March 07, 2006

Grace in sports

Although I did not watch any of the 2006 winter Olympics events on TV, I casually followed them in the press, and the front page headline in the Sunday Plain Dealer caught my attention. It said Grace eludes U.S. Olympians: Too many athletes at Torino Games live up to ‘ugly American’ image and listed the many ways in which some US athletes did not behave well at the games.

I must admit that I am increasingly turned off by the way people behave at sporting events. It irritates me when people do not behave with grace and courtesy and politeness. To see athletes boasting and gloating and taunting their opponents when they do something well, to get angry and belligerent when someone else gets the better of them, and to loudly and rudely protest when the referee or umpire makes a wrong call, are all things that I find really distasteful, so much so that I rarely watch major sporting events anymore. And it is not just players who behave like this, sometimes spectators are even worse.

I am sure that much of my attitude is due to the influence of Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the K-12 school I went to growing up. The Principal of the school strictly enforced the traditions of the school about behavior at school sporting events. Students had to wear school uniforms whenever we attended any function in which the school was involved, even if we were at the events purely as spectators, and even if they took place after school hours or on weekends.

We were only allowed to applaud spontaneously for any good play. There was to be no organized cheering of any kind. And we were strictly forbidden to boo or jeer or cheer any mistake by any player, whether on our side or the opponents. Only shouts of encouragement or groans or sounds of shock and surprise (again spontaneous) were allowed. We were prohibited from deliberately trying to distract opposing team players when they were doing something that required deep concentration. In fact, we were expected to clap (spontaneously of course) good plays by our opponents as well. It was kind of like the behavior that we now see in golf.

Violations of these policies would guarantee us getting an extended lecture from our Principal at school assembly the next day, while if an individual were identified for doing any of this, some sort of punishment was likely.

The idea behind this strict code of behavior was that this would instill in us the idea of 'good sportsmanship,' that the quality of the game and proper behavior was more important than the result. We were drilled repeatedly with Grantland Rice's famous couplet:

For when the One Great Scorer comes, to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game.

I admit that my school was unusual in enforcing such policies and during my school years, I chafed at all these restrictions that were not enforced by other schools in Sri Lanka.

While my school was undoubtedly extreme, looking back, I must say that I now feel grateful for that training. Even now, even when I am rooting for a particular team, and am pleased when the opponents make a mistake that creates an advantage for my preferred team, I cannot bring myself to cheer (at least openly) that mistake, and I even feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying the lapse by the opposing player.

I think that this attitude makes one enjoy sporting events a lot more on the purely technical level, because one appreciates good performances irrespective of who does them, although one's own team's successes add an extra zest to the pleasure. But on the other hand, I also feel a great sense of irritation with players and spectators alike who act ungraciously on and off the field, which has pretty much ruined watching sports for me, since this kind of ungracious behavior has become commonplace.

Of course, sports have become so professionalized, and winning so important and so related to money, that many players do these things simply to get noticed and to get some kind of psychological edge over their opponents. I find that international cricket has also descended into the pit with players now trash talking to each other, something that was highly exceptional in the past.

But although I understand the motivation, I cannot condone them and find them downright distasteful, so much so that I find myself instinctively hoping that showboating athletes will fail, whatever team they might be on, just so that they might learn a lesson in humility. And I cheered football players like the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders or the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton who, in their day, simply let their good playing speak for itself, without all that silly index finger raised "We're number one!" childishness.

I have heard it said that Muhammad Ali was the originator for this kind of strutting and gloating and grandstanding and taunting and goading of opponents in the US. I really admired the physical grace and athleticism of Ali, and his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam war. But his cruel treatment of opponents, especially Joe Frazier who by all accounts was an honorable person, was inexcusable.

But why do spectators also behave badly, booing and jeering and taunting? Are they just imitating the behavior of the players? Was it always like this in the US, or is it also a more recent post-Ali phenomenon?


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Another interesting topic. Whether Ali was a turning point or not, I am not sure and if so that he was the main culprit. Ali's situation was a very unique one, in that every time he entered the ring he also carried with him the stigma of his religous and political positions. He has admitted to copying the antics of the professional wrestler Gorgeous George. This accomplished two things for him, it hid his insecurities and marketed himself as a boxing commodity. Opponents refusing to acknowledge his name change did not make for a respectable contest.
Maybe the athletes are imitating their fans. Maybe they are a microcosm of what we have become.
This is a complex problem and there is no one large factor that has made sports what it is today. Other factors contributing is bad parental behavior at childrens organized sporting events. The fact that children only get to play at organized events. Pro teams trading players thereby reflecting a lack of respect and loyalty.
Sporting events becoming more commercialized and boring leading "fans" to justify events as an opportunity to party. Being a "technical" fan requires work. It is much easier to be a professional wrestling fan where good versus evil is laid out for you. Now the taunting helps you identify strength versus weakness in the other arenas. It reminds you of ancient Rome.
To answer your question, athletes were different when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. Their on field behavior was good. Off field may have been a different thing but the media respected their private lives until Ball Four was published.
Unfortunately they are making for poorer role models and goodwill ambassadors as each new set of "superstars" come into their prime.

Posted by Tom Maley on March 7, 2006 10:20 AM

Excellent topic. I'd agree with Tom that Ali most likely wasn't the only cause for unsportsmanlike conduct, but his fame makes him an obvious front-runner for the starting point.

In all honesty, I blame the media. We, the fans, do not choose to surround ourselves with tales of what Randy Moss did, or how much Bode Miller drank, news stories like those are forced down our throats by the nation's sportswritiers.

Just after the Olympics ended, a popular sportswriter for wrote a column in which he derided his colleagues for giving Bode so much attention while simultaneously writing 2,000 negative words about Bode. This after two weeks of "Bad Bode" columns from the same writer.

Atheletes behave like idiots to get attention. Sportswriters cover their antics to get attention. Fans mimic these behaviors to get attention. Sadly, it really is that simple.

And if you're looking for displays of pure sportsmanship, I suggest looking into high school competitive cheerleading. As silly as it sounds, I've never seen jeers or boos - it's actually exactly the opposite. You generally see girls perform, and then hang around to cheer on their rivals then sing and dance together while waiting for the scores. It's a real eye-opener.

(my wife is a competitive cheer coach, I'm not weird or anything)

Posted by Barry on March 7, 2006 02:35 PM

As a spectator of Case hockey games, we are definitely worse than any of the athletes. Heckling the other team is as much a sport as the hockey game. We routinely print out a roster for the opposing team, and think of ways we can make fun of their names. We use Facebook to find out information about the other team, just to get a surprised reaction when yell their girlfriend's name. We make fun of their schools -- "Yea Penn State, where's your VP debate?"

I guess that makes me an ugly American. But our team loves it, and even the referees chuckle. Sometimes it backfires and gets the opposing team upset enough to win; sometimes it causes them to make more mistakes.... But it's always a lot of fun and gets more people to go to hockey games.

Posted by on March 7, 2006 03:03 PM

I wonder to what degree bad sportsmanship correlates with bad manners and/or anger management outside the sporting arena. Anecdotally we hear that incivility has been on the rise for a long time. (Though the studies I could find in a quick search seemed fairly subjective.)

If we are becoming more impatient and impolite in general it could be that sportsmanship declines along with the rest, but I'd be curious to see if anyone has done a comparison. Would the competitive nature of sports cause a more extreme rise in uncivilized behavior than is found in other human activity.

I've often thought of manners as morality for day-to-day living. Behaving properly smooths the way for our interpersonal relations. When I was a kid on swim team I always dreaded swimming against team X as they used taunts and intimidation as part of their strategy to psych us out.

Later on as I was sailing and curling, I learned that there were certain crews and teams whose leaders created a hostile play environment. While some of these people were very good strategists, their foul language and abusive behavior meant that many of us jumped ship. We had more fun playing on less competitive teams than we did winning after multiple hours of beratement.

You would think that the end result would be that these evildoers would eventually end up losing, because they couldn't hold onto good crew members, but alas some folks wanted to win badly enough to put up with the bad attitudes.

Therefore these leaders never faced the negative consequences of their actions. Perhaps I've answered my own question. Perhaps there are more people willing to tolerate this behavior in a competitive setting than they would in the course of a normal day. hmmmph.

Posted by cool on March 7, 2006 03:06 PM

I am glad to hear that at least in cheerleading good sportsmanship still prevails. I am surprised that bad behavior occurs in curling. I don't know why, but I always imagined that curling was a gentle sport that would attract gentle people.

Perhpas, as cool points out, the sad fact is that enough of these boors succeed that they do become role models, although terribly unpleasant ones.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 8, 2006 08:45 AM

Curling is usually fairly civilized—one can be thrown out of a game for swearing (depending on the club)—but there are always a few power-hungry types that think yelling will somehow make the rock go straighter, and the sweepers sweep harder. As this happens, the players on the other sheets (field of play) will whisper in dismay about the screamer's unseemly behavior. They whisper in dismay rather than shock because they've seen it happen too many times before.

Although it is a very nuanced and strategic game, the act of throwing 42 lbs of granite down a rink can get the adrenalin pumping. Interestingly the screamers are the ones most likely to either win with heavy "take-out" shots that remove their opponent, or to lose by throwing a rock so hard that it passes right through the house (bulls-eye). They are far less likely to do well with the lighter guard shots that are so key to strategic play.

Posted by cool on March 8, 2006 09:30 AM

Unfortunatley like many other persuits bad sportsmanship is becoming all too prevelant!

Posted by Rich on April 28, 2009 08:47 AM