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An old-timer rises to the defense of senior sports

In an essay on this page recently (July 17), Rick Reilly expressed his dismay at the proliferation of "senior" competitions in many sports. I won't keep you in suspense about my opinion of this exercise: Mr. Reilly is full of prunes—that's an expression we old folks like to use. He is wrong in his assertion that senior events are not "real" sports, wrong in his belief that the press should not cover these events and that fans should not be interested in them, and wrong in declaring that senior athletes are a menace to the careers of today's elite performers. Among other points.

Choosing Jack Nicklaus as an example for his sermonizing on elder sportsmen, Reilly advises Nicklaus—a mindless slob who needs such instruction, of course—that there is "grace in walking away with dignity." The clear implication is that there is something inherently undignified about an athlete competing in a sport that has been his lifelong preoccupation, simply because he is not playing as well as he did in his younger days. Nicklaus, Reilly says, should quit playing competitive golf before he besmirches his "glorious career" with "schlocky victories on the Senior tour."

Why is it a trash win if you beat your peers in fair competition in a sport you have been playing as a professional for decades? And how does that win sully your earlier achievements? If you lose, is it more of a disgrace to lose at 50 than at 23? Should an older athlete therefore avoid that possibility by quitting? Is that the "grace" in walking away?

In the event that Nicklaus does not accept his advice—a fair bet—Reilly suggests that the rest of us save Jack from his own folly by ignoring "these geriatric circuits." According to Reilly, today's fans don't really care what Nicklaus and those other has-beens are up to, and the media should quit covering senior tournaments "as if they were real events." Then maybe the old geezers will go away and stop bothering us.

Well, what are "real events" in sports? Are they the exclusive province of those who run the fastest or jump the highest or shoot the best golf? I think not. Sandlot baseball, over- or underage, is as much "real" baseball as the National League West. College dual meets are as "real" as the track and field at the Olympics. And the Senior golf tour is as "real" as the British Open. This is not to suggest that there be mass-media coverage of Old Siwash intramurals on Super Bowl weekend (although we could do with a lot less of the gossip-column twittering that goes on in the press for weeks before Super Day). This is to say that for participants and spectators, there is a great deal of benefit and delight in competition at every level—which is why sports evolved in the first place. And we can share it via the media.

The heart of Reilly's thesis is the fear that senior competition "obscures what today's athletes are achieving." If this means anything—and I'm not sure it does—it means that if Nicklaus shoots a 79 at some backwater Senior tour stop, no one will pay attention to the 63 that Curtis Strange shoots on the same day to win the PGA. If you believe that, you'll also believe that if Vida Blue pitches three hitless innings in the "potbelly league" in Florida in February, no one will hear about Roger Clemens's no-hitter on Opening Day at Fenway two months later. Is this a "real" argument?

Finally we come to the issue of money, as you suspected all along. Reilly says, "Out of ego or greed...the grizzled veteran keeps on playing...stealing TV time, fans...and even endorsements from the real athletes."

Even endorsements! For crying out loud! Can you believe that some loony chairman of the board would actually choose Jack Nicklaus to endorse his product rather than the 17-year-old, pop-off pip-squeak who holds the current record for fastest mouth and biggest serve on the world's tennis courts? Doesn't the chairman realize that bypassing the young squirt for hoary old Nicklaus will cause mass frustration in the country's kindergartens?

Well, fair is fair. No 40-year-old, regardless of condition—including former heavyweight champion George Foreman—should be allowed in the same ring with 23-year-old Mike Tyson. But that's not senior competition, it's a May-December match, which may be fine in romance but is wrong for boxing. If any athletic commission sanctions that fight, I'll join Reilly on the picket line. Meanwhile, let's leave our aging athletes to their fun and games and to the audiences and coverage they so richly deserve. And to their endorsements, too. Telling thousands of fine athletes to stop doing what they enjoy doing—and instructing the rest of us to stop watching what we enjoy watching—requires a considerable amount of chutzpah and some very good reasons. I found a lot of the former and none of the latter in Mr. Reilly's essay.