In Praise of Roddick and Old-Fashioned Sportsmanship

Commentator Frank Deford is heartened by the sportsmanship shown by American tennis player Andy Roddick last week at the Rome Masters. He says Roddick's example is all the more striking after the revelations about record-breaking athletes who were using steroids.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In spite of all the sports news about money and steroids, commentator Frank Deford says the most important thing is still how you play the game.

FRANK DEFORD:

Last Wednesday in the round of 16 at the Rome Masters, Fernando Verdasco of Spain was serving to America's top player, Andy Roddick. Verdasco had lost the first set and was down 5-3, love-40. Triple match point. He hit deep on the second serve. The line judge called the ball out and Roddick had the match, only Roddick refused to accept the point. Verdasco's serve had nicked the line, he said. Stunned, the umpire let Roddick overrule him. Verdasco then fought back, held serve, won the set and then the match.

Probably you heard nothing about this display of generosity. It barely rated a mention in the American press. Yet, Roddick risked and lost tens of thousands of dollars in a tournament where he was seeded first simply because he felt obliged to be honest. He didn't even milk his integrity. `If the umpire had come down and looked at the market in the clay,' the American explained, `he'd have seen that the ball was in.' But the umpire hadn't been disposed to move. The ball looked out to him, too. Roddick, by the way, could not have been criticized if he'd simply accepted the bad call. The ethic in modern, big-time sport is that it's up to the officials to call the game and for the players merely to abide by those decisions even if they know that they have succeeded under false pretenses.

When it comes to sportsmanship, modern fans are probably no better or no worse than the players. Apologists for the steroid-enabling baseball players' union are quick to point out that the paying customers don't seem to be particularly exorcised by the steroid scandal. New York Yankee fans even cheered Jason Giambi after it was revealed that he had admitted to a grand jury that he had used steroids. But I take that with a grain of salt. Fans tend to be loyal to the guys in their teams' uniform right up until they screw up on the field.

Probably the most famous cheating incident of recent times came in the 1986 World Cup when Maradona of Argentina fisted in a goal that beat England. It was soon titled `the hand of God' goal. Argentina went on to win the Cup, too, and Maradona retired esteemed as one of the greatest players ever. Mostly now, though, he is remembered for only one thing, for his flagrant cheating. The hand of God, indeed.

So, too, I imagine it will be with the steroid swindlers. In sports, often the true assessment doesn't begin until the cheering stops, but sometimes we get fooled nicely.

In one moment with victory his for the taking--no, not for the taking--is given, is assumed, Andy Roddick went against the way of the world and simply instinctively did what he thought was right. Once upon time we called such foolish innocents sportsmen.

INSKEEP: Those are the comments of Frank Deford who earns every point. His newest book is "The Old Ball Game," about baseball and America at the start of the 20th century. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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