The question is raised as to what happens to our chances of winning the Davis Cup now that John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have left the team?
They are conspicuously worsened.
The question is then raised as to who cares? (Go ahead, name the last five winners. Take all the time you need. Turn off the lights on your way out.)
Let's not get carried away here. The Davis Cup is not the Super Bowl or the World Series. To most American players, winning the Davis Cup isn't nearly as significant or remotely as lucrative as winning Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Davis Cup is a manufactured team competition in an individual sport -- a quaint, doddering artifice kept alive by the good will of the players -- McEnroe, who didn't miss a match in seven years, most significant among them.
Having dispensed with the notion that the Rockies will crumble or Gibraltar will tumble if we don't win the thing, let's move on to the greater issue here: that McEnroe, in full, and Connors, in part, left the team rather than sign the good-conduct pledge that was demanded this year of all U.S. Davis Cup candidates. Said pledge was written into our Davis Cup rules after Louisiana Pacific, the major sponsor, threatened to staple its wallet shut unless our Katzenjammer Kids put a sock in it already.
So the battle is joined. On one side are McEnroe and Connors, the most consistently abusive, disgracefully ill-behaved players Western Civilization has to offer. On the other side is the president of Louisiana Pacific, Harry Merlo, another cool rocking corporate daddy in the USA, a grandstanding sponsor who believes in this golden rule: the one with the gold makes the rules.
What a combo! Brats vs. Bucks. Haggling over a good-conduct pledge that says, in part: "While athletic ability is of primary importance in all tennis events, it is expected that such ability will be coupled with courtesy and civility towards competitors, officials and spectators at all times."
What's not to sign?
Even McEnroe's father, who is not a disinterested party, called these "motherhood words."
Although Connors was miffed at the public dunking the pledge fomented, his refusal to sign was more a statement of life style than principle; he'd been a historically infrequent Davis Cupper, and after playing in all four matches last year he didn't want to play this year, anyway. McEnroe, however, would have played Davis Cup. He always does. He may not be our most gracious ambassador, but there isn't another contemporary U.S. player who has put country ahead of personal monetary gain as consistently as McEnroe. His refusal to sign was based on principle, however self-indulgent. He felt that since he'd never been asked to sign such a pledge before, he shouldn't have to now. John has been John, as they say, for quite some time. Who died and gave Harry Merlo the last word? In a fight like this, it's hard to get particularly exercised about who's right or who's going to win.
But this kind of moral legislation is disingenuous. It's a flexing of corporate muscle that serves no purpose other than public relations. And this kind of scapegoating isn't any more defensible whether it's done to whelps like Junior and Jimbo, or by them. Leaving poetic justice aside for the moment (and I know how hard that is in this case), there's no need for this Ding Dong School behavior modification.
If you want to take a stand against abhorrent behavior, define it, declare it intolerable and throw the offenders off the team.
But don't sucker-punch them.
Last winter, shortly after the U.S. team with McEnroe and Connors lost the Cup final in Sweden, 4-1, Merlo wrote a letter to Gordon Jorgensen, chairman of our Davis Cup committee -- sending carbon copies to McEnroe and Connors -- complaining about what he correctly called "irresponsible and immature behavior" and threatening to withdraw Louisiana Pacific's financial support ($75,000 per round, a maximum of $300,000 per year) if something wasn't done to curb the offenses and offenders.
Don't you love it when sponsors get indignant? They buy into something so they can see their name in lights, and as soon as it gets bright they start rewriting the Constitution. It's not as if McEnroe and Connors had been routinely mistaken for altar boys. Someone should ask Merlo if he'd have written the same letter had they won the Cup?
While not necessarily disagreeing with Merlo's observation, Jorgensen tried to dissuade him from making the letter public, fearing that an amicable settlement would be impossible by this "washing of our dirty linen."
Merlo was not moved (What! Is there no good-conduct pledge for sponsors?), and put it out there like the Ten Commandments. Predictably, the public rushed to his side. After all, how can you argue against good behavior? So the U.S. Tennis Association was embarrassed into endorsing this toothless dragon of a good-conduct pledge that has so far helped our Davis Cup team cut off its nose to spite its face.
It gets rid of Connors, whose behavior in Sweden was described by Jorgensen as "going off the deep end," but who wasn't going to play, anyway. And it gets rid of McEnroe, whose behavior in Sweden, a nation that eschews public displays of emotion, wasn't scandalous enough to draw a warning. And McEnroe would have played, even though he can earn in one day what he'd earn in four Cup rounds.
What moral ground is established? The USTA can't seriously believe in good-conduct pledges. All players -- Junior and Jimbo included -- must sign something similar to play Grand Prix events. The system of punitive fines and suspensions hasn't stopped McEnroe or Connors yet. All that will is their fall from the top of the rankings ladder.
For years, tournament sponsors have coddled and slobbered over McEnroe and Connors in hope of making a profit off their presence. Tennis long ago began selling itself to the highest bidder. Today it's Louisiana Pacific. Tomorrow it'll be somebody else. All McEnroe and Connors have to do is sit tight and wait for the light to change.