Damon Runyon on Courage
Damon Runyon romanticized and glorified sports figures in his writing. Yet in this New York American column of December 9, 1924, Runyon took a step back and looked at courage in the world of sports in the larger context of courage in society as a whole. It is rare that a sportswriter takes such a perspective and in doing so brings sports figures down a notch off their pedestals.
"Much too much is made of what has come to be called gameness, or courage, in sport. Young men are exalted for what after all is merely their WORK. In professional sport, it is only what they are paid for. They picked professional sport, boxing, baseball, or whatever it may be, as a means of livelihood, as other men select for the same purpose, house painting, keeping books, or digging in the streets.
If striving to efficiently carry on his WORK is gameness, then the house painter, the bookkeeper, the well-digger who strives to that end is as game as the professional athlete!
If an amateur, the athlete is in amateur sport for his own amusement, to gain personal fame, or to bring fame and athletic distinction to some institution or organization. He voluntarily assumes certain duties. He is entitled to credit for his punctilious discharge of DUTY. But the discharge of ANY duty often calls for a display of fortitude and courage, and in sport this display is glorified, the writer thinks, beyond its merits.
You see a many quitting his warm bed at dawn of a bitter cold morning and hurrying to his daily toil, dinner pail in hand. Perhaps he isn't feeling any too well. Perhaps his bones ache miserably, his skin is dry with fever. Perhaps he has a lacerated finger, which has commenced to fester and hurt abominably. But he goes to work, just the same and works hard eight, ten, or twelve hours, all the time feeling ‘rotten.'
Is there a crowd waiting outside his door to cheer him as he departs, or when he returns? You know there isn't! Do roaring thousands stand around and applaud him as he toils? No, indeed! Do the newspapers carry columns detailing his gameness under the conditions? Not so you can notice it!
Yet an athlete is called game when he performs his work under much less trying conditions. A baseball pitcher is called game when he strikes out a hitter with the bases full. What was he expected to do-break down and burst into tears?
A boxer is called game when he gets up after being knocked over and continues fighting. Why shouldn't he get up if he possibly can? That's his WORK! He is getting paid for it. He is called game if he gets a bloodied nose, and keeps on fighting. Probably millions of men in this country continue at their work every day with far worse injuries, and no one thinks of calling them game.
Think of the many work-a-day occupations that require infinitely more gameness, more real fortitude and courage than any form of sport! The engineer of the fast express, the steel worker on the spidery scaffolding of a tall building, the miner, have to daily display more gameness than any professional or amateur athlete was ever called upon to exercise.
The surgeon who goes into the operating room for a delicate operation on which life depends has to have more gameness than any athlete will EVER be required to show by any situation in sport.
As a matter of fact, what is called gameness in many athletic events is often the result of INSTINCT. Sometimes they don't fully realize what they are doing. If they had to THINK over their performances, as the surgeon must think, they might not be so game. Many a fighter has gotten up off the floor and blindly lashed his way to victory; gaining credit for gameness, when he was really prompted by INSTINCT.
Young gentlemen, gameness-courage-is a wonderful asset. But don't make the mistake of thinking it is confined to sport. You can see higher examples of real gameness all around you-BUT YOU WON'T HEAR ANY CHEERING!
The writer has known of football players who were badly injured yet continued to play the game. He has known of at least two who had their spines hurt, and who played with their bodies in plaster casts and braces. He has known of a number who played with broken ribs, their bodies tightly wrapped.
Strange as it may seem, the writer does not consider this gameness. He considers it needless foolishness. He denies the right of any sport to ask physical sacrifice in this manner. He denies the right of any man to thus willfully jeopardize to permanent injury the body given to him by his Creator in the interest of mere sport.
Sports writers frequently call outstanding players in football or baseball games HEROES. Of course they aren't heroes. Nor are they anything approaching heroes. This writer has long been one of the most consistent offenders of the use of this word. He is properly brought to task by Mr. J.E. Boyle, of 958 Sixteenth Avenue North, Seattle, Wash.
Mr. Boyle quotes the Century Dictionary, which says a hero is a man who displays fortitude, valor and intrepidity in the face of danger. Mr. Boyle understands danger involves the possible loss of life or limb. The tendency (Mr. Boyle says) to use the word in connection with sport has been growing rapidly, and it seems to me it is cheapening one of the grand words of the English language. ‘In the interest of truth and accuracy, the word should not be used in describing sports events.'
Of course the gentleman is quite right. Sports events never present occasions which demand fortitude, intrepidity and valor to the extent of the full meaning of the word hero. The writer promises Mr. Boyle he will not again offend.
What is a hero? Mr. Boyle tells you. Three girls and three boys start out on a cruise on Lake Washington, Seattle, in a twenty-five foot sail boat. The boat is swamped in rough water. All in the part can swim, but one girl has a weak heart and succumbs to the sudden shock of the disaster.
The three boys and one girl go to her assistance, the third girl swimming for shore. The drowning girl sinks; two of the boys go down to watery graves. One boy and a girl are left afloat. She manages to grasp a life preserver, calls on the boy to join her. He sees that the preserver cannot support them both.
"Goodby [sic], Olive,' he calls. THAT is a hero!"