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.

Super Bowl XLIX: Let the games begin!

Today, I along with over a hundred million other spectators will be tuned into watch “the greatest show on earth” (sorry Mr. Barnum).  The hype surrounding the Super Bowl leaves the World Series choking in the dust.  The gladiators will soon suit up and attempt to overwhelm their adversaries.  Many will be extremely large men, who in spite of their size will prove to be quite agile. They, along with others, will demonstrate remarkable physical attributes with innate athletic ability, enhanced by intensive training.

This is not a profession in which passivity is tolerated; consequently, most if not all, have a long history of having been trained to become more aggressive.  Their apprenticeship usually begins when they are little more than toddlers, and progresses through high school.  The most talented go on to play in college, but only a very few of those make it to the “pros.”  Since sports programs are now organized at much earlier ages, talented kids can be identified much earlier, and learn they are “special.”

Ray Rice

This has been a bad year for football in general and the NFL in particular.  The video of Ray Rice dragging his girlfriend out of an elevator as if she were a sack of potatoes after sucker punching her unconscious led to a public relations disaster further aggravated by the commissioner’s slap on the wrist.  This resulted in even more public outrage, and an indefinite suspension was ordered but rescinded following Rice’s appeal.

Adrian Peterson

The smoke had barely cleared before Adrian Peterson, another super star, was accused of child abuse after reportedly having beaten his four year old son with a stick severely enough to draw blood.

Aaron Hernandez

Of course these incidents occurred within the backdrop of Aaron Hernandez, a Patriots player, who is on trial for murder connected to the June 2013 death of Odin Lloyd.

Most would agree that football is a violent game in which serious injuries are not uncommon.  There have been serious attempts to minimize the problem; however, with the increase in size and speed of players, the forces exerted when two such bodies collide at full speed can be horrendous.  Many, if not most who have played for very many years, have experienced reparative surgery of some kind.  Violence is not only tolerated but encouraged.  Television commentators comment approvingly of a “hard hit.”  The late Jack Tatum was lauded as a “hard hitter“ and nicknamed  “the assassin” until  one of those hard hits left 26-year-old  Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley quadriplegic in 1978.  Stingley died from health problems caused by quadriplegia at the age of 55 in 2007.

Woody HayesPregame and half-time speeches are designed to nurture and enhance aggressive behaviors.  The so called fight song of my alma mater, Ohio State University (OSU), includes the phrase, “Hit them hard and see how they fall.”  Our venerable OSU coach, Woody Hayes, is said to have studied the tactics used by famous generals throughout history to formulate strategies for his game plans.

The most serious and far reaching problem of all is fortunately now gaining the attention it deserves, and affects participants of the sport at all levels.  That of course is the revelations regarding the long term effects of concussions.  A long list of retired veterans of the NFL have shown up with evidence of some type of pre-senile dementia which has been attributed to recurrent concussions.  This revelation should not have been surprising since the punch drunk boxer syndrome has been with us for a century.

There had been concerns about head injuries for at least a hundred years, and the fairly obvious solution was to protect the head.  When I was in high school the protection offered was little more than a helmet made of leather with some padding. (Link to the Evolution of the Football Helmet from The Smithsonian) 

In fact, helmets weren’t even required until 1943. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a more rigid padded helmet would offer much more protection, thus the plastic helmet was born in the 50s.  It was not long until heads protected by these rigid coverings were used as weapons, and the number of concussions seemed to increase as tacklers learned to lead with their heads.

Brains are very fragile and are protected by floating in a bath of cerebrospinal fluid, which in most instances prevents it from being damaged by sudden movements which could cause contact with the inside surface of the skull.  When very rapid movements are stopped abruptly this protection can be overcome and the brain may be bruised by being slammed against the skull.  This results in the development of the symptoms commonly seen in concussions.  Researchers postulate that repeated, such episodes eventually result in permanent brain damage. 

The rules makers have attempted to deal with the problem by adding rules against helmet to helmet contact or so called spearing with their head.  It seems to me; however, that the nature of the game is such that these so called contrecoup injuries cannot be completely eliminated by such rules.  Another well  known danger to players is the face mask which can be deliberately or inadvertently grasped by an opposing player.  Of course this is a rule violation but I doubt that the player with a broken neck would feel that a 15 yard penalty would be exactly proportionate.

Yes the NFL has a few problems, but I would not write them off for now.  Any organization which can convince 70 or 80 thousand people to travel great distances, pay thousands of dollars to watch some mayhem should not be underestimated.  Add to this a few hundred million bucks from their broadcasts, and royalties from the sale of all kinds of clothes and trinkets, and soon you may be talking real money.  It must also be gratifying to have free almost limitless advertising from the various sports talk shows.  But the shrewdest move of all has been their ability to get others (often we taxpayers) to pay for the venues in which they can display their gladiators. The draft system is guaranteed to provide some parity over the long hall to keep those loyal fans returning, but even the losing teams will share in the wealth by getting their cut of the proceeds.

That vaunted PR machine has already swung into action in order to ameliorate some of the bad press.  They have partnered with an advocacy group to let us know they are not in favor of domestic violence, and  I understand their will be a very impressive public service ad during the game to further convince us that such behaviors are unacceptable.  The news networks have interviewed many experts who are convinced that deflate gate is a red herring, and that all those coaches and players are totally committed to playing by the rules.

The concussion problem may not be as easy to extinguish, and I hear that some biddy league and high school coaches report they are noting that fewer kids are trying out.  Parents are increasingly concerned, and when the legendary football guru iron Mike Ditka announces that he would not allow a child of his play football, there is cause for concern.

As for me, I love to watch the game, but I don’t know why.  Is it the beholding of the skill of these marvelously conditioned athletes, or is it a toned down version of what those Romans went to see in the coliseum?  In any event, I will be there in front of that screen rooting for my team.  I still haven’t decided which that will be, but when I do those warriors I have selected will be fighting for me.  Go Bucks!