By Sondra Ahlers
Remembering the Art of Sportsmanship
The sun was hot after the grueling two-hour battle on the baseball diamond. The two teams line up at the first- and third-base bags preparing for a time-honored tradition. The teenagers walk toward each other to shake hands with each opponent, consecutively. “Good game, good game, good game…” can be heard being repeated over and over as the players pass each other exchanging a slap on the hand and looks which range from exhaustion to elation and annoyance to respect. When all players and coaches have passed through the line, much more than a ritual of time has been exchanged – a lesson in sportsmanship had been learned.
Competition through sport has always been a reflection of a society's values. It mirrors a people’s belief system and serves as a method of teaching principles to its young. “Human beings have simultaneously celebrated male (and today even female) aggression and competitiveness along with civilization's triumph of channeling and containing that aggression within elaborate rules and ceremonies.” (Reinharz & Anderson, Spring 2000) The rules are crucial; "sports events do not really exist at all unless there is a certain order and fairness – justice – in each event.” (Novak, 1993)
Sportsmanship is the extension of rules beyond the understood and accepted regulations of a game. Sportsmanship is the accepted norms of behavior, the unwritten code of conduct which is accepted and practiced by participants and offered as action toward teammates and opponents. (Malloy, Ross, & Zakus, 2000) Ritual acts of sportsmanship like shaking hands after a contest, while becoming a lost art, are an excellent means of teaching and enforcing sportsmanship at all levels of competition.
Professional athletes have practiced sportsmanship for thousands of years. It has only been the past 40 years that has ushered in a steady decline of the respect for the unwritten code of the game. Honor among professional athletes is being eroded from within. Winning, instead of sportsmanship, has become the most honored importance in professional sports.
An excellent example of this change of values in sports is reflected in the words of legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi's famous quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," (Lombardi, 2000) had a pervasive impact on the way the outcome of competition is viewed in our society. Unfortunately, it had destructive consequences its author never intended. The statement was ironic because Lombardi is viewed as the iconic, true sportsman, and yet the impact is even more caustic because it was Lombardi’s view on winning that has driven coaches and athletes to win at all costs.
As a result, the true cost of winning is the honor of the game. Lombardi's imperative brought success on the field; it swept though all sports, knocking aside the ideal of the sportsman. In later life, Lombardi saw the considerable damage his win-at-all-cost ethic had wrought, and he renounced it shortly before his death in 1970. "I wish to hell I'd never said the damned thing. I meant the effort . . . I meant having a goal . . . I sure as hell didn't mean for people to crush human values and morality." (Maraniss, 2000)
Sportsmanship stands little chance of coming back as long as professional athletes do not actively practice sportsmanship. Young athletes emulate the actions of those who have become successful at the game. Just as little Johnny practices his hook and layup and Susie her rise ball and change, they also conduct themselves in other aspects of the game as they see successful sports figures operate. Ball handling and opponent handling are equally important. Teaching the norms of acceptable behavior is just as critical as the skills of the game.
“The educational value of organized sports is this. Children learn how to shoot, dribble and catch. Those skills are meaningless in adult society. They will, however, have to learn to work together, to respect one another and to live by the laws of the land. They will have to learn to accept individual responsibility as well as individuals with whom they don't see eye to eye. Organized sports can help teach those things.” (Smith, 1994)
Professional athletes must realize that game skills and accepted standards of fairness are both valuable lessons conveyed on the court and field. Moreover, as a society we must demand our professional sports athletes and organizations model the values we want our populous to reflect.
Children learn by imitation. Big league teams and officials would serve our society well by actively demonstrating and enforcing ritual sportsmanship and the values that accompany them. Of the major professional sports organizations, only MLB players consistently shake hands at the end of games; but only with teammates. No major professional teams exchange any formal show of respect with their opponents either before or after competition.
In the NCAA, gestures like shaking hands after a game have become less common. It filters down the age groups and taking the example of the older players, youth athletes become less and less likely to demonstrate ritual sportsmanship. At the high school level in several states, the handshake goes unsupported with the excuse that shaking hands with opponents is a safety issue and a “contrived act of sportsmanship.” (Smith, 1994) Case in point is the Ventura, California ban on the post-game handshake. Citing the safety of student athletes, Simi Valley High School and its neighboring school placed a ban on post-game interaction between competitors.
Directors of community programs, school officials and coaches must never forget that youth sports should be as much about teaching sportsmanship as teaching athletic skills. Shaking hands after the game is a valuable lesson. “The point is, the handshake is a simple, traditional show of goodwill and respect, and respect for your opponent is an integral part of any definition of sportsmanship.” (Smith, 1994) It is this simple demonstration of respect that would teach so much if reincorporated into professional sports. "Sportsmanship is not a difficult lesson for a child to learn," says Dennis Sullivan, director of communications for Little League Baseball,"but sometimes it's an even more difficult lesson for an adult to teach."
Lombardi, V. (2000). What It Takes to Be #1: Vince Lombardi on Leadership . McGraw-Hill Professional.
Malloy, D. C., Ross, S., & Zakus, D. H. (2000). Sports Ethics: Concepts and Cases in Sport and Recreation. Thompson Educational Publishing.
Maraniss, D. (2000). When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. Simon and Schuster.
Novak, M. (1993). The Joy of Sports. Rowman & Littlefield .
Reinharz, P., & Anderson, B. C. (Spring 2000). Bring Back Sportsmanship. City Journal .
Smith, E. (1994). Give Young Athletes A Fair Shake. Sports Illustrated Vault.
About the Author: Sondra S. Ahlers is the head fastpitch coach and a teacher at Celebration (Florida) High. She has 29 year’s experience coaching youth sports, including 12 years on the varsity level. She has spent more than two decades heading community-based recreational/travel ball sports programs in her spare time. Ahlers received her bachelor’s degree in English and education at Wake Forest University and a master’s in Sports Leadership and Coaching from the University of Central Florida.