Commentary

What has happened to civility?

Updated: September 13, 2009, 5:16 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Another altogether angry week ends in America.

From the floor of the House of Representatives to the streets of Washington, D.C., to center court at the U.S. Open, there's been an awful lot of yelling and upset.

Online and on newsstands and on sports fronts this morning from CNN to Le Monde to der Stern, from the Guardian to The Times to Corriere della Sera, there appeared the news of the upset of the night, Kim Clijsters over Serena Williams.

And, by now, even the sleepiest among you surely know that a questionable call on a foot fault led to a spectacular tantrum, which then led Williams to be penalized match point. Clijsters has moved on.

The awful moment itself is now being characterized as an "obscene tirade." Having seen the tape, we can all count on that phrase being modified to include the words "spittle-flecked invective" some time -- the salaried handwringers and moralizing gasbags of the sports world being nothing if not predictable. They'll be weighing in with the conventional wisdom as soon as they return from Sunday brunch. In the meantime, unmoderated comment strings worldwide are plucked and resonate with the hateful convictions of racists in every time zone.

All in all, a less-than-great occasion for humanity.

But symmetrical somehow at the end of such a weird and angry week. That million-tea-bag protest march on Washington on Saturday was an object lesson in the sums of our pent-up frustration. Over what, specifically, I remain unsure. The pickets and the banners spoke to many issues and many convictions. Still, the anger seemed real enough, broad if not deep, and it is after all our inalienable right to air our political upsets in public.

In much the same way, the tantrum, the fit, the outburst, the racket thrown and broken in anger are absolute rights and fixtures of big-time tennis.

Just Saturday, to fill a few minutes during that interminable rain delay, CBS was showing tape of the 1979 U.S. Open. Highlighted was the famous match between John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase during which Nasty and the chair umpire both got tossed, and the lunatic crowd was on the brink of violent revolt.

It was all looked back upon with warmth and fondness.

McEnroe, of course, is now much beloved for the very behavior so roundly condemned in Williams. Ask yourself what larger cultural currents might factor into such a thing.

Which brings us to Addison Graves Wilson, aka "Joe Wilson." If you're hearing that name for the first time, you're excused if your first thought was of the volleyball from the movie "Castaway."

Wilson is a congressman from South Carolina. It was he who cried out "You lie!" from the floor of the House during the president's address to Congress last week. He promptly apologized and chalked the whole thing up to anger, to a temper lost in the heat of a passionate moment.

Since then, however, he has become something of a hero to the aforementioned "Tea Bag Right" (patent pending) and has spent a very great deal of time talking about himself on cable television. So of course he's begun walking back that first apology. In fact, as of this morning, he is refusing to apologize any further -- in language so adamant it sounds a lot as if he's rescinding the original apology.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesNo matter what she says or does, Serena Williams will never be fully absolved of her on-the-court meltdown.

I mention this in regard to Williams, because for her outburst in the middle of a tennis match, a game, an entertainment in which nothing is at stake but her own success, people in my business and out of it are calling for very harsh penalties on behalf of temperance and politesse and etiquette.

When someone hits the right honorable Congressman Puddn'head Wilson with a fine and suspension for having lost his temper at work, I'll grant you the absolute necessity of doing likewise to Williams.

What all these angry moments seem to share in common is that 21st-century sense of our aggrieved American entitlement, the bone-deep conviction that every event and circumstance must conform to our individual needs and wants and appetites. That the cockeyed birthright of every generation is now a star-spangled universe bending only in the direction of our personal gratification. That there is no higher calling than our own self-esteem, no greater cause than our own preening regard. That there is nothing we can't say or do in service of our own selfishness and vanity and enrichment, and that the very turning of the Earth is the promise and guarantee of our success.

All day today, and into the week, and likely for the rest of her career, we'll ask that Williams somehow account and atone for this angry, ugly moment. In ways both naked and subtle, contrived and subconscious, we'll demand a lifetime of apologies and answers, knowing full well that neither will ever suffice.

And as always, by failing to look in the mirror, we'll ensure that no comfort anywhere ever comes of this to anyone.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.