My Grandson who plays college basketball recently told me of an episode in which the player whom he was guarding threatened to return to the campus and shoot him. Although I was very concerned, he did not take it seriously and told me that “trash talking” was part of the game. He described such talk as anything from making physical threats and personal insults to comments about one’s lineage. The goal of course is to distract, and thus gain an advantage.

The subject of the behavior of competing athletes is one of which I have little personal experience for I was that kid who was always last to be selected during a pickup game, and never made the team in high school. Consequently; my needs to compete were satisfied vicariously as a sometimes rabid fan.

Nevertheless; it seemed clear to me that this so called “trash talking” must not be very sportsman like. With that in mind, I googled the word sportsmanship and came up with the following definition: “ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in an athletic event and graciousness in defeat” With that I concluded that trash talking flunked the test on several counts, and that derogatory comments about an opponent’s mother were definitely unsportsmanlike.

There was a time when such disrespecting of an opponent would have been considered bad form and could lead to suspension or even dismissal from the team. Most coaches emphasized “fair play” and often ended their pregame speech with the phrase: “may the best team win.” One would be judged on how well he played rather than on the outcome of the game. Another commonly used phrase was: “it’s not if you win or lose, but how you play the game” a phrase that has now become laughable among many.


Vince Lombardi

Then in the 60s along comes Vince Lombardi whose oft quoted phrase: “Winning is not everything, it is the only thing” seemed to give license to do anything necessary to win. However it is a shame that another of his statements is so rarely mentioned, namely: “ the object is to win, fairly and by the rules …….”


Woody Hayes

There were others such as Woody Hayes, the hero coach of all us Ohio State alums, who adhered to the old fashioned codes of fair play which for many seemed outmoded. He saw himself as a father figure, and as such felt the responsibility to teach his players values and self- discipline. Although strict (the toughest guy on the team would prefer to eat his jock strap rather than face his wrath), he showed that he cared about his players for more than their athletic ability. When I was an intern at Ohio State University hospital, one of his team members was diagnosed with an acute leukemia, for which at that time there was no adequate treatment. Not only did he visit the player daily, he set up a schedule for the team members to rotate visiting in order that one of them would be with him 24 hours per day.

In spite of his legendary successes, he refused pay raises retorting that money was not that important to him. His salary in 1978, his final year of coaching, was 43,000 dollars. This year our current coach, Urban Myer, received a raise and now will be making an average of 6.5 million dollars per year over the next five years. Of course if he can’t make it on that, he probably can pick up a few extra bucks with endorsements and such.

There have always been those who would cut corners (it doesn’t seem politically correct to use the word cheat anymore), witness the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 (“say it ain’t so, Joe”), but with millions of dollars at stake for coaches, players and institutions, many athletes will be competing for more than the satisfaction of winning. The “deflate gate” episode received a great deal of attention, but was defended by many as a minor infraction. I guess it is OK to cheat if it’s only by a little bit.

In recent years it seems to me the number of scandals reported have escalated to the point they no longer garner much attention. The use of performance enhancing drugs has apparently become epidemic, and at times have been responsible for so called “roid” reactions of violent behavior. Lance Armstrong, perhaps America’s most admired athlete, was found to be using such drugs. His only defense was that everyone was doing it, and that may well be true. It raises the question as to what should be done about records which have been set with the aid of such drugs. There are frequent accounts of athletes getting into trouble in bars, which should not be surprising since TV commercials like to couple beer drinking with sports.

Under Woody’s reign any player seen frequenting a bar risked being thrown off the team. Now my alma mater has decided to start selling beer at our football games. What a wonderful idea. We certainly need more drunks at the games. I recall when discovery of alcohol in one’s possession would result in immediate rejection from the stadium.

It is not that unusual for an athlete to deliberately attempt to cause injury to opponents, and is admittedly encouraged by some hockey coaches. Many teams are said to have an “enforcer” whose job it is to intimidate players on the other team. A football player who finds himself on the bottom of a pile is at risk of being battered. In baseball “dusting the batter” often resulting in hitting him with the pitch is accepted as part of the game.

Some of the simple things that have been eliminated from sports may have also contributed to the rise in un-sportsmanship behavior. For example, it used to be customary that when a referee charged a player with a foul, the player raised his hand to acknowledge responsibility. In actuality, the hand-raising might have been more for the benefit of the people keeping the stats before the introduction of the technology we have today and the responsibility benefit was just a gratuitous benefit. But today, instead of responsibility, fouls are often met by players with academy award worthy performances of eye rolling, gesturing, and head shaking.

In 1991 part of the Detroit Pistons team walked off the court when the game was not in doubt and with only 8 seconds to play in order to avoid congratulating the winning team. This has become a classic example of a lack of graciousness in defeat. The NCAA has found it necessary to impose penalties for “taunting” an opponent, but it has now become common for a player to pound his chest and do some kind of dance after making what he considers to be a spectacular play. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that players should not be proud of their accomplishments, but would it not be more sportsman-like to let the deed speak for itself? I submit we need more players like Walter Payton, the famous Chicago Bears running back, who was nicknamed “Sweetness”, by his teammates because of his demeanor on and off the field.

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it certainly has played an important role in advancing the philosophy of winning at all costs. For the major universities the number of Heisman trophy winners or graduates going to the pros may be a more important factor in advancing enrollment than the number of Nobel Prize laureates. The bonuses offered to coaches in return for their winning a championship or bowl game testify to the value of such victories; meanwhile the cost of attending college or professional athletic events is prohibitive for many middle class families.

Man has probably tested his strength, abilities, and endurance since the beginning, and those activities continue to serve a valuable function. Such competitions have contributed to his health, and well-being except for some of the earlier sports in which the competition didn’t end until one of the participants was either dead or incapacitated. It also has the capacity to help develop character, discipline, and the abilituy to work with others to achieve a common goal. I submit it is also helpful in our maturation to experience “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

As I was gathering material to support my biases about this subject, daughter/editor Maggie told me a story of how she witnessed a coach of an opposing team at her son’s soccer tournament coaching the kids on how “to flop” during the game in an effort to get fouls called on the opposing team. Maggie was appalled as am I. This week there was a story of a high school coach who ordered one of his players to deliberately run into an official to retaliate for an alleged bad call.

But I am sure there are a majority of coaches who decry cheating and disrespectful behaviors. I have a friend who is one such person. He resigned as coach of a little league team because he could not tolerate the behavior of parents who were loud, belligerent, and even shouted expletives at the children. In my day, kids found a vacant field or park and played unsupervised. Now even small children are dressed in uniforms and treated as if they are adults. Some must feel a great deal of stress. I wonder what ever happened to playing for fun, and what are we teaching our kids.

I guess it has always been true that the jocks were the most popular and admired kids in school. Now those seen to have exceptional talent are often recruited by colleges while in junior high school. It is little wonder that some come to feel that their exulted status should allow them more latitude in their behaviors, and indeed there is evidence that they sometimes suffer fewer consequences which is not apt to prevent further transgressions. It requires more maturity than the average teenager possesses to deal with such early fame and adulation.

This special recognition can sometimes have negative effects. I am reminded of a high school student who I was asked to treat for depression several years ago. In reality the reason for the referral was that he had announced his intention to quit the football team. I was told that he was an outstanding athlete, and had been the key to the team’s success that year. He had been briefly hospitalized following an injury, but now had recovered. After some initial probing he said he felt as if no one cared about him. After more questioning he told me that before football no one noticed him, and after he got hurt many came to visit, but only seemed interested in when he would be able to play again. He stated that not even the coach asked him how he was feeling, but seemed only concerned as whether he would be able to play again. He was convinced that the coach whom he had counted as a friend had no interest in him as a person. Whether or not his perceptions were correct, it does point out the importance of the unique relationship between a child and his coach.

In spite of the dark sides I am convinced that sports, especially the team variety, offer much that is good. Competition motivates us to give our very best effort, to test our limits of endurance, learn to focus on task, tone our bodies, and experience the value of working together. However; in my opinion when the basic tenets of sportsmanship are ignored the outcomes are tarnished, and values diminished. I am concerned that I don’t hear many discussions about sportsmanship these days, and that there is so little shame associated with its lack. I am also concerned when I hear a Charles Barkley announce that he does not intend to be a role model, for today’s children who are in dire need of role models. I wonder how many children have watched on TV the often replayed scenario of a famous football player as he strikes a woman with his fist, and pulls her from the elevator like a sack of potatoes. Talk about role models.

I believe we should expect our sports heroes to be heroic not shameful, and I think we need to take another look at some of those corny old fashioned ways of thinking about sports.

*Thanks to my son Peter who has made use of his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of sports to advise me on the subject of this paper.

From eshrink’s editor: So, what can we do to change this trajectory toward acceptance of bad behavior in sports?

As eshrink’s daughter, I defer to the lessons I learned while we played sports and watched sports growing up with the best parents in the land! As a parent, your children are always watching you. Focus on the skills one learns from sports: teamwork, integrity, resilience, and hard work, instead of the score. It’s great to win, but a child learns much more about life when he loses as long as you guide him/her in the right way. Point out good behavior when watching sports, “It was a great contest. Even though they didn’t win, they gave it their all, never gave up and should be proud of their effort.” Point out bad behavior: for example, when watching a game recently, a player intentionally yanked another player by his face mask dragging him to the ground and then another player made the throat slashing sign in the end zone. If you ignore such behavior, your child might think it’s acceptable. And don’t be afraid to speak up to other parents who are behaving badly, coaches who are being poor examples. You can speak up without putting others down. Silence in witness of bad behavior is construed as acceptance. As a fan and a parent, don’t boo opposing teams. Instead, cheer success of your team…a good play, good team work.

One thought on “SPORTSMANSHIP

  1. The God of Sports is a demanding God and you aptly point out that all the little gods it creates may not be the type of people that make for a strong society, if one of the bases of a strong society is fair play in all things. The “ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in an athletic event” or being a business person, politician, leader, schoolmate, neighbor, etc. seems like the playing field I would want to live on.

    When a God demands winning there can’t be any regard for the other team, let alone the individuals on that team. The team members are, as your depressed football star realized, just pieces of meat in a machine. Their sole purpose is to feed the machine. I hope the young man got out before the machine really chewed him up or found a coach to play under where winning wasn’t everything. How hard it must be to be a parent of a gifted athlete in this atmosphere today.

    I can’t help but think of another aspect of all this and that is the damage to growing bodies when the demands of any sport ask more than that body is ready or able to give, especially potential damage to the brain over years of impact after impact on that sensitive organ. There is, according to NAMI, “growing consensus among researchers that schizophrenia illness results from damage to the frontal lobes, in utero or during early childhood, which lies dormant until the late teens when the frontal cortex of the brain reaches full development….This “silent lesion” could be hereditary, or result from epigenetic factors such as birth complications, head injuries, viruses, toxins or auto-immune reactions– all of which could affect a vulnerable neonatal brain.” There is also hopeful research that suggests that the brain can heal itself, too. Certainly the NFL is dealing with brain injury issues and mental illness.

    One other thought. With another (college) shooting in the headlines, your opening statement about a threat to shoot someone is alarming. This prevalence of one level of trash talk must be why no one seems to take seriously what always looks like credible warning signs when these shootings and the history of the shooter are dissected. At what point does behavior, in this case, trash talk, disintegrate from unsportsmanship behavior to criminal behavior? How hard it must be for your grandson to navigate a world with this kind of behavior. How does anyone compete with others who will do or say anything to win, as your many examples in this blog point to, sadly?

    And one more thought. After seeing the complete disintegration of “polite and appropriate” behavior on the national political scene with at least one party in a political party, I wonder if there is a point where the society of sports and politics will hit bottom and there is hope of climbing back up to a better way of living together?


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