September was a dismal month for American sports.
The year began much more auspiciously with the U.S. posting its best Winter Olympics ever. America won 34 medals, shattering the previous high of 13.
It only got better with the World Cup this June. The U.S. redeemed itself after an atrocious performance in 1998. America stunned Portugal and Mexico en route to a quarterfinal appearance, where the U.S. acquitted itself well in a heart-breaking loss to Germany. When the smoke cleared, the U.S. was in FIFA’s top 10 for the first time ever.
Then came September.
First, the U.S. lost an international basketball game for the first time when utilizing NBA players. Argentina dominated the American team, which then lost to Yugoslavia, then Spain, and finally placed sixth in the world. Then, the Davis Cup team lost to France, falling in the first round for the second straight year in the men’s tennis contest. And the month ended with an American men’s golf collapse at the Ryder Cup.
The reasons for these crushing defeats are difficult to pin down. Poor leadership certainly played a role. U.S. basketball coach George Karl looked befuddled throughout the World Championships, and Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange mismanaged his singles lineup on the event’s final day. In the Ryder Cup, Europe stacked its lineup. Meanwhile, Davis Love III and Tiger Woods were still on the course when America lost the Cup.
Another disturbing trend: United States athletes just don’t seem to care as much as other international athletes. This year, many experts predicted the U.S. would be challenged. But even with this knowledge, where were Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett? Instead, we settled for Raef LaFrentz and Baron Davis.
Similarly, the Davis Cup has been troublesome. Although America has featured the world’s best tennis talent over the last decade, it hasn’t clinched a Davis Cup since 1995. Since 1997, the U.S. Davis Cup team lost in rounds where neither Agassi nor Sampras chose to compete. Instead, we rely on the injury plagued Todd Martin and the inexperienced Jan-Michael Gambill.
Other countries had better success in convincing their top talents to participate. I remember Australian Patrick Rafter’s five-set win over Todd Martin, which knocked the U.S. out of the 1999 Davis Cup. Rafter self-described it as the most important win of his career. And he had won the previous two U.S. Open championships, too.
The final day of the Ryder Cup two Sundays ago was a debacle. America, which traditionally dominates singles play, needed a split of the 12 matches in order to retain the Cup. Instead, the U.S. managed just two wins and five draws. Phil Mickelson, the world’s No. 2 golfer, lost to Phillip Price, No. 119. Tiger Woods was ok, but clearly not playing his best.
But even more distressing were Woods’ comments a week earlier. He de-emphasized the significance of the Ryder Cup, calling the $1 million American Express Championships he played in Ireland more important. When Woods was asked to explain his logic, he said he had “a million reasons” why the tournament was more important, although he later backed off from that statement. Meanwhile, as has happened in the last few Ryder Cups, America’s best golfers failed to elevate their games while the more enthusiastic Europeans pulled out victories with lesser talent.
Athletes that achieved the most success for America this year do not get the paychecks and media hype the high profile athletes receive. Obviously, the Olympic team was composed of mostly amateur athletes who aren’t paid and tend to fly under the media radar. As for the World Cup team, soccer doesn’t get a lot of media attention. And the athletes who get the most attention and biggest paychecks just don’t seem to care.