From Galarraga to Golf, Classiness Returns to Sports


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Disclaimer: This article does not apply to the French World Cup team

In July of 2008, Sports Illustrated's Phil Taylor penned a column eulogizing Cool in sports. "Cool, the onetime giant of sports culture that had long been in declining health, died in seclusion last month," he wrote, naming Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett's "Anything is possible" interview as Cool's last breath.

Two years later, sports is pleased to welcome back an equally important c-word: Class.

Class, which began its slow decline when the 1985 Chicago Bears performed the "Super Bowl Shuffle," reached its nadir last year, when Serena Williams threatened to shove a tennis ball down a line judge's throat at tennis' U.S. Open. Coming on the heels of Congressman Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, Williams' tirade was seen as a microcosm of the lack of civility in sports—and in our culture. Sizzling with righteous indignation, ESPN's Jeff MacGregor took a swipe at America's way of life that was itself not Classy:

What all these angry moments seem to share in common is that 21st-century sense of our aggrieved American entitlement, the bone-deep conviction that every event and circumstance must conform to our individual needs and wants and appetites. That the cockeyed birthright of every generation is now a star-spangled universe bending only in the direction of our personal gratification. That there is no higher calling than our own self-esteem, no greater cause than our own preening regard. That there is nothing we can't say or do in service of our own selfishness and vanity and enrichment, and that the very turning of the Earth is the promise and guarantee of our success.

Class, it seemed, was as dead as Cool. But four men who in 2009 were afterthoughts in the sports world have brought Class back.

It began with a 25-year-old from Venezuela who remained calm in the face of monumental misfortune. Armando Galarraga could have physically attacked umpire Jim Joyce for brutally blowing a call and costing him a perfect game, and few would have blamed him. Instead, Galarraga gave a wry smile, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to work. For that, he earned the admiration of a nation and breathed the first semblance of life back into Class. When Joyce admitted his mistake and personally apologized to Galarraga, the incident became a teaching point for every Little League coach in the country, a "happy canvas of sportsmanship we can all frame and hang."

It didn't take long for Class to make its way back onto the world stage. When a World Cup-altering goal by Maurice Edu was disallowed because of a phantom foul call, the U.S. had to settle for a draw against Slovenia and incensed fans viciously condemned referee Koman Coulibaly, unleashing their ire on his Wikipedia page. But Edu stayed calm, disbelief quickly giving way to a composed response on the field and in the locker room afterwards. A tie for the U.S. was an unblemished win for Class.

Humility in victory can be just as Classy as grace in defeat, as a fireball from Northern Ireland showed at golf's U.S. Open. Graeme McDowell managed to thank everyone except the sea lions on the shores of the Monterey Peninsula when he accepted the winner's trophy, showing gratitude to his fellow golfers and the Pebble Beach course itself. Half an hour earlier, McDowell—the consummate "nice guy" according to his peers—provided the enduring image of the weekend, tearing up as he celebrated a perfect Father's Day on the 18th green with his dad, Ken.

Here was Class rewarded. Edu too earned karmic points for his refusal to impugn the phantom call—the U.S. got its miracle goal from Landon Donovan to beat Algeria and advance to the second round. In the wake of the French team refusing to practice and publicly condemning its coach, it was especially gratifying to see a team that displayed the opposite of "selfishness and vanity" succeed on sports' biggest stage.

So stay Classy, sports. It's a welcome change.