I’m thinking about sportsmanship and attitude in sports. This is always something to talk about, since the demeanor and likability of athletes and teams often take precedent over the x’s and o’s. Humans get headlines. I’m especially thinking about it now because I watched the 30 for 30 Bad Boys yesterday and suspensions just came down for the brawl instigated by the “antics” of Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez. And, of course, athletes like Yasiel Puig and Johnny Manziel are never far from breaking news.
I’m also thinking about this because playing sports is still a part of my sports world. Yeah, I watch them and write about them, but I also really (really) enjoy playing them. This most often takes the form of pickup basketball, a sacred land of attitude and unwritten rules concerning behavior. (By the way I’m finna play a lot of basketball this summer, so if you’re reading this and live around my way I’ll be posting up at DoCo’s finest outdoor hoop). So as someone who still competes, albeit unofficially, I have to consider my own experiences when I comment on, and especially when I criticize, the actions of professionals.
I’m thinking about what makes a player gritty and what makes a player dirty. When is it sportsmanship and when is it weakness? Which players are flamboyant and which ones are buffoons? When is a player strongly independent and when is he obtusely selfish?
To put it simply and crudely, how do we delineate being competitive from being a jackass?
The problem in answering this question is that this is a subjective topic. Everyone hated the late-80’s Pistons, but now we look back at them with respect and even smile at their audacity. Some people think you’re not trying if you’re not cheating, and others believe honesty is the best policy. Is flopping cheating? We all love hustle, but what exactly constitutes hustle? What should the desire to win actually look like? We disagree over any athlete who has any sort of edge or attitude. It’s a case by case issue.
For example, after some games of pickup basketball, I’m more than ready to high-five everyone afterwards in recognition of a good contest. I have no problem with it. Maybe during the game I even complimented my opponents’ play. However, after some games, I avoid the somewhat mandatory high-fives or do it with terse dislike. I probably hated my opponents by the end of this game. I probably turned the physicality to Bruce Bowen levels. I probably cheated. I probably swore.
I admit, sometimes winning and losing has to do with my postgame attitude, but a loss doesn’t always mean resentment for me. I can lose with grace (not saying I always do though).
In either case, I probably found enjoyment in the way I played. I don’t mind being everybody’s friend and having a good clean game of basketball. I also kind of like hearing my opponent tell me to eff off.
Similarly, I like seeing a soccer player help his opponent up after a collision going after a 50-50 ball. At the same time, I enjoy seeing basketball players looking generally angry throughout an intense game.
Let me try to put it into a phrase: If your desire to win is matched by your respect for your opponent, and your respect for your opponent is exceeded by your respect for the game, then no one should call into question your demeanor on the field of play.
That’s where you start. But if an opponent’s respect for you or for the game is lacking, then all bets are off. That changes the game. It becomes a personal matter with Malcolm X rules of play. That’s an understanding any player should have.
If players of sports ferociously pursue winning with a love of their game and respect for their opponent, then sportsmanship (and fun) will naturally be a product. You have to assume your opponent wants to win as much as you. If you think like this, you’ll respect your opponent for matching your desire and you should find mutual respect for the sport. Again, the problem comes in when someone disrespects opponents or the game. These ideal rules rarely last long, especially when money gets involved.
So, as is sometimes the case in a shorter post, I guess I can’t give any clear answers and instead have to put the onus on you, as the sports fan and perhaps the sports player, to consider these questions. Where do we draw these lines? Because when you stop and think, we really care about this.
There’s the rules and there’s the rules. And we don’t always know how to follow them. Nor do we always understand them, like in pickup basketball. Or professional basketball.
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Soli Deo Gloria