Commentary

Goes without saying ...

Honor and valor are the basis for much of the athlete's code

Updated: December 15, 2010, 2:53 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

unwritten topMichael Marsicano for ESPN The MagazineGrant Hill has won the NBA's Sportsmanship Award three times. No other player has won it more than once.

PULL UP A chair at the Round Table for Pavel Datsyuk. Make room for Brian Davis and Grant Hill and Armando Galarraga. These are the heirs to the tradition of chivalry, modern-day knights who play the right way, honor their games and respect friends and foes alike. They heed the written rules, of course, but they also live by the unwritten codes of their sport. Save for the outdoor plumbing and the metal unis, they would feel at home in Camelot.

Why knight them but not others? As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his Arthurian saga "Idylls of the King", "The greater man, the greater courtesy." They may or may not have Hall of Fame numbers, unprecedented contracts or championship rings, but in the scheme of sports they deserve a place at the table. Sports trace back to ancient times, but the age of chivalry embodied by the legendary Knights of the Round Table roughly 1,500 years ago brought an infusion of virtue into jousts and other types of "play" that were really extensions of battle. And though there wasn't a standard rule book per se for war or war games, there was a set of principles based on much-lauded concepts of honor, honesty, valor and loyalty. This code not only elevated the knights' status as heroes but also made their club that much more exclusive.

Now skip ahead -- past the organic creation of ball games, the advent of prizefights and horse races, the codification of various sports' rules, the return of the Olympics -- and you'll see that a code of fair play has been passed on to our modern knights, even if most athletes can't explain the chivalrous origins of their sports' time-honored mores. So it is that soccer players will return the ball to a team courteous enough to boot it out of bounds when an injured player needs tending to, while basketball coaches with an insurmountable lead are expected not to use a full-court press.

You won't find either of those imperatives in a FIFA or NBA rule book, but just because certain rules are not written down doesn't make them less important than those that are. Indeed, some athletes and observers would argue that such strictures are more significant, recalling as they do the ancient code of honor and thus stamping practitioners as special.

Take Datsyuk, the Red Wings center, a two-way player who has won the NHL's Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship four times. (Only Frank Boucher and Wayne Gretzky have won it more often.) But the Lady Byng does not always mean docility. Earlier this season, Datsyuk had enough of the Ducks' goon squad and squared off with Corey Perry, possibly costing himself a fifth Byng but definitely winning the decision and the title of Knight Gallant.

Consider also Hill, the Suns forward, a 16-year NBA veteran who has won the league's sportsmanship award three times. No other player has won it more than once -- not even the player it's named after, Joe Dumars -- but what makes the award particularly gratifying is that the selection is made by the players.

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GettyPlayers who routinely break unwritten rules often find themselves on the outside. Case in point: A-Rod.

Then there's Davis, the 53rd-ranked player on the PGA Tour. No household name he, merely a golfer who called a two-stroke penalty on himself during a playoff with Jim Furyk at the Verizon Heritage last April. Only Davis could know he inadvertently nicked a reed on the backswing of his approach shot, but if his honesty cost him his first PGA Tour victory, it also earned him a place of honor among fellow pros and golf fans.

And finally, let us praise Galarraga, the Tigers pitcher. The most memorable image from last season was not the look on Galarraga's face after umpire Jim Joyce ruined his perfect game, but rather the way this diamond Galahad extended his arm to console Joyce the next day when they met at home plate. Yes, the true knight just knows what and what not to do. Which brings us to Alex Rodriguez.

We hate to pick on him, but ... no, we don't.

A baserunner's taking a shortcut over the mound after a foul ball may not seem like a big deal to outsiders, but to knights of MLB it was a trespass of a pitcher's territory. (That same fraternity smiled at Derek Jeter's taking first base even though a pitch hit the knob of his bat; that was good acting in service of his team.) Likewise, the time A-Rod shouted to distract a Blue Jays third baseman and allow a ball to drop -- not to mention his prissy slap to knock the ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove during Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS -- struck a nerve in people who respect the game, and his rationalizations only made him seem more dishonorable. Yes, he's one of the greatest players who's ever lived. But dub him ruthless, not Ruth.

There are good knights and bad knights, you see. Always have been, always will be. It's how they read what is unwritten that determines on which side they fall. Here's a sampling of the codes that make the difference:

BASKETBALL
Don't Pad Your Stats
Remember back in 2003 when then-Cav Ricky Davis took a shot at his own hoop to bag a board and ice a triple-double? Remember how long it took for Utah's DeShawn Stevenson to flatten the cheeky guard with a cross-body block? The vengeful move was endorsed by Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "I would have knocked him on his ass," he says.

FOOTBALL
Anything Goes in a Pile -- Except an Intent to Injure
Biting, finger-twisting, crotch-grabbing -- those actions would likely earn an unsportsmanlike conduct call if seen out in the open. But inside the player pile, cheap shots are accepted as commonplace. Jets linebacker Bart Scott says players have tried to break his fingers in pursuit of a fumbled football, but he's not complaining. "You do what you gotta do to get the ball out," Scott said in October. But a perceived intent to injure is a different matter entirely. In 2001, then-Florida Gator Earnest Graham threatened a lawsuit if FSU defensive tackle Darnell Dockett wasn't suspended for allegedly twisting Graham's knee after a tackle. Graham dropped the threat but missed the Gators' next game with a sprained knee.

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GettyThere's even even honor among goons in the unwritten rule governing the (almost) no holds barred world of NHL fisticuffs.

SOCCER
Let 'Em Play
When a trailing team scores late in a match but still faces a deficit, the team with the lead usually lets opponents retrieve the ball from the net and quickly return it to midfield. In its final first-round match of the 2010 World Cup, Slovakia led Italy 2-0 in the waning moments. Following an Azzurri goal, Slovakian netminder Jan Mucha grabbed the ball in the back of the net and clutched it to his chest, warding off a pair of Italian forwards. The two Italians toppled the goalie and tried to wrestle the ball out of Mucha's arms, prompting the Slovak to slap striker Fabio Quagliarella in the face. Both Quagliarella and Mucha received yellow cards.

HOCKEY
Don't Drop Gloves on the Unwilling
NHL gloves generally drop only when both players want to go. Those who go after an unwilling opponent risk earning a bad rep, or worse. Early in 2010-11, then-Devils enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond challenged Caps rookie Marcus Johansson at the end of a fight-filled, 7-2 blowout. Johansson declined to brawl, but Letourneau-Leblond chased him down after the ensuing faceoff and fired a punch from behind. The Devils placed him on waivers after the game.

CYCLING
When a Foe Falls, Wait
If a contender takes a spill or suffers a mechanical mishap, the virtuous competitor slows until the fallen opponent recovers. Eventual winner Lance Armstrong waited after Jan Ullrich crashed in 2001's Tour de France. Two years later, Ullrich repaid the courtesy when Armstrong clipped a fan's bag and fell during a key climb. But in the 2010 Tour, defending champ Alberto Contador pressed ahead in Stage 15 after race leader Andy Schleck dropped his chain. With the move, Contador gained 39 seconds on Schleck on that stage, and ultimately bested his rival in the 21-stage race ... by 39 seconds. Contador's boorishness is considered a standard of classless riding.

LACROSSE
Rein in Routs
Though there's no sportswide standard, Hall of Fame lax coach and six-time NCAA title-winner Bill Tierney drew the mercy line at 19 goals when coaching at Princeton. Why 19? While an assistant at Johns Hopkins, a school band would strike up a waltz whenever the team struck 20. Tierney? Not a fan of the song or blowing out foes. "I really did not like how I felt when that happened to me," Tierney says. "So I didn't want anyone else to feel that way. It was about respecting the opposition." When a bench-warming Tiger broke the 20-goal threshold in a 1994 game against Hopkins, his teammates celebrated by solemnly staring at the ground.

BOXING
Touch and Go
Pugilists touch gloves at the start of a fight, but it's also common for foes to salute each other before the final round. Leaving the other fighter hanging is a sign of disrespect, and his response to such a slight proved costly for undefeated Hector Camacho in a 1991 bout. At the outset of the 12th and final round, challenger Greg Haugen refused to touch gloves with Camacho, and before ref Carlos Padilla signaled the start of the round, the champ threw a punch at Haugen. Camacho was penalized a point, losing the fight and his WBO junior welterweight title.

WATER POLO
Duck and Pay
Written rules forbid guarded players from going underwater; unwritten rules endow opponents with enforcement. Tony Azevedo, captain of the U.S. national team, was reminded of this the hard way during a 2010 tournament in Croatia. "I ducked my head for a second," recalls Azevedo, "and somebody kneed me in the face." Adds teammate Peter Varellas, "You can't get mad, because you deserve it."

NASCAR
Spy on the Sly
Every team tries to spy, every team knows it, and every team develops schemes to thwart opponents' subterfuge. So it was all part of the game when Jimmie Johnson pulled a tricky countermaneuver at the final Chase race at Homestead. Johnson's team knew Denny Hamlin's crew was listening to its radio frequency, trying to find out when the No. 48 car would pit. JJ's chief radioed that they would wait. At the same time, the chief signaled his crew to prep for the pit stop. Hamlin bit on the bluff and stayed out, while Johnson stopped, gassed up and sped to his fifth Sprint Cup on fresh tires.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer