06 17 2010 Los Angeles riotsHow we participate in athletic competitions and react to sporting events can tell us a good deal about ourselves, and several recent news stories give excellent lessons in the current state of American society and the American culture. To wit:

As has become an American tradition, crowds of people in Los Angeles took last night’s victory by the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals as an invitation to riot in the streets. The AP report indicates that although the situation was indeed not one in which most people would like to be caught up, ┬át doesn’t sound as if it was as bad as some recent ones in other cities, notably Detroit. Judging by an LA Times writer’s on-scene report, it wasn’t a terrifying scene, but was not justifiable high-spirited funmaking, either.

In Philadelphia last week, hockey fans booed the Chicago Blackhawks as they were awarded the Stanley Cup for winning the NHL playoffs. Philly fans are known nationwide as classless bums, and this most recent incident added evidence to that particular cultural dossier item.

Legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi has been widely lauded for saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” He was wrong, and the trashy behavior of the Philadelphia fans exemplifies the toxic emanations from that attitude.

Playing fair and doing the right thing are supposed to be the ideals behind sports competition, but the Lombardi attitude, the lure of big money, and the simple hunger for approbation endemic to the human ego all work against such principles of decency and righteousness.

Thus a referee who made the crucial call that ensured that the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team would not win a sixth consecutive NCAA championship just happens to have a long-term sexual relationship with a prominent supporter of the opposing team, the University of Maryland. Northwestern has requested the NCAA to look into the situation in order to ensure the fairest possible officiating in future, but of course nothing can be done about this year’s stolen championship.

In Major League Baseball, by contrast, an honest but egregious mistake led to some inspiring outcomes. When umpire Jim Joyce called the 27th batter safe at first in a June 2 game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga was deprived of a perfect game, an accomplishment that has occurred only twenty times in the long history of major league baseball.

The problem was that the runner was quite obviously out, as replays showed conclusively. Tigers manager Jim Leyland argued the call, but the umpire could not change it, and the call stood. Galarraga lost that particular bid for baseball immortality.

But instead of bitterness and resentment, Galarraga and Leyland responded with understanding and graciousness when Joyce, in a truly fine gesture, went to the Tigers’ clubhouse after the game and apologized for his mistake. The next day, they brought tears to the umpire’s eyes when Galarraga publicly indicated his forgiveness of Joyce by bringing him the lineup card before the game, a impressive act of kindness and decency.

Urged by many to reverse the call on the field and rewrite history by awarding Gallaraga a perfect game afterwards, baseball commissioner resisted the temptation to take the easy way out and instead let it stand. Chicago Tribune writer Phil Rogers praised all parties for their exemplary behavior in that very difficult situation.

And speaking of classy individuals, former UCLA basketball coach and Indiana native John Wooden exemplified what sports can do, teaching us much about how to live, by exemplifying the quest for victory done in the right way and achieving the greatest heights of success without ever cheating, whining, or pursuing self-aggrandizement. Wooden went about things in the right way and taught his players to do the same.

As a result, his passing is mourned and his memory cherished by all who love what is best about athletic competition.