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The Press Box: Has Sportsmanship Left the Game?

By Randy Rutherford - Sports Writer | Jun 30, 2021

Just a few years ago if you wanted to read the sports in a newspaper, you had to dig through until you found the right section. Today it is not uncommon to find sports stories on the front page of a newspaper, not for an athlete’s world breaking record, but for their disregard for law and order or headlines implicating cheating and bribery within the leagues of players and coaches alike. “Win at all costs!” Is this really the driver in all sports both boys and girls? Winning is defined as gaining, resulting in, or relating to victory in a contest or competition. Sportsmanship is defined as fair or generous behavior or treatment of others especially in a sports contest. What part does sportsmanship play in today’s contests? At what level does winning become everything and sportsmanship takes a back seat? As we wait for the return of winter sports, I find myself with time to wonder about these questions. Maybe there isn’t one right answer, but let’s give it our best shot.

At the earliest of ages, parents set the example for their kids. Today if I see a parent yelling at either the coach or official, I’ll ask myself how that plays out in a kid’s mind. As parents, we only want what’s best for our kids; therefore, in some cases our judgment is clouded when we feel decisions made by other people affect our kids unfavorably. I am reminded of how I reacted to a bad call when my son, Troy, was playing 8th grade basketball. After a series of poor calls by the official which negatively impacted my son’s team. Out of frustration after the most recent whistle, I removed my street dress shoe and slammed it a couple times on the metal bleacher seat. Since it was 8th grade basketball, there were not many fans in attendance, so the noise from my shoe echoed loudly across the gym. Troy looked up at me and gave me the look of, “What are you doing?” He and his Grand Haven buddies, now grown men and many of them fathers, too, still laugh about this today. My wife on the other hand still cringes. In hindsight I wasn’t setting a good example.

Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” How true this has become, especially at the highest level of athletics. The NFL has an average of at least six to seven head coaches fired every year at the conclusion of the season. It is referred to as “Black Monday.” College athletics follow the same pattern; many coaches are fired every year based on their win loss record, and boosters want wins, not good sportsmanship. Because of their large financial contributions boosters are the driver in some cases for the future of the coach. And because of the pressure to win, coaches allow the boosters to provide them the means for recruiting the best athletes. The best coaches also have the best talent. Big money programs seem to be at the top of the rankings year end and year out while the smaller market teams that don’t have the same ability financially are left out in the cold.

Expectations are high at every level of athletics. If you don’t win a championship or make the playoffs, it is considered a bad season, regardless of the win loss record. Under Armour recently terminated its record $280 million partnership with UCLA. The deal with the Bruins was signed in 2016, and at the time was the biggest apparel deal in college athletics. Under Armour felt they had been paying for marketing benefits they were not receiving. Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, LSU and USC, all have won championships and are currently sponsored by Nike. Winning not sportsmanship is what attracts the big money boosters and the large equipment and clothing suppliers. Kids being recruited today to play in college look for the uniform, the team sponsor, the win loss record, the ability to make it to the pros and last, sadly, the education.

How have we arrived at “Win at All Costs?” Mainly because coaches get fired for not winning and players get benched or traded for poor performance. If you want to find good sportsmanship look at the youngest level of competition. This is where a code of conduct based on fairness and graciousness in winning and losing is taught. Anyway, kids at this level usually are more concerned where they are getting ice cream after the game versus who won or lost. Most coaches at this early level try to ensure athletes have a positive experience and are more likely to continue in their sport. Also, most coaches want the kids to have fun while playing! A few coaches working with this younger age group are trying to re-live their playing days and forget they are dealing with young kids and impressible minds. To these folks, I say, “No thanks.” Instead, let’s try to teach the importance of competition. It will pay dividends later.

We can all agree down through sports history there are many examples of poor sportsmanship. Coaches have been known to make poor choices like running the score up on a weak opponent or screaming at the officials or their own players. Some believe in sports, that charging an official is a way to fire up your players, but usually this turns out the opposite, and the guilty coach suddenly realizes just how foolish he or she appears. Embattled Coach Bobby Knight, although highly successful while at Indiana, is a perfect example of what is right and wrong. Bobby was the king of intimidating officials and screaming at his players. He also was known to be extremely stubborn and arrogant; two characteristics, although not complementary, played a role in his success. But these same traits ultimately were part of his downfall. His power and ego grew unchecked alongside his winning percentage.

I feel the strong need to let you know said Vince Lombardi, seeing the abundant harm his “winning-is-the-only-thing” saying had brought to the field of sports, renounced it shortly before his death in 1970. Lombardi, always a colorful speaker, explained as only he could, “I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing. I meant the effort. . . . I meant having a goal. . . . I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

I can remember times during my career, in both high school and college, being involved in an on the field fight. Sometimes in the heat of battle it happened; tensions ran so high that players from opposite teams, or even the same team, would breakout in an all out brawl. But today rules have changed when it comes to fighting. Now if players leave the bench or are involved in a fight, they are ejected and have to sit out the next game, possibly damaging the team’s chance at victory in their next performance. In my day, there was no penalty for fighting, just the swift punishment from my coach at Monday’s practice. My team wasn’t punished; I was.

Just when we are about to lose faith in humanity, some competitor does something that is truly inspiring. For example, during the Ohio High School Division III State track meet, a runner in the 3200 meter race, collapsed in front of Junior Meghan Vogel. Vogel, who had earlier won the 1600 meter race, could have easily gone on to add to her victories on the day, but instead she stopped and carried the collapsed runner across the finish line. “I just figured I’d help her out,” Vogel said, “She deserved to finish ahead of me.”

In El Paso, Texas, with only 13 seconds remaining in a blowout high school basketball game, a special needs student, Mitchell Marcus, appeared destined to finish his career without scoring a bucket. Instead of running the clock out, Franklin High’s Jon Montanez turned the ball over to Marcus and said, “Shoot it. It’s your time.” Marcus took the last second shot and sunk it. Definitely made him the happiest player in the gym along with some wildly cheering fans!

From what I have observed in Tyler and Wetzel counties, our coaches and administrators are doing a great job of combining winning and sportsmanship. Although some of our teams have not been able to enjoy the success they desire as of yet, they are setting an example, on and off the field, for others to follow. If you look closely at the individuals that compose these teams, both girls and boys, many are excelling in the classroom as well as being a leader on the field. We have excellent teachers and coaches in both counties and they are working hard to grow and improve their programs as well as individuals. They are not allowed to recruit, so they have to play with the kids they have available. In some cases, this puts them at a disadvantage, but they show up and compete. This will lead to wins and the character of our athletes will rise to the top.

Good winners show gratitude, and they view their win as a gift they have been given that isn’t possible without all the people in their past assisting them to get to the victory. That’s teammates, coaches, parents and community support. So in other words, win with class and act like you have been there before. And as soon as the pandemic is over, shake hands – win or lose.