Thinking about sportsmanship
On the Bright Side
April 15, 2023
Sportsmanship is on my mind today. What it is, what it means, what it looks like. Why it's important.
I Googled the word, and this is the definition that comes up: "fair and generous behavior or treatment of others, especially in a sports contest." Google goes on to define the "true meaning" of sportsmanship as "an understanding of and a commitment to fair play, ethical behavior and integrity, and general goodwill toward an opponent. It is an affirmation that an athlete is disciplined enough to have perspective, maintain poise, and do what is best for his or her teammates."
Asking Google "why is sportsmanship so important?" this answer comes up: "The teaching of good sportsmanship offers an ideal opportunity for any athlete to develop life skills such as character, teamwork, honor and fair play, excellence and hard work, discipline, overcoming adversity and failure, resiliency and perseverance, joy and humility, respect, maturity, unselfishness, responsibility, goal setting, planning, citizenship and the importance of developing a competitive spirit."
I've loved sports all my life – playing, coaching, officiating, photographing and reporting on games, watching and cheering. I learned lessons about sportsmanship at a very young age, and those lessons were reinforced by coaches and teachers (and my peers and parents) through all my school years. Those early lessons have shaped much of my life to date, on and off the playing fields, as I see they have for others as well.
I've learned to win or lose with grace; I've learned the value of teamwork in everyday life. I value honor and fair play and I believe that hard work and excellence are deserving of recognition and rewards (even if, in real life, that doesn't always happen). I especially like to find the joy in playing and competing – especially against myself – and I strive to remain humble whatever the outcome.
What I don't have, I've also learned, is the killer competitive spirit that some people think is important. But that's okay for me. I like respecting other people's efforts, and I like remembering that on any given day I can be a winner, and on any other given day I might be the runner up. I often think of the old rodeo quote that says: "Ain't a horse that can't be rode; ain't a cowboy that can't be throwed"– true in sports as well as rodeo, and life in general.
But as far as sports are concerned, I find it oddly disconcerting that in many sports, even in high school and college, athletes and coaches are struggling with what constitutes sportsmanlike behavior, and what is acceptable verbiage or behavior on and off the playing floor.
It's more complicated, however, than mere definitions of the word, or samples of behavior. It seems to be more of a mirror held up to the world at large rather than just something limited to the players and the playing field, or even the locker room. For some reason, the lessons of sportsmanship in the old-fashioned sense (see above), are going the way of manners and civility in general. Trash talk and belittling an opponent are not only accepted now but defended and encouraged. "It's just part of sports," I'm told.
I beg to differ. I've been a part of sports for several decades and I still cling to the rules of sportsmanship I learned as a child. I'm not alone, thank goodness, but I feel we are slipping into the minority. I'm sad to see so many people embracing the worst part of us as humans in the name of sport, or in general in the name of humor, or any other way bad or demeaning behavior is justified these days.
I like that the definitions and examples of sportsmanship (see above again) are not just for sports, and I like the idea that sports are a good way to learn life lessons. Sportsmanship matters to me, and since it indicates a decent way to behave in a variety of situations, I imagine it always will.
Displaying and embracing sportsmanship, after winning or losing or just showing up, may be a great step toward that kinder world we say we all want. I'd especially like to see athletes (and their fans) leading the way.
© 2023 Mel Makaw. Mel is a local writer/photographer; her book, "On the Bright Side, a Collection of Columns" is available locally at Tehachapi Arts Center and Healthy Hippie Trading Co. Mel welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.