A couple of weeks ago, I stayed up to watch an Interleague baseball game between San Francisco and Oakland. My Giants had just returned from a triumphant road tour and were back at AT&T Park. It was at home that the team had to eat humble pie. After the game’s last out, it was gratifying to see how my team was as graceful in defeat, as they are in victory. Also, even though a home field defeat is quite disappointing for a team’s fans, it is unthinkable for them to stampede onto the field in outrage.
After switching off the Giants game, I remembered my own clumsy childhood efforts on the baseball field. Our phys. ed. teacher was a rare gem; he often stressed the importance of good sportsmanship and fairness. Due to the fact that a game of grade school pupils mixes up kids of varying degrees of skillfulness, fairness is an integral part of teaching ethics to youngsters in sports. Even though I was a mediocre third baseman, I was never ridiculed by that teacher. This is probably one of the reasons baseball is the team sport I most enjoy watching.
A sound grounding in ethics is one of the main takeaways that baseball instilled in me. The concept that the rules apply equally to every player is one that should be applied to non-baseball life. I sometimes fantasize about how amazing the world would be if everyone practiced good sportsmanship in all aspects of their lives.
The lessons of that phys. ed. teacher still resonate in my mind. He said that we should always maintain self-control in dealing with others. We should pay all due respect to authority and our opponents. Those fans who boo the umpire are fans who don’t understand good sportsmanship. Basically, good sportsmanship includes these virtues: persistence, self-control, courage, and fairness. In my opinion, it is fairness that is the catalyst for the other three values.
What is often overlooked is how instruction in good sportsmanship readies a person for those times when our adversaries behave in unsportsmanlike ways. All of us have encountered people whose desire to win overrules equity and fairness. Bad sportsmanship happens when the values of persistence and courage dominate the values of self-control and fairness. In other words, bad sportsmanship is unbalanced while good sportsmanship is balanced. Bad and good sportsmanship is found both on and off the field.
Bad sportsmanship appears to be the dominant expression in today’s world. The warped ideal of win at all costs seems to have the upper hand. Unfettered ambition not only leaves obvious victims, it creates a feeling of insecurity in the victors. There is the addictive hunger for ever more victories and kudos. At the same time, there is resentment and dissatisfaction among the individuals who feel used and oppressed. In the end, we have a witches’ brew of unrest and violence.
When we honestly practice self-control and fairness, we understand that this is not the same as the virtue of equality. People are different in many ways. Some people excel in sports, others, like me, do not. Some people are good organizers, others have inventive minds. Some folks are detail oriented and some are good at seeing the big picture. Some people are physically strong, others are mentally strong. We can think of many other qualities that certain individuals have.
It’s important to utilize and include everybody in order to maintain a strong society with integrity. This is how sportsmanship can be applied to the world at large. We can utilize the strengths of our differences to come together on a level playing field.
The idea of a world filled with people who daily practice good sportsmanship is idealistic and probably too good to be true. Certainly good sportsmanship cannot be forced onto people; that would be unsportsmanlike behavior. Groups and tyrants have been forcing their ethics onto others for eons, often with tragic results.
People have different points of view due to variations in biological makeup and life experiences. The balancing powers have enabled what passes for civilization throughout the years. It might be argued that something like good sportsmanship dates back to the original Olympics of ancient Greece.
Surely those ancient athletes had to practice self-control in order to perfect their skills. They needed to find the courage to compete publicly among other skilled athletes. They needed respect for themselves and their adversaries in order to realistically strive for victory. Fairness brought it all together so non-equals could compete equitably. Even though the ancients may not have called this combination of virtues by the name of sportsmanship, sportsmanship is the legacy that we inherited.
Sportsmanship is manifested off the field as justice. It is how we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the whole of society. Justice isn’t only served by our system of courts of law, it is the domain of all participants in a democratic republic. Whether we call it unsportsmanlike or injustice, when we turn a blind eye, we embrace the worst of humanity.
When we enable good sportsmanship and justice, we strive towards the betterment of the world.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Cal Ripken, Jr. who was a much better third baseman than this writer. “Sometimes I think sportsmanship is a little bit forgotten in place of the individual attention.”