The Importance of Bad Sportsmanship
It’s been said that I like a good controversy. True. But I’ve seen so many half-truths, faulty reasonings and outright lies bandied back and forth since Julian Wilson defeated Gabriel Medina at the Rip Curl Pro, that I think it would be a good time for everyone to sit back, take the fingers off those keys and inhale deeply. First lets dispense with the preliminaries: The judges got it wrong out of simple bad judgment, there is no conspiracy against Medina (at least not at an event run by his main sponsor, Rip Curl, that was won by a Nike surfer), Brazilian prejudice exists but it’s based more in the media and the community than the judges (see “floater-gate”), and the ASP doesn’t have a master plan to promote some surfers over others (they aren’t strong or cohesive enough). Now here comes the more controversial part: The one truth that emerged from this debacle is that pro surfing needs Gabriel Medina’s fire. Badly.
While my knowledge of pro surfing is limited to careful spectatorship and interaction with some of the top pros, I am, as an ex-junior tennis player of some standing in the U.S., an expert on sportsmanship, or better put, lack thereof. You have never seen bad sportsmanship until you witness a sport in which 13-year-olds are allowed to make their own line calls. Tennis players, most recently Roger Federer, are a tearful bunch of man-boys and women-girls. They rant, they rave, they scream, cry, insult, accuse and rail at the very heavens. This is before the match even ends. Off-court they can be even nastier. It’s infantile, silly, uncomfortable and more than a little ugly, but it is divine sport, something that can only be said intermittently of surfing’s current World Tour.
So Medina shed a few tears. Baby, If you’ve never cried when you lost, you’ve never wanted to win badly enough. These guys have dedicated their lives to this. To have a title stripped from you due to misjudging, and egregious misjudging at that, is the ultimate slight.
More serious, according to many commentators, was Medina’s refusal to remain on stage for the awards ceremony. Sometimes, these are the same people who, the sentence before, have skewered the judges for their miscalling. So this is a question I pose to them: How can we expect judging to improve if people only dare to grumble about it from behind firewalls? No, I think, when you have been robbed of something that was rightfully yours by an organization that has more power than you, the only way to react is to show that you don’t endorse it. If you are a public figure, do so publicly, then take it to the press. Surfing has this strange cult of “shut up and smile, and it will all be alright” that is completely at odds with the paradigm of competitive sports in which you are taught to fight all comers like a rabid wolf until the win is yours. True champions, like Federer or Kelly Slater, are not always exemplary sportsmen when they know they should have won. In my opinion, that is part of what makes them great.
Tennis players are steeped in that worldview (along with a heavy dose of self-absorption) from an early age and the quality of their tour reflects it. As we learned from Andre Agassi’s book, Open, many of them also heartily dislike each other. In comparison, many pro surfers are quaintly broey—or at least pretend to be, to their detriment. I would doubt that Wilson views Medina’s actions as a slight. But if he does, then all the better. I hope a mutually vicious rivalry develops between them that pushes both to the heights of their surfing abilities and brings a bit of much needed drama to the tour.
Whereas I don’t support Medina’s father tossing furniture around the VIP room (if that rumor is indeed true) I do support the actions of his son. The surfing world has, for too long, dealt with its problems by bickering behind each other’s backs while smiling to each other’s faces in true SoCal passive aggressive fashion. This young Brazilian isn’t too cool to act like he doesn’t care when he loses and isn’t afraid of showing people when he thinks he’s been wronged. Those are two big positives about him in my opinion. It would be too charitable to say that Medina’s disappearance from the awards stage was a conscious act of commercial disobedience (probably more akin to youthful petulance), but the end result is the same—the refusal to tacitly endorse a deleteriously bad decision. If you think the judges made a mistake, which it appears many of you do, you should stand behind him.
This editorial first ran on The Inertia.