One of the competitors at this year’s U.S. Open Tennis Championships was disqualified for verbally abusing the umpire. An opinion piece about the incident in the Times was headlined: “A Crude Rant Gets Fognini Booted From the Open––and Good Riddance.” In at least one way, Fabio Fognini’s verbal outburst and the Times’ “Good Riddance” were very much the same: a reaction of anger born of unmanaged fear.
Except that the Times’ headline was actually more harmful. Perhaps unwittingly it encouraged its many readers to infer that demonizing people who do crazy shit is a more effective way of creating a healthier world than growing compassion for them.A more mature assessment might not have focused solely on Mr. Fognini’s virulent behavior (perhaps the least meaningful clue to what’s really going on in any of us) and included an appreciation of what was under that behavior. Because, after all, who among us has not abused the snot out of someone because fear overwhelms us in a given moment or situation? It’s not just the TV we yell at with language that blisters paint.
Imagine if the tone of the headline were one of compassion for the demons Mr. Fognini is battling, not so well it seems, since this incident was far from unprecedented.
Imagine if the headline alluded to the psycho-emotional challenges that are part of a big time tennis player’s life right along with the physical ones. Inadequate training, injury, inherent limited stamina, or even a simple blister can be a match’s deciding factor for some players, especially if their opponent is really good. It seems silly to assume there isn’t a corresponding mental/emotional challenge that some players, in some moments, are ill-equipped to handle––challenges likely related to more than tennis.
Imagine inhabiting Mr. Fognini’s psyche when his behavior is so toxic. I am pretty sure we would find a dark abyss crawling with pain, terror, vulnerability and self-loathing––something every one of us is familiar with to one extent or another.
And as we realize that that’s what is contributing to his vomit of abuse, heck, we’ll still kick him out of the tournament, fine him, and whatever else the tennis gods decide is appropriate when the protocols of the game are breached. But we can boot his ass with compassion—honoring the reality that his demons are ours as well. There’s always a healthier choice than good riddance.
The Times headline, suggesting that Mr. Fognini’s behavior is something special, is a form of immaturity that is all too common. And mistaken. The only thing special about his behavior was the stage on which it occurred.
Whatever abuse he laid on that umpire was probably nothing I haven’t dished out when I’m building a stone sculpture and some big slob of a rock deliberately rolls on my fingers when I’m not paying attention.
Since I was once a good Catholic boy, you might hear, “Jesus, Mary and fucking Joseph!”