Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I Fouled

I play a lot of pick-up basketball. Our rules are pretty simple—basic basketball rules except for these: we play to 20, got to win by 2, and we call our own fouls. It’s that last rule that can get a little tricky. The burden is on the defensive player. You can’t call the foul if you’re the foul-ee, only if you’re the foul-er. Usually I play with a pretty good group of guys who don’t hesitate to call a foul on themselves when they do the dirty deed. But now and then, there will be a guy in the group who has never committed a foul in his life. He hacks the shooter—no call: “All ball!” he protests. He knocks a guy down trying to steal the ball in the open floor—no call: “Incidental contact!” he shouts. Yet this same guy is quick to point out when he thinks somebody fouled him. I can be as competitive as the next guy, but basketball just isn’t much fun when you play with a guy like that. And what’s funny about it all is that there is absolutely nothing on the line in these pick-up games. No NBA scouts are present. No bets are down. Nothing on the line but a little male ego. And yet some guys just won’t call a foul on themselves.

That’s what makes Sunday’s finish at the Verizon Heritage Golf Tournament so remarkable. Brian Davis was in a playoff with PGA tour veteran Jim Furyk. Here’s what was at stake for Davis: his first PGA win, a first-place check of over a million bucks, and a two-year exemption on the tour. We’re talking life-changing, career-making, financial-quaking stakes. It was his for the taking. But Davis called a foul on himself as he tried to hit his ball out of a hazard. Apparently, he just brushed a reed the least little bit on his backswing. Under the rules of golf, that’s a penalty stroke. Nobody noticed. Nobody would have called a foul on Davis. Nobody would have been the wiser. But Davis called it on himself. There’s a word for that: integrity. The difference in pay checks for first and second place in that tournament was right around $400,000. So we know that Brian Davis is a man of honor and that his integrity is worth more to him than 400 grand.

Golf is different than others sports. They all pay referees to call the fouls. Yet even then, how many times have you seen a basketball player groan and flop to draw a charge against his opponent whether it’s a charge or not? And how many times have you seen a receiver trap the football on the turf but get up strutting around as if he made a legal catch? They’re trying to cheat the system, trying to fool the refs. It’s sort of like operating on the principle that something is only wrong if you get caught. Well, nobody caught Brian Davis; he caught himself. He turned himself in. And he lost a lot of tangible rewards in the process.

A friend of mine sent me a link on this story and she raised an interesting point. She wondered if she could call a foul on herself. Could you? I heard someone bragging the other day that she had been to a fast-food drive-through and the clerk gave her a dollar too much in change. “Did you tell the clerk?” asked her friend. “Are you kidding?” she asked. "It’s the clerk’s fault, not mine.” I guess her integrity is worth less than a dollar to her.

It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Sad that we’ll sell our integrity so cheap. Sad that far too many of us just won’t call a foul on ourselves. In his report of the Davis story, Brian Murphy recounted a quote from Bobby Jones, one of golf’s greatest legends. Someone once complimented Jones on calling a penalty on himself, and Jones replied, “You’d just as soon congratulate a man on not robbing a bank.” Think about that for a second: when was the last time you complimented someone for not robbing a bank? For Jones such integrity was expected. In our day, such integrity comes as both a startling and refreshing surprise. That’s sad too.

If you want to live a life of integrity, realize that it works itself out in the little choices we make every day: keeping our word, not taking what doesn’t belong to us, putting in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, telling the truth, counting all our strokes—even the penalty ones. Get in the habit of showing integrity in the little day to day things, and integrity will rise to the top in the big things too.

Like when then President Harry Truman, fighting strong opposition from the South, and even fighting his own prejudices, came to this conclusion in regard to the random, senseless violence and blatantly unfair treatment against blacks. Wrote Truman to one of his critics: "I can't approve of such goings on and I shall never approve of it, as long as I am here …. I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause." Integrity.

Or like when a Georgia high school basketball coach named Cleveland Stroud, whose team won the state championship a few years ago, willingly relinquished it after discovering that a kid who was scholastically ineligible had played 45 seconds in the first of the school's five post-season games. Said Stroud, "We didn't know he was ineligible at the time; we didn't know until a few weeks ago. Some people have said that we should have just kept quiet about it, that it was just 45 seconds and the player wasn't an impact player. But you've got to do what's honest and right … I told my team that people forget the scores of basketball games; they don't ever forget what you're made of." Integrity.

Or like when a professional golfer named Brian Davis called a foul on himself. That's integrity too.

The Bible says, “The integrity of the upright guides them …" (Prov. 11:3). Brian Davis’ simple act on Sunday guides me too. It calls me to examine myself, to ask myself what I would do in a similar situation. I hope, like Davis, I would do the right thing. I hope I would let my integrity guide me. And one way I'll know if it’s working is when I have the courage to say, “I fouled.”


  1. Great blog, John. It's funny--I am tested all the time with clerks giving me back too much money or something not ringing up that should have, or whatever. It's always interesting to see the looks on their faces when you tell them. I've had them look at me like I am crazy, but they are always grateful. It always feels good to do the right thing. Karen Harper

  2. Great blog, I think we find ourselves in small things each day, in which we have to make the coice of right and wrong. I wonder if I could have done what Davis did. I hope so. I do give wrong change back because it comes out of the workers pocket and it was not mine to start with. God bless you for keeping us on our toes.

  3. Thoughtful words, John. What an example to all of us, even when the camera is not rolling. And, nice to know you are still calling your own fouls. I got a couple of those from you, and gave a few myself. Lots of fun.

  4. Hi Pastor, another soul stirring - and thought provoking blog. One thing occured to me as I read. There was a time in my life that I was almost incapable of being honest with myself.God really helped me through those times in my life. Until I could be honest (truly honest) about ME.... integrity was only something I pretended to have when people were watching....which is not integrity. It was phoney and it was pride. Now I know that integrity is measured by our actions when no one is looking. (Actions - not intentions)
    I just love love love your blog. My momma is also a very clever writer and I pointed her in your direction....she enjoys and reads often too.
    Thank You Pastor - for all the lessons.

  5. Amen. Yep I am Lori's momma and I do try to keep up with your blogging. When our integrity is compromised I think it feel like wearing dirty underwear. No one knows it but WE do and it just does not "feel" right. Then at times when I've gone out of my way to return the change that was given to me mistakenly, I can begin to feel a smugness of "wasn't that a grand thing I did" and then have to again "check" myself and call a foul on arrogance to let God know I'm sorry and ask to be relieved of that dreaded "self importance" tendancy. isn't that thing called a conscience a wonderful gift.