On boys behaving… well?

Not so long ago, it seemed as though sportswriting was really the Boys Behaving Badly beat. 

Every week there was something new, and most of it was bad. Barry Bonds turning himself into a chemistry laboratory to the point where his cranium swelled like a giant balloon. Tiger Woods frustrating his wife to the point where she took a golf club to his SUV and gave him the boot.

The American hockey team trashing a room in the athletes village at the Nagano Winter Olympics, shattering a window and almost impaling a Canadian bobsledder walking below – then covering up the incident with a wall of omerta that remains in place today.

Misogyny, drug cheats, domestic abuse and money, money, money, money. You would stand at a locker-room interviewing a 23-year-old athlete who could barely put two sentences together and it would dawn on you that in a single year, that hopelessly inarticulate jock would earn more money than you could earn in a lifetime – but even those who weren’t making money could behave badly, like the University of Cincinnati basketball player who punched a policeman’s horse.

I began writing sports columns in the spring of 1994, just in time to cover a baseball strike, a hockey lockout and Patrick Roy walking out on the Canadiens because his coach and one-time friend, Mario Tremblay, was a hot-tempered bully. 

My ultimate sports idols were Muhammad Ali and Henry Aaron. Surveying the scene as it was when I started writing sports, I tended to admire athletes who didn’t fit the mold, like diver Anne Montminy, boxer Otis Grant and all-round Olympian Clara Hughes. Every week when I wrote the Monday Morning Quarterback, there was no shortage of zeros from the world of sports, beginning with the likes of the former Expos owners Jeffrey Loria and David Samson. Heroes were harder to find.

The two dominant figures in that era were Woods and Michael Jordan. Both were distinguished by other-worldly talent, a relentless drive to win – and the near-total absence of a social conscience. (Jordan has since demonstrated an ability to grow and change. Woods, not so much.)

Given the opportunity to denounce the racist Jesse Helms during a senatorial campaign in his home state of North Carolina, Jordan refused on the grounds that Republicans buy Nikes too. 

When a group of sweatshop workers waited in Thailand in hopes they could get Woods to talk to them about improving conditions in their Nike factories, Woods jogged on by and refused even to acknowledge their presence. They might be earning seven dollars a day manufacturing the products that would earn him hundreds of millions, but Woods couldn’t spare five minutes for a chat.

With television and the shoe companies driving the big machine, Jordan, Woods and a long list of athletes as amoral as Alex Rodriguez were cashing in with quarter-billion dollar contracts. Social conscience? That was for chumps.

All that has now changed, dramatically. Dozens, hundreds of athletes are standing up and being counted. Until very recently, Colin Kaepernick had been almost alone, sacrificing his career by taking a knee to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement and call attention to racial injustice.

Now entire leagues are on board with the BLM movement, with the NBA and the WNBA leading the way. When you see Alabama coach Nick Saban, of all people, heading up a Black Lives Matter demo, you know things are changing in a dramatic way. Even Nike, once known for its “Second Place is the First Loser” idiocy, is now on the cutting edge.

But I’ve been most proud of athletes like Matt Dumba, Jamal Murray and LeBron James. Once upon a time, it seemed that James would stick to the path charted by Woods and Jordan: Dominate on the court, win some titles, cash in. His ill-advised “Decision” live special when he spurned Cleveland in favour of Miami seemed destined to define LeBron’s career, even if ESPN was really to blame.

When the rolling boycotts began with the NBA in the Orlando bubble, the NHL was caught dragging its feet (and, in the case of Alain Vigneault, sticking its foot firmly in its mouth.) But the league caught up after 24 hours, not bad for a business dominated by white boys from Moose Jaw, Chicoutimi and Moscow. Idiocy in the NHL was left to the always dependable Mike Milbury, who rarely misses an opportunity to make a fool of himself.

Other than a few drawing suspensions for breaking quarantine, pro athletes on the whole have behaved admirably during the difficult days in the bubble.

Or at least they were, until tennis star Novak Djokovic took the court in New York Sunday. Like Milbury, Djokovic rarely misses an opportunity to act like a Djerk. The fit of temper that resulted in a line judge getting hit in the throat by a ball Djokovic whacked her way was in part an accident: the aim was accidental. Hitting the ball in a dangerous fashion was not.

For Djokovic, that’s pretty much the tip of the iceberg. A noisy anti-vaxxer, Djokovic has thrown in his lot with the idiot stream in a big way. He’s also leading the effort to establish a separate men’s union for tennis players because he doesn’t believe women should earn the same money, even though he’s sitting on a $220 million fortune.

Djokovic did apologize for the incident Sunday, but an Instagram post hardly makes up for the fact that he jumped in a car and left the scene without standing up to face the music at a press conference. Djokovic was skewed for his actions by commentators across the tennis world, including perennial bad boy Nick Kyrgios, who asked how many years he would be banned if he had behaved like Djokovic.

Kyrgios has a point, although he can pack more bad behaviour into one set than Djokovic has in an entire career. Djokovic saves most of his stupidity for racking up off-court incidents, including the one in June when he organized a careless tournament that resulted in multiple positive tests for COVID-19, with Djokovic and his wife among those who had the disease.

We are fortunate that Djokovic’s selfishness stands out today. Twenty years ago, it would have been pretty much typical with athletes like Woods and A-Rod. Now it’s the exception.

My son asked this weekend what sports event I would want to watch live if I could watch any event in history. I thought of two: one would be Jesse Owens winning the 100 metres under Hitler’s nose at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the other Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling under similar circumstances.

Not only did Owens and Louis face down all the horrors of Nazi Germany, they also did it at a time when they were reviled and hated by whites at home. It takes courage to lead the way, but your name reverberates through the ages.

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