Road to Redemption: The Peculiar Case of Neil Harman

A few days ago, my new tennis blogging friend Matt Zemek wrote what I’m sure wasn’t intended to be eerily prescient, but wound up being so anyway: a column about “sports forgiveness,” or how much we are/can be/should be willing to forgive an athlete’s misdeeds.

I found it an intriguing little piece, absorbing and thought-provoking. And when the news came out about the plagiarism of Neil Harman, writer for the London Times, I soon thought of Matt’s column.

The news first broke on the Changeover blog. The sporting website Deadspin expanded on the story. Then, finally, came Ben Rothenberg’s article on Slate, detailing just how far and deep and wide went the plagiarism (as well as the knowledge of it).

As I often do when tennis-related news breaks, I spent a lot of time perusing my tennis timeline on Twitter, reading the reactions of others. I saw, first, a lot of reactions just like mine, which can be represented thusly:

1. Complete and utter shock. “Neil Harman did WHAT?!” Most of the people on my timeline are not great fans of his, yet most never dreamed that he would commit the incredibly serious journalistic crime of plagiarism.

2. Dismay. “How could he be so stupid?? He’s been a journalist for a long, long time!” Without really knowing precisely what he had plagiarized (at first, anyway), it was hard to know how he could have done something so dumb, something that every journalist knows is a huge no-no.

3. Sadness. Most of us were dismayed at the end of what had been a rather respected career. For after so great a breach of trust, I personally couldn’t see how Harman would have a career in journalism anymore, and I think most agreed with me.

However, as more details came out as to the breadth of this thing, I saw the opinions on my timeline begin to fracture. I personally did not see anyone say how much they empathized with Harman, but I read others’ surprise at seeing empathy for him. I was very surprised to see a journalist tweet to Harman saying, in effect, “everyone makes mistakes… no biggie.”

I saw anger develop, both toward Harman and toward Wimbledon. Some of that was my own. I remain not so much angry with Harman as puzzled — primarily with how “shocked” he kept saying he was at hearing that he had committed plagiarism. I, along with many others, wondered how on earth you could plagiarize without meaning to. Harman steadfastly maintained that he “must have forgotten” to attribute material, time and again, because of the tremendous time pressure he was under to churn out the annual Wimbledon yearbook.

I personally felt a heck of a lot more anger towards Wimbledon, who found out that Harman had plagiarized material for one of their yearbooks (never mind, for the moment, that he had actually plagiarized for a lot more than simply one yearbook) and then did precisely nothing about it. Oh, sorry. They told him he wouldn’t be authoring the 2014 yearbook. But he still received a press credential, he was still asked to write something about Andy Murray for the Wimbledon program, and he was still invited to the Champions’ Dinner. What’s more, they didn’t even pull the yearbook from their online store or physical store until one of the journalists he had plagiarized confronted Wimbledon about it.

This was where I started thinking about the whole idea of “sports forgiveness” that Matt brought up in his piece. Obviously this was not a question of forgiving an athlete as much as forgiving a sports writer. But some of the same questions came into play.

Here is where I am coming from. I am a Christian, and as such I believe very strongly in the tenet of forgiveness. However, in Christianity we view forgiveness mostly in regards to people we have some sort of relationship with, good or bad. Forgiveness is not an option for a Christian, but a requirement, to anyone who has hurt them. There are a number of reasons for this that I won’t get into, but one of the strongest reasons is because refusing to forgive causes us to think more highly of ourselves than of someone else. And that is one of the very things that Christians are called upon to not do.

Christians are also, however, called upon to extend mercy to people who have been wronged and hurt. Plagiarism hurts so many people. It hurts the people whose words are plagiarized. It hurts the reputation of the publication in which the plagiarism appears. It hurts the readers who no longer know who to trust.

I feel bad for Neil Harman. And I don’t feel bad for him. I feel bad for him because his reputation is now shot and his career is in ruins. I feel bad for him because somehow, in some way, his journalistic ethos went out the window in choosing to plagiarize. I feel bad for him because he had a terrible series of lapses in judgment — which all of us has had at some point or other — and now he will pay dearly for it. I even feel bad for him because he seems so confused as to how it happened.

However, I don’t feel bad for him because he chose to do this. I would assume he believed he would never get caught. Perhaps he assumed that the All-England Club had better things to do than to make sure everything in the yearbooks he wrote were either his own unique work or properly attributed. Perhaps he assumed that readers who stumbled across previously-written words in his yearbook would write it off as déjà vu. Perhaps he simply assumed that no one would really care. (That certainly seems to be the case for Wimbledon, if Rothenberg’s article is any indication.)

I sincerely hope that Harman, as a fellow human being, can turn this around. I hope he learns from his mistakes and stays a million miles away from the dark road that led him to believe plagiarism was an option. I hope he can rebuild his career. I also hope he learns to show true, real remorse, rather than the current apology that makes it sound like all of this was just a terrible accident and a brief lapse in professionalism.

I’m not sure I can really discuss “forgiveness” as it relates to Harman. He didn’t hurt me personally. He hurt a lot of others, though — the writers he plagiarized, the readers who purchased his yearbooks, possibly even the newspaper he works for. He even hurt the profession of journalism, at least in the tennis world, as it will be tempting for tennis fans to lump all journalists in with Harman and declare “they’re all a bunch of hacks!”

For their sake, I hope Harman finds true remorse in himself and will take it upon himself to apologize to the people he wronged. I think they deserve that much. And I think the road to redemption will be much shorter if he can fully admit to his wrongdoings and sincerely seek their forgiveness. Theirs is the forgiveness he needs. Not mine.

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A Fan’s Perspective: Petra Kvitova & Novak Djokovic

While I, like most of the rest of the tennis world, first came to know Petra Kvitova when she won the 2011 Wimbledon championships, I first became her fan at the Year-Ending Championships (YEC) the same year.

That fandom had a bizarre beginning. Why, you might ask? What drew me so to this shy 21-year-old who happened to win Wimbledon and then the YEC?

She shrieked.

She didn’t shriek during points, vis-à-vis Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka. No, Petra let out a pterydactyl-like shriek of “POJD!” after every winning point. I know a lot of people detested it. But I adored it. I think I related to the unbridled enthusiasm that led to that piercing exultation.

As I watched Petra win the YEC, I – along with much of the tennis world- felt like I was seeing the next World #1.

That, of course, was not meant to be. Azarenka, Sharapova, and Williams played Ping-Pong with the #1 ranking, resting finally with Williams. Petra, meanwhile, stumbled early and often, increasingly revealing a maddening inconsistency and tendency to struggle to control her nerves.

Yet even as frustrating as it was for me to watch her fail to fulfill her potential again and again, at the same time I learned more about her as a person (outside of her tennis), and it made me like her more. I learned she was shy and found coping with her Wimbledon fame difficult. (That’s something I can understand, as a shy person myself.) I learned she was down-to-earth and sweet. I learned she was a hard worker, constantly working to improve her fitness, patience, and nerve.

When Petra joined Twitter, I followed her immediately, and her persona there left her down-to-earth fingerprints everywhere. After her losses, she would thank fans for their support and promise to continue working hard, which I found endearing.

Sometime between 2013 and now, Petra earned the somewhat mocking nickname of “P3TRA,” owing to her unfortunate propensity for playing 3-set matches, almost regardless of the level of her opponent. How she found out about the nickname, I don’t know, but she did and embraced it. A few times she tweeted and referred to herself with that nickname, like so:

If there’s anyone I love more than a down-to-earth sweetheart, it’s a down-to-earth sweetheart who doesn’t take herself seriously. Petra’s embrace of P3TRA made me love her all the more.

After Wimbledon 2013, when Petra lost to Kirsten Flipkens in the quarterfinals, I basically gave up hope that she would win another major title. But I couldn’t stop being her fan. By this time, not only was I a fan of the person, I was also a diehard fan of the game.

When she’s on, Petra has an easy power that enables her to hit jaw-dropping winners from anywhere on the court. She has a great lefty serve and deceptively sweet touch at the net. Her movement, traditionally a liability (tough to move a 6-foot frame quickly), has improved over the years.

Sure, there’s lots to admire in the games of the other top women: the nearly weakness-free, devastating power and variety of Serena; the tough-as-nails and never-say-die attitude of Maria; the creativity and variety of Aga Radwanska; the consistency and toughness of Victoria. But I can’t help adoring Petra Kvitova — maddening inconsistency, frustrating nerves, P3TRA and all.

No one’s winning smile makes me happier. And I am so very, very proud of her for having made the Wimbledon final once again. She might not win, but she’s fought so much nonsense within herself to get there.

My love affair with Novak Djokovic goes back far longer ago than my Petra fandom. It’s necessary to start with a bit of background. I was a diehard Pete Sampras fan from 1990 to his retirement in 2003. For several years afterward, I barely kept track of tennis, and so I wasn’t really ready to embrace a new dominant champion. In fact, Roger Federer’s dominance kind of offended me. People embraced him far more readily than they embraced Pete, and he started threatening (and overtaking) all of my boy’s records.

For that reason I was delighted by the emergence of Rafael Nadal when he began to challenge Federer. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to fully embrace him either. It might have been that I couldn’t bring myself to adore his game. Call it elitist and snobbish if you must, but I couldn’t bring myself to love his grinding game after years of adoring the floating Sampras (and the balletic Stefan Edberg before him).

Then, in 2007, I heard bits and pieces, rumblings if you will, about some Serbian kid named Novak Djokovic. I heard he had started challenging Federer and Nadal a bit, even beating them both at a hard court Masters tournament. I didn’t pay a tremendous amount of attention, though, until the U.S. Open. I don’t remember the round, but I remembered feeling a little frustrated with my lack of whole-hearted desire to follow tennis, and then I happened to turn on the TV and found that Novak was about to play.

I thought, I’ve heard of this guy, but I’ve never seen him play. Let’s check him out.

It was love at first sight. I fell head-over-heels in love with his tennis. I loved the defense. I loved how he seemed to track everything down and send it back with interest. I loved his easy, fluid service motion. I loved his spirit and fight.

And then, after he won, the on-court interviewer asked him if he would be willing to do some impersonations. After he impersonated both Maria and Rafa, I died laughing and fell even more deeply in love. This boy, I thought, has SPUNK. He’s FUN.

I never looked back, and 7 years later, I’m still proud to be a Novak Djokovic fan.

Much like Petra Kvitova, I found out more about Novak off-court over the years, and it led me to love him even more. I learned about his intense love for his home country of Serbia and all the work he did to try to better life for the natives of his homeland. I saw his tremendous sense of humor and refusal to take himself too seriously.

On court, aside from the tennis, I saw a lot to admire as well. I saw the applause for his opponents’ winners, both when he was ahead in the scoreline and when he was behind. I saw the willingness to concede points to his opponents after faulty line calls – again, both from a winning and a losing position. I saw the deep respect for everyone on the court. I saw genuine handshakes as well as hugs after matches both won and lost.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of complaints about some of the things Novak has done that had him labeled as “arrogant” or “disrespectful” or even “classless.” Some of these things, of course, I wish he wouldn’t have done. I’ll forever cringe at the memory of the 2008 U.S. Open post-match interview following a win over Andy Roddick. I wasn’t really paying much attention to tennis after Novak retired from a match versus Rafa at the French Open and asserted that he had been “in control” of said match, but if I had been, I probably also would have considered him arrogant (as well as ridiculous).

However… no one is perfect, and especially when one is young and has been deeply invested in by his family since he was even younger, mistakes and missteps are inevitable. But I have seen Novak grow and mature and settle into an young man (I’m 13 years older than he is, I can call him “young!”) who conducts himself with great dignity and integrity.

I am fully aware that Novak continues to have tremendous flaws, some of which absolutely harm him on the court. One of them is his desperation for crowd love. I hate that crowds so often root against him, but I hate even more that he lets it affect him as much as it does. Maybe because I have fought with a lifelong desperation for people to like me, it frustrates me that he hasn’t yet learned to let it go. He has certainly gotten better, but he’s still a work in progress.

Of course, like most of Novak’s fans, I’m also frustrated by his recent difficulties in Grand Slam finals. We were spoiled by his near-inability to lose major matches in 2011 and the beginning of 2012, only to see him crash and burn repeatedly on the sport’s biggest stages since then. Though he’s been arguably the most consistent man on the tour over the past 4 years, it’s devastating to see so few Grand Slam titles result from all that consistency.

But much like I can’t quit Petra, even with her struggles, I know I’ll never quit my Novak fandom either. I’ve watched tennis for most of my life, and not a single player has made me as fiercely proud to be a fan as Novak Djokovic has. On and off the court, no tennis player has delighted me more.

And after all his difficulties, I couldn’t be prouder that Novak keeps reaching the final round of majors, including this one.

Godspeed, Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic. Best wishes for your Wimbledon finals. I’ll continue to love you both, no matter what happens.

I’ve Come Not to Bury Roger Federer

… but rather, to praise him.

Eventually.

Let me start by saying that I have never been a fan of Roger Federer. This is not to say I don’t respect him as a tennis player or as a person. It’s hard not to be impressed with his resume of 17 Grand Slam singles titles, including the Career Grand Slam. He also has composed himself well on and off the court, for the most part.

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Ending My Tennis Fast

In my second to most recent blog post, I bravely (if I do say so myself) declared that I was quitting tennis. How long did that last?

… 16 days. I think.

Granted, that 17th day I really only watched a couple games of a Rafael Nadal match (when I thought he might go down 2 sets to love). And I skipped out on the first day of the French Open entirely.

The first full match I watch, if I remember correctly, was an incredible match between fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych and French wild card (in both senses of the phrase “wild card”) Gael Monfils. That match was the kind of match I watch tennis for. Monfils won the first 2 sets. Berdych won the second 2. And then, improbably, Monfils wound up winning the 5th. It was incredibly exciting.

Why did I start watching again? Well, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I really, really love tennis.

In my time without tennis, I didn’t really miss it, believe it or not. I was pretty soured on it. It seemed like all tennis was good for was breaking my heart and making me act like an obnoxious brat when my favorite didn’t win.

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