2010-09-09 / Sam Bari

Professional athletes — the new diplomats

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

For the past week, I have been watching the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. After every televised match, a commentator interviews the winner and loser.

Often, the interviewers are not former tennis stars. Consequently, the questions they ask are not necessarily about the techniques or strategies of the game.

They are general questions, some of which appear to be designed to put the athletes being interviewed on the spot, or in a controversial or demeaning position.

Questions like: “You won handily. What do you think of your opponent’s play?” Or, “You’ve beaten your next opponent seven out of 10 times, what’s going to happen in your upcoming match?”

In the tennis world, many of the people on the tour are friends. They travel together, often practice together and they know one another well. Many came up in the ranks together from their days as amateurs, and they are hesitant to make public criticisms of their peers.

I salute the players, especially the big stars like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Maria Sharipova. Not once have I ever heard any of them say a detrimental comment about another player.

They always compliment their opponents and thank them for giving a good performance and a tough match. The winner might say that his or her serve was working well today and that was key to winning a match, or that their opponent seemed to be having problems with the wind, which caused their play to be below its usual high standard.

My point is: No matter what kind of controversy the interviewers are attempting to achieve, the athletes handle the questions diplomatically and with dignity, thus neutralizing the media’s intent.

Sports announcers and programs are part of the general media. They are in the business of selling news. If there isn’t any news, they try to create news by stirring up controversy, especially between teams and players.

Some athletes and sports personalities have taken serious umbrage with announcers and interviewers who try to put them on the spot, and they have often retaliated with humorous and inventive replies to questions they don’t like.

For instance, famed Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw didn’t want to criticize his team’s stadium when they decided to put Astroturf on the field. When a sports announcer asked him if he preferred grass or Astroturf, the “Tugger,” as he was known, responded with this gem:

“I dunno. I never smoked Astroturf.”

In another interview, McGraw was asked what he would do with all the money he made after helping the Phillies win the world championship in 1980. He said:

“Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish Whiskey. The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.”

When basketball great Charles Barkley was asked his opinion of the “business of basketball,” his response was:

“We are in the business of kicking butt, and business is very, very good.”

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who has a reputation for having problems with the media, told an interviewer:

“If you have a problem with my answer, that’s your problem, not my problem.”

Rodman was asked what he thought of an opposing team and the interviewer was not happy when he said:

“You watch some teams these days and you wonder if they just met on the playground and decided to choose up sides.”

Pat Williams, general manager of the Orlando Magic was asked in an interview to account for his team’s poor performance. He said:

“We can’t win at home. We can’t win on the road. I just can’t figure out where else to play!”

When basketball player Shaquille O’Neal was asked about the money he made from endorsements, his response was:

“I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi and wear Reebok.”

When tennis great Martina Navratilova was asked about the importance of good sportsmanship, she said:

“Whoever said, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.”

On the same subject, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said:

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Not that the sports world is without controversy – it certainly has its moments. And whenever there is conflict, the ubiquitous media can always be found maximizing the sensationalism.

Whenever I see athletes diplomatically responding to inane questions from the media, I think they should be acknowledged.

The media and sports are a large part of this system that we’ll never understand.

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