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Where Have All The Black Hats Gone In Sports?

On the 17th hole of Sunday’s semifinal of the WGC Match Play championship, world No. 1 Jason Day was one up on rival Rory McIlroy. The Irishman blew his birdie putt over two feet past the hole, leaving a tricky downhill knee-knocker to avoid being eliminated. As the NBC announcers began contemplating McIlroy’s chances, Day suddenly conceded the putt, sending the match to a final hole.


Golf traditionalists were taken aback. With a match on the line he’d taken his foot off McIlroy’s neck? Sportsmanship is one thing, but winning is still everything on Tour. Yet Day was seemingly being a friendly guy to McIlroy, letting him stay in the match.

Begging the question, where did all the black hats go?

There was a time in sports when athletes like Day enthusiastically embraced the role as the “bad guy”. You know, the guy you loved to hate. The player whom opposing players couldn’t stand. But judging by today’s collegial atmosphere, stabs in the back are now pats on the back. The love-in with Day and McIlroy in Austin, Texas, Sunday was like the Santa Claus parade. 

Is this such a great idea? Being a bad guy meant different things in different sports. In hockey, there has been an army of pests that sought the title of Rat or Agitator. Ken Linesman was actually called the Rat. But Matt Cooke, Ulf Samuelsson or Claude Lemieux could just as easily have worn the mantle. In baseball, it was a pitcher who’d dangerously buzz a batter under his chin. Think of Bob Gibson or Pedro Martinez putting a batter on the seat of his pants.

Now, never is heard a discouraging word. But is competition now compromised without the old hate that once burned between foes? Are opponents going easy of an old pal in the heat of the action? Why has this changed?

Football had assassins like Jack Tatum, Bill Romanowski and Chuck Bednarik. Basketball had an entire team— the Detroit Pistons of 1987-92— who proudly called themselves the Bad Boys, loathed by all in the NBA as they won two titles. 

In individual sports the heel role has seen its greatest expression in tennis brats Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase or John McEnroe— snarling, bitching, argumentative villains. Even golf was antisocial and didn’t care who knew it. Tiger Woods was happy to take out your heart and stomp on it. Believe it or not, Jack Nicklaus was once considered the gloom next to Arnold Palmer’s sunshine. John Daly was no one’s idea of a dream partner. Lee Trevino liked rubbing opponents the wrong way.

Now, never is heard a discouraging word. But is competition now compromised without the old hate that once burned between foes? Are opponents going easy of an old pal in the heat of the action? Why has this changed?

Blame the entitlement generation. Sure there are rivalries and tensions from time to time in today’s pro sports. But it seems like the stars today are too well-adjusted to get a good hate on. Day, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler seem like fraternity brothers, not mortal enemies. The top three male tennis players— Novak Jokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal— act like damn fine chums, joking and joshing even after a Grand Slam final. They seem happy when the others win.

In team sports it’s largely the same as the entitled Millenials flood into the game. Cushioned by their multi-millions they’re not as desperate as they were when Ted Lindsay vowed never to speak to enemies for a lifetime. Fighting is now like the dodo in hockey: extinct. Players like Johnny Gaudreau or Connor McDavid act like they’re on a holiday cruise with buddies. Yes, they’ll embarrass them with their scoring or stickhandling, but afterwards it’s everyone to the bar. 

IDLM loved black hats. We just wish we could still find them somewhere other than the WWE.

The Masters starts a week from Thursday, and it will be interesting to see if the venerable shrine can contain Day. The winner the past two weeks, he’s tearing part courses with his power, while his short game has been impeccable. On par fives he has been hitting 350-yard drives with a flip wedge to the green in the push that has taken him to No. 1 ranked in the world. (He was credited with a 375-yard shot on one hole in the Match Play.)

Augusta has humbled many a power player in the past, but Day has taken his combination of power and finesse to a new level. Rory McIlroy has a similar combination when he’s on form. He seemed to have his game humming till losing twice on Sunday in Austin. Jordan Spieth, whom many thought would match them, has been in the doldrums since winning in Hawaii in January. He made the round of 16 at the WGC but got no further.

Don’t forget about Rickie Fowler, too, who has shown some great form at times this early season, Golf has an intriguing narrative with this young quartet. What could be more exciting than seeing them push Augusta National to its utmost in early April? It might be just enough to help Canadian sports fans get over the initial depression of no native teams in the playoffs. (We’ll do our final Loonie League next week at IDLM.)

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy

Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).