I’ve Got a Bone to Pick With Lack of Sportsmanship Today

From a very young age, one of the most important things we teach our children is to be a good sport.

This lesson is first taught to young children with siblings or friends when there are toys that both of them want to play with. They are taught that everyone has to get a chance to play with the desired toy. They must share.

As they get older and start playing board or video games, they are taught to be “good” winners and losers. No one wants to lose, we tell them, but it’s appropriately gracious to behave properly when the result of such a game does or doesn’t go our way. This is often a tough lesson to teach and a very hard one for a child to learn, but as parents we insist that our kids assimilate this message.

About the time they are 5 or 6 they begin to play basic organized sports. For boys, this is often a game like soccer or teeball. Some children are better than others, and this is usually quite clear. But every child gets a fair chance to compete and often to play most positions on the field.

After the game is over, and there are winners and losers. But the coaches and parents get the children from both teams together and they shakes hands or high five each other, even if the losers are bitterly disappointed. The sorrow of losing is usually quickly forgotten when drinks and snacks are distributed to the players and the carloads of kids head off to a birthday party or some other weekend diversion.

Nevertheless, the fundamental, yet crucial rite of sportsmanship is one of the most important things these children are taught.

“No one likes a sore loser”, we tell them.

Occasionally, despite best efforts of coaches and parents alike, we see that there are one or maybe two kids that don’t seem to grasp the concept of sportsmanship very well. When their team loses, they are the ones who offer half-hearted handshakes to the victors. Or worse, they are the winners that strut around the field or court a bit too much and all but taunt the losing players. We even see parents of such children that don’t really dissuade them from doing so. We may even point out such antics to our own children, and tell them quietly that we do not approve of this sort of behavior and that we would never approve of it if they acted similarly.

One of the reasons we are so intent to teach these lessons to children when we are young is that we all know that this sort of behavior, good or bad, tends to be learned with some permanence at an early age. Even the best athletes need to learn to behave with humility early on, lest they put off other players and their parents–from opposing teams and from their own teams as well.

But in the age of ESPN, with televised sports and sports news available 24 hours a day on the television and on the internet, our children are regularly exposed to the behavior of college and professional athletes that perhaps didn’t learn these lessons as well as our own kids (hopefully) did. Maybe if we’re fortunate enough to be in the room when poor sportsmanship is displayed, we can point it out to our kids and explain to them why it’s wrong. If not, we simply have to hope that the efforts we have made with them for years have paid off, and that they recognize the bad behavior on their own.

Thankfully for us supporters of sportsmanship across all sporting events, generally all college, and even most professional athletes have a sort of unwritten code about how to conduct themselves during and after games. After a football game ends, the players of both teams tend to stay on the field and mingle amongst themselves, offering congratulations and well wishes. After basketball games in college, it is general practice for both teams to line up and pass by each other, with each player on the winning and losing shaking hands with the other. In pro basketball games, much like in football, the teams tend to mingle on court and offer handshakes.

Virtually every team sport has some sort of variation on this ritual.

In individual sports, there are other forms of graciousness as it relates to sportsmanship. Golf and tennis are perhaps the most visible of these. We’ve all seen golfers as they finish their final rounds on a Sunday. they remove their caps and offer handshakes and kind words to their competitors and to the caddies. In tennis, the competitors meet each other at the net and offer handshakes and a brief exchange of good wishes.

But there are isolated cases in the “big” sports where there are no handshakes exchanged after a game. Professional baseball stands out in this regard. Perhaps you have noticed that at the end of an MLB game, the winning team will high-five or hand shake each other, then walk into their own locker room. There is no such ritual between the two teams that just completed the contest.

I looked into this, and it seems that professional baseball actually has a rule, although my guess is that it isn’t really enforced, against this ritual. Rule 3.09 states that “players of opposing teams shall at no time fraternize while in uniform”. We know this is hogwash, because we have seen players chatting before games during warm-ups and we have seen players engaging in brief exchanges with a first baseman after a single as the next batter approaches the plate to hit. That certainly constitutes fraternization.

But for whatever reason, the sport of baseball, considered “America’s pastime”, and the one that is perhaps above all others steeped in time-honored traditions, does not promote post-game shows of sportsmanship. This seems completely counterintuitive.

But let’s get back to the overall theme of this piece–the erosion of sportsmanship in sports as a whole.

What has happened to it? College and pro sports, as described earlier, are in no way devoid of sportsmanship. But because of the actions of a few very notable individuals, sportsmanship has taken a huge hit in recent years.

Let’s start with college football. Steve Spurrier, who now coaches at South Carolina, was infamous for running up the score of some of his teams’ games while he was the head coach at Florida. With the outcome of the game no longer in question, Spurrier often continued to play starters or continued to pass the ball rather than running, meaning that the clock would stop more frequently and the game would be prolonged. Often he would continue to try to score additional points even with the game firmly in hand.

Spurrier would defend the practice by saying things like “It’s up to the other team to stop us” of “These kids work hard in practice all year long, and I am not going to tell them to stop working hard when they’re in a game.” Needless to say, Spurrier was regularly demonized in the media while running the Gator program. This hasn’t really been an issue in Columbia, since Spurrier’s Gamecock teams haven’t enjoyed nearly the same level of success. Nevertheless, people remember his Florida antics even now.

The NCAA rules committee has had to take strong steps to curb “unsportsmanlike conduct”, particularly after a score. College players, having watched their professional football heroes performing elaborate touchdown dances and other forms of extreme showmanship on TV, started doing the same thing after scoring. The NCAA put in a “taunting” rule that basically says if a player or team engages an extreme show of celebration after a score or after a big play, they can be called for “excessive celebration” and be penalized 15 yards.

This can have the impact of affecting a game’s outcome. It almost cost Auburn a win in this year’s Outback Bowl game. After a late TD that put Auburn up 35-21, RB Ben Tate “dunked” the ball over the Nortwestern team’s goal post and was flagged for excessive celebration. This meant Auburn had to kick off from its own 20, rather than the usual 35 yard line. Northwestern took advantage of the penalty and with a shorter field, went down and scored its own TD. Auburn would hold on to win the game in OT, but the damage of Tate’s shameless show of self-promotion had a dire effect on his team, almost costing them the game.

In this past season’s Georgia-LSU game, Georgia scored with 1:09 left in the game to take a 13-12 lead, but UGA receiver A.J. Green was called for excessive celebration on the play. LSU got the ball with a short field after the ensuing penalized kickoff and ultimately scored a TD of its own just before time expired to win the game 20-13.

These are, by no means, isolated examples of poor sportsmanship in college football. There has been an unquestioned decline in the practice of sportsmanship in the sport.

However, for the most part, the tradition of the post-game handshakes has managed to be preserved. I feel sure that there are occasional instances in which a player or two from the losing teams makes his way to the locker room without congratulating the players from the winning team, but I believe this to be an isolated thing.

Someone suggested to me recently that Tim Tebow left the field after this past December’s SEC Championship Game without engaging in the ritual. Tebow was shown on national TV just before the end of the game–sitting on his team’s bench with tears streaming down his face because he realized that his dreams of another national championship for his Gator team had been crushed by Alabama. Nevertheless, Tebow did, in fact go out on the field after the end of the game, congratulating Alabama players and even submitting to a very difficult post-game interview in which he once again gave credit to the Crimson Tide for their fine effort. A fine display of good sportsmanship.

I am not a huge fan of Tim Tebow, since I am fiercely loyal to my Alabama teams, and Tebow’s Gators snatched the hearts out of Bama fans everywhere in 2008 when he led his team to a 4th quarter comeback that won them that year’s SEC Championship and he subsequently led the Gatos to a win over Oklahoma in the National Championship. But regardless of my feelings for Tebow as a player, I respect him as a man because he has consistently shown himself to be an icon of good sportsmanship and a fantastic example to young kids everywhere.

Rather than go into intricate details of the overall decline in sportsmanship in the other “big” American sports, I want to use three individual examples to highlight it.

In last year’s NBA semi-final matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic, fans were treated to great series that featured two of the modern game’s best players, LeBron James of the Cavaliers and Dwight Howard of the Magic. The Cavaliers were the favorites before the series began, but the Magic ultimately prevailed in a tough six-game showdown. After the clock ran out on the Cavaliers’ season in Game Six, LeBron James made a very visible and highly dubious decision to run off the court and into the Cavalier locker room without exchanging any handshakes or well wishes with any of the Magic players.

James was roundly chastised in the media for this obvious lack of sportsmanship. For his part, James offered little contrition, explaining that he didn’t want to disrupt the celebration by the Magic players, while also proffering that he didn’t especially feel very congratulatory since his team had lost.

Cavalier and James fans everywhere sounded off with a chorus of “what’s the big deal” reactions to this. The consensus among them was that James was in no way obligated to shake hands and that he was merely trying to “give way” to the Magic players so that they could celebrate their big win.

Give me a freaking break.

The second example is from this year’s Super Bowl. After the Saints completed their improbably come-from-behind win, perhaps the most recognizable star in the NFL, Peyton Manning, made his way off the field without congratulating a single Saint player. Manning made little attempt to show any remorse for his actions, explaining that–like LeBron–he was merely getting out of the way so that the Saints could have the field to themselves to celebrate.

Once again, puh-leeze.

The third, and most recent example is from this past Friday night’s Sweet Sixteen game between Ohio State and Tennessee. Ohio State’s Evan Turner, the general consensus as this season’s Player of the Year, had an opportunity to tie the game with a three-pointer as time was expiring. Instead, he had his shot blocked by a Vol player. Turner sat on the floor with an incredulous look on his face for several seconds after the “no call”, imploring the refs to call some sort of non-existent foul that would prolong the game. When he was not awarded with the phantom foul call, he refused an offer from a Buckeye teammate to  help him off the floor and then made an immediate beeline for the Ohio State locker room, bypassing several Tennessee players along the way without even a token effort to shake hands or offer congratulations.

Turner has not, to my knowledge at least, spoken out on this transgression in the media since the incident, but Ohio State fans all over have said that this is “much ado about nothing” and that Turner had no obligation to offer congratulations. After all, they said, his team lost and he was pissed about it. End of story.

These three athletes share a common trait. They are all perhaps the most visible “face” of their respective games. They are all highly telegenic figures. James and Manning have already supplemented their enormous pro sport salaries with scores of commercial endorsements. Turner, with his good looks and super-human abilities, is an excellent candidate to do the same once he joins the NBA, perhaps as soon as this fall.

We all saw what happened to Tiger Woods when his serial affairs were divulged to the public in recent months. His entire image, carefully built by Woods and his “team”, has been perhaps forever sullied by his selfish actions. While his behavior is not related to sportsmanship directly, a number of highly-visible figures around the sport–most recently Arnold Palmer–have suggested that Woods has for too long tried to put himself above the rest of the sport and that his narcissistic attitude had to change if he ever hoped to rebuild his tarnished image.

I personally think that Lebron James, Peyton Manning, and Evan Turner should have suffered more “slings and arrows” in the media for their obvious and similarly narcissistic behavior. After all, if we are to maintain the sacred tradition of sportsmanship in this country, the most visible practitioners of the games have to be the ones who always set the bar for those that come in their wake.

If we as Americans continue to tolerate and even excuse this sort of behavior, we are giving a “free pass” to our kids to do the same. If our kids see athletes of that magnitude display that level of poor sportsmanship and “get away with it”, then just how are we to expect these youngsters to behave differently?

2 Responses to “I’ve Got a Bone to Pick With Lack of Sportsmanship Today”

  1. Lee Roi Jordan Says:

    Has narcissism in sports increased? Has narcissicm in society increased? Are either of these directly or indirectly related to sportsmanship? Finally, does any of this have anything to do with your list of omitted handshakes?

    First, without getting into much detail, I will concede that narcissism is more evident in both sports and society. Increased television and internet video coverage allows quicker access for each of our fifteen minutes of fame. Rarely is a major college or pro game not televised in the current age. This increased exposure leads to increasing competition for creative exposed moments. I don’t think it is coincidence that Homer Jones, the first football player to spike the ball after a score, was also a key player in the first Monday Night Football game with a kickoff return for touchdown. Television exposure and narcissism go hand in hand and as video exposure increases, so do narcissism and showboating.

    Although showboating can be seen as poor sportsmanship, sportsmanship is a more complex subject than mere attention seeking. One man’s poor sportsmanship can be another man’s gamesmanship (it often depends on who is winning and who is losing). Is trash talking poor sportsmanship? It often depends on who is talking, who is listening and if the conversation can be heard by the fans. Whichever side you come down on, I don’t think there is any question that athletes of past eras were better practitioners of this art.

    What about bending the rules? Stealing signs in baseball? The head slap or excessive use of stickum in the NFL? Abusing recruit signing limits in college football? Disguising illegal defenses in the NBA? As with trash talking, the limits are often in the eyes of the beholder and it is not apparent that any of these affronts are more common than in past days.

    So far we have seen and hopefully can agree that attention grabbing is increasing and can be distasteful. We have also seen and hopefully agree that poor sportsmanship is a more complex subject that was just as active in team sports decades ago as it is today. Where does this leave handshaking as a societal issue?

    In this Easter season it seems appropriate to look back 2,000+ years for a similar situation. In modern sports, athletes can play a game full of trash talking, rule bending, cheap shot elbows and eye gouging in piles and then shake hands at the end to show they are “good sports”. The handshake is the equivalent of Yom Kippur where if one observes the correct rituals and says the correct prayers, the past year’s sins can be absolved. Much of Jesus’s ministry was spent explaining that the rules and rituals were not an end, but rather a means to an end. A first century jew should not cheat and lie in private while wearing the proper prayer shawls and performing the proper rituals in public.

    Your pharisaical condemnation of seeming good guys, James, Manning and Turner, for breaking one of your rules harkens back to the actual Pharisees condemning Jesus for his rule breaking. He associated with sinners and the unclean. He performed work on the Sabbath. As the Pharisees miseed the true message in their quest to check all the boxes and follow all the rules, your focus on a handshake has twisted your panties to a point where the discomfort has clouded your judgment.

    As you point out above, both James and Manning claimed they were allowing the victors to enjoy their moment. You dismiss these claims but in the same piece give an example of precisely what the magnanimous James and Manning were trying to avoid. Just as James and Manning were the undisputed stars of their games, Tim Tebow was the star of the SEC championship game. He was not necessarily the best player nor the ultimate victor, but he was unquestionably the brightest star. When Alabama finally defeated him it was a great moment for the Tide players. They had conquered the field. It was a moment when they deserved the praise and attention from the public. Unlike other times where narcissistic players would dance or dunk the football after meaningless plays, the victorious heroes truly deserved their moment. What did the victorious quarterback, Greg McElroy, say at this championship moment? Even most of us Alabama fans don’t remember because Tebow felt compelled to strut out on the field and find a camera to give his thoughts on the moment. I agree that these were moving and gracious thoughts, but they could have just as easily be given (as they were again) in the post-game interview room. A true sportsman would have given Greg McElroy his moment rather than claiming the spotlight one more time. Who is the true narcissist? Is it Tim Tebow who is willing to be as gracious and humble as he needs to be to keep the cameras rolling or is it Peyton Manning who quietly slips away to allow his foe, Drew Brees, his shining moment.

    Manning broke your rule, just as Jesus broke a rule by allowing the sinful woman with the alabaster jar to wash his feet. Peyton Manning is certainly not comparable to Jesus. I’m sure he has plenty of faults (feel free to pick a bone with any of them that come to light), but I’m sure that he is willing to take a few arrows from the small-minded crowd to do the gracious thing even if it requires breaking a few rules.

    Ian Anderson, no apologist for Jesus or Peyton Manning, wrote a song before Manning was born that describes the empty souls who simply cling to a set of rules for their salvation and meaning. I hope the young will learn to play the game from examples like Manning rather than merely listening to your barren, bleached bone strictures on how not to play the game.


    When I was young and they packed me off to school
    and taught me how not to play the game,
    I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success,
    or if they said that I was a fool.
    So I left there in the morning
    with their God tucked underneath my arm —
    their half-assed smiles and the book of rules.
    So I asked this God a question
    and by way of firm reply,
    He said — I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
    So to my old headmaster (and to anyone who cares):
    before I’m through I’d like to say my prayers —
    I don’t believe you:
    you had the whole damn thing all wrong —
    He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
    Well you can excomunicate me on my way to Sunday school
    and have all the bishops harmonize these lines —
    how do you dare tell me that I’m my Father’s son
    when that was just an accident of Birth.
    I’d rather look around me — compose a better song
    `cos that’s the honest measure of my worth.
    In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me,
    as you lick the boots of death born out of fear.
    I don’t believe you:
    you had the whole damn thing all wrong —
    He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.

    • deepsthboy Says:

      There is no question that narcissism is more prevalent today, but that is only one symptom of the decline of sportsmanship. I think I agree with you that the prevalence of television coverage encourages more “look at me” behavior on the part of athletes.

      However, although referees in college football have occasionally gone too far in applying the “excessive celebration” rule (I thought the penalty called on A.J. Green in the Georgia-LSU game was unwarranted), the fact that the rule is so strictly enforced is a function of the NCAA’s keen awareness that this sort of unsportsmanlike behavior on the field has to come with harsh penalties. Coaches can point out to the entire team that this sort of egotistical nonsense can easily cost a team a game if it happens at the wrong time (again, see UGA v. LSU). This sort of behavior cannot and should not be abided.

      Lee Roi, it’s quite obvious that you reside in that tiny sliver of society that tries to make excuses for childish behavior by today’s athletes. You’re the guy that explains the reason you tailgated the guy in front of you and blew your horn excessively by saying you were just trying to help the driver in front of you find a safer lane in which to travel. You were merely trying to aid the poor soul.

      It is utterly laughable to ascribe the behavior of LeBron James, Peyton Manning, or Even Turner to a high level of competitiveness or to an effort on their part to allow the other team to celebrate while they themselves simply got out of the way. For any of those three idiots to suggest that was the reason for their behavior is an infantile as the behavior itself.

      As for Tim Tebow, I don’t think he was trying to take anything away from Alabama’s post-game celebration. You can bet that the CBS producers told their on-field reporter to try and get some time with him if he would allow himself to be interviewed. He had a very tough time composing himself, and he was clearly quite uncomfortable. He was not in a position he either wanted or asked to be in. This was purely a CBS decision. What Tebow did is exactly what James, Manning, and Turner were too immature to do, and that was to suck up his pride and congratulate the other team, thereby helping ever so slightly to offset the egomaniacal idiocy of the other three. With James and Manning, it’s probably too late to expect this sort of inanity to change, but for Turner it certainly sets a really bad example for the type of prima donna behavior I now expect to see from him at the next level.

      I read this week that LeBron has indicated he may be “too busy” to participate in the basketball world championships this summer. This busy schedule, perhaps not coincidentally, coincides with an off-season in which he is going to be negotiating his free agent contract, either with the Cavaliers or some new team.

      LeBron is one of the most recognizable athletes in the world now, and has endorsements coming out of his ears. But between his shallow behavior in last year’s playoffs and now this “busy schedule” issue not allowing for much else than “LeBron stuff” this summer, I am betting that the “real” LeBron is a lot closer to what we no know Tiger Woods is than the carefully-honed image we have been force-fed in the media. And we can definitely point to LeBron as a huge reason that kids today are going to take sportsmanship a whole lot less seriously than they used to.

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