More Than a Handshake

The photograph above shows players and coaches going through the customary postgame handshakes.

The gesture is a simple one. Most athletes don’t put much thought into it. Their minds more likely are on the game that just ended. But, the handshake is symbolic of an important element of sports competition – respect for the game and everyone involved in it.

Respect vs. Gamesmanship

I’m concerned that we are losing our grip on competing honestly, fairly, and responsibly. That as young athletes move-up in age and competition level, the boundaries of rules and conduct are being pushed beyond their limits, and core values are being sacrificed, in an effort to win games.

Trends in sports typically begin with professional athletes and filter down to the college, high school, and youth levels. Actions and behaviors in professional sports have a significant impact on how sports are played at the amateur level.

In the pros, challenging the enforcement of rules is commonplace. Like children testing their parents, athletes see what they can get away with without being penalized. Football and basketball players will hold on defense, and soccer goalies sometimes “cheat” in from the goal line before a penalty kick, for example.

If the infractions aren’t detected by the game officials, the player and team committing the violation gain an advantage.

We also have seen competitors manipulate the rules of a sport to their advantage. In soccer, players have faked injuries to draw penalties on opponents. In tennis, players have used the medical timeout rule to break the momentum of an opponent, rather than for its intended use for treating an injury. And in pro sports especially, physical and mental intimidation and taunting are part of the culture. You’ve heard NFL players and players in other sports talking about “imposing our will on them”. Any of them will tell you it’s a big factor in their sport.

What Should Be Our Priorities?

It seems to me we need to have a conversation about how we believe amateur athletes should compete.

It’s an important discussion.

We largely have “professionalized” youth sports in our thinking. We apply the pro-level competition model to sports being played by kids. Too often, we get caught-up with “winning” to the detriment of developing qualities in young people that will benefit them the rest of their lives.

How young people compete in sports doesn’t just impact the sports culture. The attitudes and beliefs likely will carry on into how each individual chooses to compete in every other area of life. And, there is a wider impact, too. The values learned through playing, coaching, and watching sports, affect the way society regards core values such as respect, responsibility, fairness, compassion, and integrity.

There are two competing interests in play: the goal of winning the game, and the desire of most competitors to have the game decided on merit, rather than by the use of questionable tactics.

What should be the parameters for competing? And, should the parameters be different, depending on the age and competitive level of the players?

If the standard is simply to adhere to stated rules, we have to accept that some teams and individual competitors will find ways to circumvent those rules.

Personally, I favor the concept that competitors should not just play by the rules, but by the spirit or intention of the rules. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University provides a good definition of it, stating “any athlete who seeks to gain an advantage over his or her opponent by means of a skill that the game itself was not designed to test demonstrates a lack of personal integrity and violates the integrity of the game.” That, of course, extends to teams, as well.

You may have a much different view. There are many angles to consider.

What’s your opinion?

We would like to hear from you.

Originally Released: 2014-01-16 | Edited: 2014-01-19 | Photo Credit: Brenda Anderson via Flickr

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