Someone sure has a sense of humor.
Whether you believe in God, or fate, or the stars’ alignments, or some other guiding force in the cosmos, you have to be struck (if you’re a sports fan) by the way in which the course of human events has brought us to this day, Monday the 21st of July, 2014.
On this day, Bobby Petrino is scheduled to speak at the ACC’s media kickoff in Greensboro, N.C., with the Louisville Cardinals announcing their arrival in college sports’ big leagues. The Cardinals, thanks to the skill and deftness of athletic director Tom Jurich, found a home in the gated community known as the power five conferences. Louisville purchased the last unclaimed housing unit in the sprawling, upscale neighborhood before competitors in the American Athletic Conference such as Connecticut and Cincinnati could close a deal. Now that Louisville has managed to complete the journey from the other side of the tracks in America’s athletic-industrial complex, it’s time to win… so much so that Jurich checked ethics at the door by hiring Petrino.
On this same day, 7/21/2014, Rory McIlroy is celebrating a seminal accomplishment in the history of golf, becoming just the third man to win three majors by the age of 25. His two companions on the list? Fellows named Jack and Tiger. McIlroy’s mind was obviously quite clear and settled during the past weekend’s British Open, and it’s impossible to block out the thought that the lad’s dumping of women’s tennis player Caroline Wozniacki didn’t give him at least some degree of focus.
How much did his life arrangements factor into his landmark triumph? Probably not very much. Yet, what’s a fact is that McIlroy doesn’t have a special someone to share his moment with. McIlroy chose a different path earlier this year, forever altering the personal dimensions of his victory.
Petrino and McIlroy — public people possessing pronounced penchants for punching pulchritudinous intimates in the gut in both word and deed — are linked in obvious ways. That they both occupy the spotlight on the same day is one of those convergences that makes interested observers chuckle, sigh, groan, lament, and marvel… all at the same time.
You can laugh at all this and not take it too seriously — that’s a perfectly sensible approach.
You can bemoan what you might perceive (understandably, I might add) as the “click-bait” nature of this column, given the way it has begun. Fair enough.
However, before you click away from this space or seek another article to read, let’s stay with the conversation for just another minute: There is a deeper question to be asked here, and it points to the very reason Petrino and McIlroy are being brought together on a most unusual Monday.
The question is this: Where — and when, and how, and why — do sports fans forgive?
The issue being pursued is as follows: Is the theatre of sports a place in which we should want to forgive others, or are these games best served cold, with bitter herbs for dinner and a frosted, icy treat for dessert? These are fascinating questions, the very kinds of questions best considered during the slow and hot summer before King Football takes its seat on the throne of America’s sporting passions and fixations. You might already be considering the paramaters within which you’re willing to forgive sports figures of all kinds; if so, this column has already achieved its fundamental purpose. However, in order to flesh out this discussion and enable you to wrestle with it in a fuller way (especially in dialogue with friends, family and colleagues), there are a few more things to be said about forgiveness in sports.
Forgiveness. It’s a very important and central part of living a good life. Forgiveness enables us to go to bed without anger. It lowers our blood pressure. It flushes negative energy out of our system and therefore works against the kinds of forces that bring about heart attacks and holistic unwellness. Forgiveness, seen in both spiritual and secular (scientific) contexts, is a valuable thing. Yet, any teacher of morals or ethics would tell you that forgiveness, in order to truly be forgiveness, has to come from a person/heart/source desirous of letting the offense go. Forgiveness is not just something said (“I forgive you”). It’s something done, something truly felt, something wanted on a deep interior level. The full process of forgiveness demands a substantial shift on the part of the person, a clear movement from one island — marked by isolation and fierce condemnation — to the other island marked by reconciliation and acceptance of the other person without judgment.
When we take this process to sports, a few things have to be mentioned, then:
First, forgiving an athlete, coach or figure doesn’t mean we start liking (or resume cheering for) that person’s team. “Sports forgiveness” is different from full forgiveness in that respect. With the passage of time, something done in the heat of the moment ceases to be seen as an outrageous act. Most commonly, players who leave for other teams are accepted once again after a somewhat acrimonious parting. The initial departure is seen as a betrayal at the present time, but a few months allow a fan base to appreciate the player’s contributions when s/he was with the beloved hometown team. (You’re seeing this in the case of LeBron James’s return to Cleveland, albeit not by everyone. That’s a general example of sports forgiveness; granted, had LeBron stayed in Miami, said forgiveness never would have occurred for a lot of Ohioans, making the legitimacy of the forgiveness questionable. I digress.)
Second, the very notion of sports forgiveness — especially in the realm of a solo-athlete sport such as golf (and also tennis, or perhaps boxing) — creates a very difficult situation in which a person and his/her attractiveness as someone worth rooting for is often tied to personal conduct. This focus on the conduct of golfers, tennis players, boxers, and other solo performers can turn into an endless sequence of nitpicking, in which every syllable of every public statement is turned into a referendum on that person’s character. No, sports forgiveness shouldn’t even enter into some of these conversations, because no great sins were committed in the first place.
If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes reading or listening to a rabid Roger Federer fan debate an equally rabid Rafael Nadal fan about the character of the two tennis legends, you would instantly realize what longtime tennis observers know: If fans of Federer were stranded on an island with Nadal (the same thing goes for Nadal fans if stranded with Federer), they probably wouldn’t share the last ounce of coconut milk with their beloved champion’s rival. If told by Nadal that there was water to be found 20 yards away, Federer fans would either wonder if Nadal was telling the truth or if the water was somehow poisoned, and it was all a conspiracy. Such is the trap of solo-athlete sports, in which controversies are manufactured and sins are concocted rather than established as a matter of fact.
Yet, the cases of Petrino and McIlroy are not (and were not) manufactured. Moreover, a key link to be established between them is that for many sports fans (and pundits), the reality of an affair (in Petrino’s case) or a breakup (in McIlroy’s case) was never really the source of disapproval, anger, disgust, or anything that would lead to a fundamental stance of non-forgiveness. What mattered in each case (for many, though not for all) was the confluence of factors pertaining to the relationships that, when terminated, brought shame and scorn upon each man.
When Petrino sabotaged his career with the Arkansas Razorbacks and ended his relationship with Jessica Dorrell only because he was caught, he left behind a trail of wreckage within the University of Arkansas’s athletic department. He misused state property; far worse than that, he wrongfully intervened in and manipulated an employment process in which other people had earned the right to be hired (or not hired) based purely on the merits of their resumes and career achievements. The affair? It was the least of Petrino’s sins in a larger context. It was not and is not the sin that should matter most in this discussion. What should really matter is that Petrino used his power and leverage as an immensely popular public figure to deny job applicants a fair chance at obtaining a much-sought position. He fractured one branch of a state institution. That’s what a sports fan needs to choose to forgive or not as Petrino makes his way back to the big time in the power five conferences and, moreover, at a school that has given him the rarest of gifts in the sports world: a second chance.
The following might seem like a statement of personal animus toward Petrino, but it’s really more an assessment of the severity of his actions in a larger context: The fact that Bobby Petrino gets to make a multi-million-dollar salary at a high-profile position in a power conference (as opposed to being the head coach at Western Kentucky or a mid-level coordinator or position coach at any school) after all the things he’s done is galling enough in isolation. That Petrino gets this lucrative second chance against the backdrop of everything that’s happening in the NCAA’s fight to continue to deny basic protections and more expansive benefits to the entertainers on the field — the athletes — is even more infuriating to many of the people who follow and love college sports. The context in which Petrino’s actions — and his career revival — are situated have much to do with the difficulty of extending sports forgiveness to the man (and perhaps, on a certain level, to Tom Jurich and the University of Louisville).
McIlroy made all sorts of public appearances with Wozniacki, including one during a tennis exhibition at Madison Square Garden. Some might regard this as inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but for others, it might make it harder to extend “sports forgiveness” to McIlroy for a very simple reason: He and Wozniacki both reveled in the public nature of their relationship. Even more to the point, McIlroy knew that Wozniacki enjoyed the public dimensions of the relationship. Further still, golf is a sport which involves a far more stringent honor code than most other sports on the planet. If baseball’s so-called “unwritten rules” are extensive, they are often followed (or disobeyed, it makes little difference) in ways that bring out the worst in human behavior. Golf, on the other hand, is a sport in which its participants are supposed to exhibit only the highest standards of integrity as competitors. Owning mistakes and giving a fellow human being the benefit of a fair shake is something that is ingrained into a great many golfers. McIlroy knows this. For him to not give Wozniacki the basic human decency of an in-person, face-to-face breakup is rather astonishing. If he played basketball, the “shock factor” would not be (or have been) as great.
Yes, McIlroy didn’t physically injure Wozniacki. He didn’t engage in violence as we know it, the violence that is coursing through the Middle East and Ukraine. Yet, he took this fragile thing known as a public relationship — a public relationship mutually savored in the spotlight for many months — and failed to at least break it off in person. He wanted the comparative anonymity and facelessness of a quick phone call to finish the job. No, McIlroy didn’t sabotage diplomatic peace talks in the United Nations or send arms to the wrong rebel group, but his actions — when seen from a distance — remain spectacularly hurtful to the point of making formerly neutral (or even supportive) golf fans want to see other PGA/European Tour stars succeed.
What’s being forgiven? What needs to be forgiven in the lives of Bobby Petrino and Rory McIlroy? Not things that have much to do with either sports or sex. It’s a far more complicated calculus than that.
Be willing to wrestle with these situations as you contemplate this one-of-a-kind Monday in the sports world.