The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Morality & Sports

I do make a habit here of criticizing others for reading, in my view inappropriately, moral dimensions into non-moral areas of the sports world; and that being the case, it behooves me to make some effort to describe what I do consider to be moral issues in that world. So an example:

Tonight is apparently the 20th anniversary of Thomas Hearns vs. Ray Leonard II, the rematch of their 1981 bout won by Sugar Ray via KO. The rivalry between the two men was strong, with similar geographic roots, similar age, similar track records of success across weight divisions and against top-shelf competition. What separated them was Leonard’s win in the first fight, and Hearns’ belief that he was better than he had showed himself to be that night. By all accounts the lack of a rematch ate at Hearns, and if it didn’t consume him, it did occupy a part of his mind for 8 long years between the two bouts. When the rematch came, Hearns appeared to dominate the fight, scoring two knockdowns and in the minds of most winning a clear decision. When the scores came they declared the bout a draw, a decision booed in the ring.

This is the point, I would say, when there was a moral issue at stake. If Ray Leonard were a lesser man than he is, he might have used the decision against Tommy Hearns, needling him over it, making sure people knew Tommy never officially beat him. He might have done it to secure his historical legacy, or might have done it simply for the sake of rivalry; might have truly made Hearns the Frazier to his Ali. But he didn’t. When asked in interviews, he said Hearns won. When discussing the fight for documentaries, he said Hearns won. When asked directly face-to-face by Tommy Hearns, he simply said “you beat me, Tommy.” THAT is sportsmanship of the highest caliber: a man so self-possessed that he’s capable of admitting when he’s fairly beaten, even face to face, even when he doesn’t have to, even when the people paid to judge the fight disagree, even to arguably his greatest rival. We love to look for villains in the sports world even where there aren’t any, and when we take the time to find heroes, too often it’s merely for the sake of their ability or for the sake of what they do away from the field- which matters, but if we only look to off-field actions we lose the capacity to see when a person shows their moral quality through their behavior on the field. In deciding whether and how to admit to his loss or not, in my view Ray Leonard faced a moral decision inextricably bound up with the conduct of his sport itself, a decision which he made correctly and impressively. Those of us who opine on sports, in my view would do better to celebrate choices like this one by Leonard than to try and make cartoon villains out of men we’ll never meet.

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June 13, 2009 - Posted by | Boxing, Other Soccer

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