One thing a lot of games and sports have in common is the idea that they exist separate from — and better than — the scruffy real world, with its politics and prejudices and moral compromises. My father taught me, for instance, that professional golfers were the finest, most scrupulous people on earth — and this was back in the day when the tour was as white as the golf balls.

I suspect the brouhaha that has recently galvanized the insulated world of American bridge has its roots in the desire to keep real life on the far side of the moat. At an awards dinner at the world bridge championships in Shanghai, the seven-member American women’s team displayed a hand-written sign that said, “We did not vote for Bush.” Team captain Gail Greenberg told the New York Times, “There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture. . . . There wasn’t the same warmth you usually feel at these events.”

The upshot, as reported in the Times: three of the women said they were sorry, and the United States Bridge Federation is threatening the others with punishment consisting of a one-year suspension, one year on probation, making an apology, and, believe it or not, 200 hours of community service. In addition, says the Times, they’re expected to come clean by writing a statement that says “who broached the idea of displaying the sign, when the idea was adopted, etc.” Anyone who rejects this “compromise” will face stiffer sanctions.

The French team has declared its solidarity with the Americans.

What happened to free speech? you might be wondering. The interesting thing about free speech is that while the principle is sacred in America, in practice there are always a million reasons it’s inappropriate. As the president of the U.S. Bridge Federation explained in the Times, “This isn’t a free-speech issue. There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

“This sort of censorship is un-American, unsporting and counterproductive,” replied the Times editorial page. Maybe so, but when a person’s duty is to defend a sanctuary where nothing counts but ability, unpleasantness is a formidable enemy requiring special measures. By the way, the world championships were held in October and the story is only now breaking into the popular press, which might indicate just how insulated the bridge world is.