ONE OF THE most touching results of Virginia’s NCAA basketball championship in April was a tweet that followed almost immediately from the athletic department at UMBC.

The Retrievers, who had stunned the top-seeded Cavaliers in the first round of last year’s tournament, passed along a GIF of Leonard DiCaprio raising a congratulatory toast. It was a class move, and may have resulted from the gracious way Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers had handled their historically stunning loss 12 months earlier.

Such actions seem to be few and far between, though, as sportsmanship gets harder to find. Two results from the past week alone are perfect examples.

It started Monday night, when Toronto fans cheered Golden State star Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles tendon injury in Game 5 of the NBA Finals before several Raptors players shamed them into stopping. Less than 24 hours later, the U.S. women’s soccer team shamelessly ran up the score in a 13–0 World Cup demolition of Thailand.

Neither of those actions was necessary, and they reflect the sometimes sad state of high-level modern competition.

This doesn’t excuse the Toronto fans’ behavior, but they do have a reason to dislike the Warriors. Not only is Golden State going for a third straight NBA title, but one of its team investors, Mark Stevens, shoved Raptors guard Kyle Lowry after he dove into courtside seats pursuing the ball in Game 3 last week in Oakland.

To their credit, the Warriors fined Stevens $500,000 and banned him from attending games for a year. His action, though, set an ugly tone for a series that previously had been passionate but clean.

Durant has been a polarizing figure since he decided to leave the only franchise he had known, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to join the star-studded Warriors three years ago--even though he was simply exercising his right to do so. And his undisclosed free-agency plans for this summer (New York? L.A.?) were near the top of every NBA gossip column.

Durant showed some professional courage by returning after missing nine games with what was termed a calf strain. Aggravating (if not worsening) the injury could cost him tens of millions of dollars. No matter what you think of him, cheering a potentially career-altering injury is low class. (Remember Eagles fans doing the same to Michael Irvin?)

Teammate DeMarcus Cousins, who returned from his own Achilles tendon rupture, called the Toronto fans “trash.” They did chant “KD!” as Durant was being helped to the locker room, but the initial reaction is usually the most sincere one.

Less than a day later, U.S. coach Jill Evans seemed stunned that anyone would criticize her team for humiliating Thailand, setting a Women’s World Cup record for goals scored and victory margin and celebrating each score. Ten of the Americans’ goals came in the second half as Thailand’s stamina and spirit waned.

“I think to be respectful to opponents is to play hard against opponents,” Ellis said, adding that goal differential can be used in breaking ties for advancement or seeding.

Poppycock. The top-seeded Americans won’t need any such help to escape their group. And while they—like Toronto’s fans—have the right to express themselves however they like, you can take your foot off the gas pedal and win with dignity. Soccer is perhaps the easiest of all sports in which to waste time and spare an overmatched opponent indignity.

The Americans already had a target on their backs as the World Cup favorites and defending champions. It’s possible that future, more talented opponents will come at them with even more gusto.

Let’s hope, for their sakes, they aren’t injured by an overly aggressive rival—or by karma, which has its own way of exacting revenge.

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Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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