By many accounts the second Boer War (1899-1902) was the world’s last ‘Gentlemen’s War’, not due to some noble cause or a lack of brutality, but rather that both sides agreed to honorable rules of conduct on the battlefield. My great-grandfather was a quintessential Victorian British officer serving in South Africa until a battlefield injury sent him home to England in 1901. Educated, handsome and mannerly, he married well and had a bright future until the post-war depression swept England sending him and his wife and son, first to Canada, then America in search of economic opportunity. Despite many hardships, he remained a British dandy until 1916.
When America entered WWI, my great-grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in France. It was the civilized world’s introduction to war without rules, and he returned a changed man. He never spoke of the horrors he survived – ever – leaving the family only a small number of painful poems and a remarkable collection of photographs. I bring this up because I want to remind people that honorable conduct has a place in this world, and those who abandon noble ideals in the name of success destroy more than they create.
On April 26th, 2008, with a post-season berth on the line and 2 runners on base, West Oregon University softball player, Sara Tucholsky, hit her only career home run, then tore a ligament in her knee after passing first base. She collapsed in agony, unable to move. Her team was down 0-2, and rules being rules, she had to touch all bases in order to get credit for her hit and run. Her team could not assist her in any way, except to exit the field of play. She was stuck.
Then, to the amazement of the crowd, two players from the opposing team, Central Washington, picked Sara up and carried her around the bases so she could win the game for her team. The final score was WOU 4 and CWU 2, but no one lost that day. Central Washington won a rare victory for American athletes in a time jaded with an abundance of athletic conduct unbecoming people of good character. Stories such as Sara’s are noble, honorable, and in sorely short supply in modern athletics.
The incident sparked a nation wide media blitz, appearing on every talk show, sports program and news outlet across the country, with an aggregate headline akin to “Athletes do right thing, America dumbfounded!” Amid all the high praise came some fairly high criticism. While some appeared ready to hand out the Nobel Peace Prize the Central Washington’s coach, others were quite vocal about wanting the coach fired for not playing to win. Some talking heads explained that these were women, and real men would never engage in such behavior! What the heck?
It made me think how a century ago, during the Boer War, there were regular cease-fires so both sides could safely collect the dead and injured, such as my great-grandfather, from the battlefield. These were battle-hardened men who looked into the eyes of their enemy as they fell. If they did not bleed to death on the field, they would likely die of infection days or weeks later. They were real men, and they had the ability to behave honorably in circumstances that would leave many of us with soiled pants. Contrast that with the sheer surprise that rolled across our nation when Americans discovered the modern athlete still knows how to do the right thing. This begs the question – Just how much progress have we made in the past century?
Amateur athletic contests, in and of themselves, mean nothing. No one lives or dies based on the outcome and we could survive entirely without sport in reasonable comfort. Simply put, they are our recreation. We participate because we enjoy it. We are spectators enjoying the entertainment a contest provides. Painful or exhilarating, winning and losing is simply an end. After victory’s brief euphoria, at most we will get a bit of paper, a ribbon or trophy, and a line in a book that no one will ever read. The small personal value a win holds is so inexorably tied to the athlete’s honor, to gain victory with an act of poor sportsmanship leaves it with no value at all. When Central Washington’s softball team chose honor over victory, they turned a mundane, small college game into a legendary contest. That is a real win, gender not withstanding. I am still cheering.