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Tee to Green: Sports can bring out the worst in people

Knight, McEnroe, Brett, McIlroy, Watson.

Which of these names don't belong?

Both Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson are taking heat for their recent actions on the golf course, but let's be sure to keep their alleged indiscretions in perspective.

In 1985, Indiana Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, upset with officiating and his teams' lackadaisical effort against the Purdue Boilermakers, hurled a folding chair across the hardwood. The seat careened toward the wheelchair section of the arena, eventually resting a few feet short, before Knight was escorted from the court.

John McEnroe, the famously petulant seven-time Grand Slam winner, told an umpire, "You cannot be serious!" and later called him "the pits of the world" during perhaps his most notable outburst at Wimbledon in 1981.

In what has come to be known as the Pine Tar Incident, a flailing, charging George Brett had to be physically restrained from attacking umpire Tim McClelland after his game-winning home run against the New York Yankees was called off due to an excessive amount of pine tar on his bat.

Want another one? How about then-Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez flinging an aging Don Zimmer to the ground like a geriatric rag doll?

These are memorable and legendary indiscretions of sportsmanship. McIlroy bending a 9-iron at the U.S. Open and Watson chiding caddie Ted Scott over club selection at last week's Travelers Championship aren't in the same league. They will be forgotten by the next news cycle. Yet both golfers have been criticized for their respectively mundane acts.

I, for one, don't mind a little competitive fire. In this case, Tiger Woods is Exhibit A: a cursing, bristling, intimidating competitor who wins in volume.

Michael Jordan is another. He was ruthless on the court, famously telling diminutive guard Muggsy Bogues to "Shoot it, you (bleeping) midget" during the waning moments of a game. Muggsy shot, missed and claimed his jumper was never the same.

Of course, being a gentleman and a respectful competitor doesn't preclude you from winning. New York Yankees great Derek Jeter immediately comes to mind. But athletics at all levels are intense and taxing pursuits. Grueling competition sometimes produces behavior which would otherwise be deemed unruly, disrespectful and embarrassing. In golf, a primarily isolated endeavor, there aren't many people to aim that frustration at besides yourself (McIlroy) or, maybe, your caddie (Watson).

In general, golf has higher standards than the other major American sports when it comes to competitive etiquette. The church-like reverence encouraged on the course may seem stifling at times, but it certainly illustrates how uniquely stressful and difficult executing a shot can be, and how frustrating it can be when the task is not completed as intended.

Major League Baseball players break bats over their knees, destroy water coolers and throw helmets. Their managers, grown men in nylon pants and button-down windbreakers, hurl obscenities and kick dirt on other grown men.

In the NBA, guys complain to refs, push and shove opponents and flop like drunks onto a mattress. When guys shoot free throws, fans hold up giant cardboard cutout faces of the players' ex wives.

In the NFL, players are revered for poor sportsmanship. Before the snap, legendary Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus used to spit on opposing offensive linemans' hands so frequently that they thought it was raining. Stories of loose ball scrums involve crotch grabbing and twisting, hair pulling and punching.

Sports can bring out the worst in people. And generally, we accept is as part of the competitive psyche and process. If you've played sports at any level, you've likely acted out in an embarrassing manner.

The first (and only) time I dropped a club in disgust after a bad shot, my brother-in-law instantly criticized me for it. And he was right. It's classless and inappropriate to act out on the course, and it makes the rest of your group uncomfortable. There's no room for it. But golf sure is a frustrating endeavor and sometimes it produces a regrettably inappropriate act.

The pros play televised rounds four times a week (in most cases) for the majority of the year. If they occasionally bend a club or go after a caddie, I say give them a pass. Others have done far worse.