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Compassion Gets the Trophy

By Thomas B. Cotton

ESPN recently launched a new venture in cable television, the Classic Sports Network (CSN). The premise of CSN seems strikingly odd: it merely rebroadcasts old sporting events. Nonetheless, CSN has met considerable market success and many cable packages across the country are busy adding it to their basic package.

CSN has achieved so much success in so little time because sports represent the last bastion of pure excellence in our leveling, democratic society. Only in sports does sheer talent and desire determine the outcome. Athletes are the only persons left in America judged, praised, and blamed strictly on their actions and their ability, not their race, sex, class, or any other such nonsense from the smorgasbord of identity.

We so judge athletes because they must meet exacting standards of excellence and achievement, standards that are relaxed for no one and no group. CSN has caught fire at the ratings box because it replays the few special moments in sports when athletes do not meet standards, but set new standards. It recalls what humans can achieve when they strive for pure and uncorrupted excellence. This is the essence of sports and why Americans so love sports.

Not anymore.

Two recent episodes, one in professional golf and one in women's college basketball, demonstrate the remarkable inroads made into sports by liberal compassion, the only virtue acknowledged in our society today. The episodes bode ill for the magnificence of sports.

First, let us travel to America's finest country clubs and a courtroom in Eugene, Oregon. Casey Martin is a young professional golfer on the Nike Tour, the professional Golf Association's (PGA) equivalent of the minor leagues. Martin also has a rare circulatory disorder that makes it difficult for him to walk long distances. Now, that presents a problem, since tournament golf courses usually top 7,000 yards. Martin can play a round of golf, however, if he rides in a golf cart, a practice strictly prohibited by the PGA. Martin decided that the PGA needed to show a little more compassion, so he acted on the most American of impulses: he sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A federal magistrate in Eugene, Oregon heard the groundbreaking case last month. Martin claimed that the PGA had to provide him a "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA, which is to say, it had to give him access to a cart during tournaments. The PGA claimed that this would undermine competition, since walking is an integral and challenging component of golf. To which Martin responded, look at some of the fat, lethargic members of the PGA and then tell me that walking matters in golf. To which the PGA responded, visit the first-aid trailers in July and August and count the numbers of golfers regularly treated for heat exhaustion. In the end, the federal magistrate ruled for Martin, holding that walking was unrelated to golf and that the PGA must allow Martin access to a cart. (Note to the vertically challenged: the NBA may still exclude short people, but that may soon change.)

Now, let us turn to the University of Connecticut (UCONN). UCONN's women's basketball team is ranked number three in the country, led by the outstanding Nykesha Sales. Led, that is, until she suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury in a game on Saturday, February 21. And in a cruel twist of fate, Sales, a senior, suffered the injury needing only one more field goal to become UCONN's all-time leading scorer.

UCONN's coach, Geno Auriemma, apparently thought it too cruel a twist of fate. He spoke with the Villanova coach and the Big East commissioner before the UCONN-Villanova game on Wednesday, February, 25, and remedied the situation. After the opening tip, Villanova gave Sales an uncontested lay-up and hence the UCONN scoring record. Sales then left the game and ended her career.

Compassion provides the justification for Martin's cart and Sales's lay-up, showing just how monolithic the sense of compassion has become in our society. This is not to slight Martin or Sales; by all accounts, both are tremendous individuals and devoted athletes. But both fell victim to unfortunate circumstances that have always haunted and always haunt athletes.

Rather than accept their misfortune with sobriety and grace, both sought to overcome it illegitimately. That is to say, both broke the standards of their respective sports. That athletes would have such an urge is not surprising. That the domineering sense of compassion allowed them to indulge their urge is instructive. It seems that the last bastion of objective, fair standards and pure excellence is at last succumbing to the ubiquitous compassion of modern society. CSN should expect even more success.

Thomas B. Cotton '98 is a government concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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