before. I’m disappointed with myself, how I dealt with it, and it’s something I learned a lot from…I want to apologize to Juan when I see him.”

I never cared for Raonic and his one dimensional-game, but I became his fan that day. I’m just a sucker for character.

Sure, it would have been better if Mickelson hadn’t swatted at the moving ball. And Raonic would have earned high praise if he’d immediately fessed up to his infraction and conceded the point to del Potro.

But I’m even more impressed by people who make an all-too-human mistake and later hold themselves to account. How much easier it would have been for Raonic to maintain he didn’t know he’d touched the net. How easy for Mickelson to rely on his huge popularity and shrug off this one ethical blemish. It takes tremendous courage to acknowledge our moral lapses, and even more so to do it publicly.

I’m struck by both men’s use of the word “disappointed.” It recognizes the gap that sometimes exists between our ideals and our actions. All of us–well, most of us, anyway–like to think we’re ethical. When we sometimes fall short, it can take time–days, in the case of Raonic and Mickelson–to reconcile the image we have of ourselves with the reality of what we’ve done.

Without line judges and chair umpires, recreational league players follow the USTA’s Code of Conduct. We act as line judge for our opponent’s shots as well as referee of our own infractions, such as touching the net or hitting the ball after a second bounce. The Code asks us to juggle two competing values–the champion’s drive to win and the sportsman’s integrity.

Each match offers dozens of moments when a choice must be made between these two values. It’s outstanding practice for character building. And with few exceptions, the players I’ve met try their best to make the right choice when they play.

But we’re not perfect, and some days those choices come easier than others. Did I really see that ball out, or did I simply see what I wanted to see? Do I really need to tell my opponents that my lob was out if they didn’t turn around to look at it? I think that serve may have been long, but my partner just hit a game-deciding winner–do I have to call a fault?

On paper, ethical choices are clear, but in the heat of competition, thinking can get murky. Well-regarded by their peers, Mickelson and Raonic are perfect examples of that. Their momentary falls from grace underscore just how hard it can be to set aside self-interest for the good of the game.

I can easily empathize with Raonic and Mickelson’s human fraility. May I handle my own lapses with such honest humility.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on golf, tennis, and integrity

Add yours

  1. I love what you’ve written. As in sports, in life too. in politics too. If only morality played a higher role in all venues. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Oh, you are so right. This is a strong vein in the human experience. I think there are plenty of selfish, unethical people who take advantage of situations. I hope there is karma in the world, but I guess the higher path is not to wish them ill. But I do believe that most people I encounter are good at heart. We all make so many mistakes, unintentionally or in the heat of the moment, or maybe even with premeditation. Lately, I’ve become a fan of thinking of us all as “flawed humans” who do our best a lot of the time. That helps me when I see behavior in others that I think is wrong. Now I need to apply that with compassion toward myself.

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