If LeBron James' ESPN special left you feeling down about the state of sports, perhaps these stories will remind you why you started watching athletics in the first place. Here are 10 acts widely considered to be examples of good sportsmanship. Feel free to add your own and debate the merits of each of these in the comments.
1. Lutz Long
At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, long jumper Lutz Long set an Olympic record during the preliminary round to qualify for the finals. American Jesse Owens fouled on his first two attempts and faced disqualification if he fouled again. Before Owens made his final attempt, Long, a German, advised him to adjust his take-off point—to several inches behind the foul line—to ensure that he would advance to the next round. Owens heeded Long's advice, qualified for the finals, and set a new world record to win the gold medal. Long took the silver. "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens later said. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment." Long was killed in World War II, but his family has remained in contact with Owens' family ever since.
2. John Landy
Australian John Landy made history when he became the second man to break 4 minutes in the mile, 46 days after Roger Bannister became the first in 1954. Landy is revered in Australia, where he served as the 26th Governor of Victoria, in part because of the mile race he ran at the 1956 Australian national championships. During the third lap, 19-year-old Ron Clarke, who would go on to set 17 world records during his career, tripped and fell. Landy, who was trailing close behind, leapt over Clarke and accidentally scraped his rival's arm with his spikes in the process. Landy stopped running to make sure that Clarke wasn't badly hurt before resuming his chase of the pack that had charged ahead. To the amazement of everyone in the crowd, Landy came from behind to finish first in a time of 4 minutes, 4 seconds.
Fifty years after the fact, Landy reflected on the astonishing race. "I reacted on the spur of the moment," he said. "You do things like an embedded impulse. You don't ask why." Today, a bronze statue in Melbourne commemorates Landy's good deed. It's titled, simply, "Sportsmanship."
3. Jimmy Connors
There wasn't much love lost between Jimmy Connors and John Newcombe throughout their careers, but there was at least one time when the tennis foes played nice. During the third set of the 1975 Australian Open final, Connors was the beneficiary of three consecutive controversial calls. Leading 40-15, Connors intentionally double-faulted, drawing a round of applause from the pro-Newcombe crowd. After Connors faulted on his first serve of the next point and lobbed the ball in the air for his second serve, a fan shouted "double fault." Connors caught the ball, but would then double fault. He lost the game, the set, and ultimately the match. "I don't regret throwing it, but don't put me in the same position again," Connors said afterward of his somewhat questionable display of sportsmanship.
There are at least two accounts of how Newcombe responded to the gesture. According to one report, Newcombe applauded his rival's act, saying, "Today, Jimmy Connors proved to me that a champion has to know how to win—and how to lose." According to another account, Connors's gift fueled Newcombe's fire. "That's something a goose would do," he said, "and the only thing you do with a goose is put him in the oven and cook him."
4. Jack Nicklaus
The 1969 Ryder Cup at the Royal Birkdale Club in Southport, England, was tied as the final pair, the United States' Jack Nicklaus and England's Tony Jacklin, teed off on the 18th. Nicklaus, who was playing in his first Ryder Cup, sank his four-foot par putt, and before Jacklin could address his two-foot par putt to tie, reached down and picked up his opponent's ball marker. It was a sporting gesture by Nicklaus, who didn't want to put Jacklin through the pressure of making the "gimme" before thousands of British fans.
By conceding the putt, Nicklaus ensured that the competition would end in a tie for the first time in its 42-year history. "I don't think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances I would never give you the opportunity," Nicklaus told Jacklin. While the United States, which had won the previous 10 events, retained the Ryder Cup with the tie, team captain Sam Snead reportedly wasn't happy with Nicklaus's decision.
5. Nate Haasis
When Nate Haasis learned that his own coach had made a deal with the opposing team to allow him to set a record in his final game at Southeast High School in Springfield, Ill., the star quarterback decided to make things right. Haasis set the Central State Eight Conference record for career passing yards in the final minute of a loss to Cahokia High in 2003, but he remembers thinking it was strange that Cahokia's defenders backed 20 yards off the line of scrimmage and made no attempt to defend or tackle the receiver who caught his record-setting pass. The next day, the local newspaper reported that the coaches had made a deal to allow Haasis to set the record, a story both coaches confirmed. "I had my guys put their arms in their jerseys so they couldn't tackle," Cahokia's coach later said.
Three days after the game, Haasis decided to write a letter to the director of the conference, requesting that his final pass be omitted from the conference record book. "I would like to preserve the integrity and sportsmanship of a great conference for future athletes," Haasis wrote. His request was granted.
6. Matt Ziesel
A friendly agreement between opposing teams isn't always unsportsmanlike, however. In the case of two Missouri high school freshman football teams, one such deal led to one of the more heartwarming sports stories in recent memory. St. Joseph Benton trailed Maryville 46-0 with 10 seconds to play in its third game of the 2009 season when Benton head coach Dan McCamy called a timeout. McCamy inserted freshman Matt Ziesel, who was born with Down syndrome, at running back, and ran across the field to the Maryville freshman defensive coach with an odd request. "Most teams would want a shutout, but in this situation I want to know if maybe you can let one of my guys run in for a touchdown," McCamy said. Maryville's players were happy to oblige. They attempted to make the play seem as real as possible by trailing in pursuit of Ziesel, who didn't participate in full-contact drills in practice and had yet to play in a game, as he raced 60 yards untouched into the end zone.
"When they grow up and they get older, everybody will realize the impact that maybe that play (has) had—not just on that kid's life, because Matt will remember that forever—but on some of these other kids and what they may have been a part of," McCamy told the Kansas City Star. For more on this story, including the backlash from people who were critical of the play, check out ESPN's E:60 report:
7. Paolo Di Canio
During a 2000 English Premier League match between West Ham and Everton, Paolo Di Canio displayed an act of sportsmanship that, as one reporter wrote, "will live longer than the forgettable game it accompanied." With the match tied in extra time, Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard injured his knee after leaving the net to challenge a West Ham striker. While Gerrard lay writhing in pain, another West Ham player sent a cross toward Di Canio, who waited in front of the wide-open goal. Rather than receiving the pass and scoring the go-ahead goal, Di Canio caught the ball to allow Gerrard to be treated. His unselfish act drew a standing ovation and earned him FIFA's Fair Play Award in 2001.
8. Pete Goss
On Christmas Day in 1996, a month and a half into the round-the-world Vendee Globe yacht race, English sailor Pete Goss received a mayday notification. Competitor Raphael Dinelli's yacht had wrecked in a storm in the Southern Ocean and the Frenchman needed help. Goss decided to abandon course and attempt a daring rescue of Dinelli, which required sailing his yacht, Acqua Quorom, into hurricane-force winds. While Goss's yacht was knocked down several times en route, he eventually found Dinelli with the aid of an Australian Air Force plane. Since the rescue, France awarded Goss the Legion d'Honneur and the two men have become close friends.
9. Central Washington University
Western Oregon senior outfielder Sara Tucholsky was so excited after she hit her first career home run in an important conference game against Central Washington that she forgot to touch first base. As she reversed direction to properly start what should have been a joyous home run trot, her knee gave out. With Tucholsky unable to continue around the bases under her own power, the umpires, who had misinterpreted an NCAA rule, told Western Oregon coach Pam Knox that if Tucholsky received any assistance from a coach or a trainer while she was an active runner, she would be called out. Tucholsky's only other option was to return to first base, be replaced by a pinch runner, and have her three-run home run ruled a two-run single.
But Central Washington pitcher Mallory Holtman, who had allowed the home run, had a better idea. She asked the umpire if it was within the rule for her and a teammate to carry Tucholsky around the bases. The umpires said it was, and so they did. "I think anyone who knew that we could touch her would have offered to do it, just because it's the right thing to do," Holtman said. Western Oregon held on to win, 4-2.
10. Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce
Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga had just thrown the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history—except he hadn't. With two outs in the ninth inning of a game against the Indians earlier this season, first base umpire Jim Joyce botched a call that would have sealed the third perfect game of the season. After Joyce ruled that Cleveland's Jason Donald beat first baseman Miguel Cabrera's throw on what should have been the final out of the game, Galarraga, who was covering first, could only smile in disbelief. Joyce admitted his mistake when he watched a replay of the call after the game. "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [expletive] out of it," Joyce told reporters. "I just cost that kid a perfect game." Joyce felt bad for Galarraga and Galarraga felt bad for Joyce. "You don't see an umpire after the game come out and say, 'Hey, let me tell you I'm sorry,' " Galarraga said. The next day, Joyce was assigned to work as the home plate umpire. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who had come out of the dugout to berate Joyce the previous night, sent Galarraga out to present the lineup card before the game. Joyce fought back tears as he shook Galaragga's hand and patted him on the back.