Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Decline in sportsmanship reflects societal shift

Florida Today

Nobody knows for sure when things changed. Probably back in the '60s, when everything started to shift and so many of society's tenets and values began a steady progression toward the endangered species list.

It was probably around that same time that sportsmanship also began fading from public view.

Maybe the turning point was 1969, at Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath guaranteed his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts. When they did, Namath trotted off the field waving his index finger in a "we're No. 1" gesture.

Athletes didn't use to do that.

Athletes didn't use to do a lot of things.

That's not to say everything that happened way back when was rosy. It wasn't. But the sporting world nowadays is far less civil than it ever was. And it isn't getting any better.

We think about this today in particular because it is National Sportsmanship Day.


Is the word still in the dictionary?

Well, yeah, if only for historical perspective.

Certainly, though, sportsmanship is hard to define, and even harder to find. But the dictionary says it is fair and generous behavior; fair play, courtesy.


Our sports seem so devoid of courtesy that when it does happen, it's news.

A couple of years ago, someone noted that Tiger Woods always takes his hat off when he shakes his playing partner's hand after they've completed a round of golf. Well, that's nice. But shouldn't he? Shouldn't manners and decorum and civil behavior be the rule, not the exception?

Sadly, it isn't.

And it hasn't been for a while.

But that doesn't mean you can't try. In 1997, the NCAA established a committee on sportsmanship and ethical conduct. Its mission was "to improve the condition of sportsmanship and ethical conduct" and promote "the value of respect, fairness, civility, honesty and responsibility."

When was the last time you thought of today's sporting world with words like respect, fairness, civility, honesty and responsibility?

It hardly happens.


How many times have we seen a football or baseball player claim he made a catch when the replay clearly shows he didn't? Yet, he'll hold the ball or his glove aloft to try to convince the referee or umpire that he did. We'd probably all collectively faint if we saw a player turn to an official and say, "Hey, I didn't really catch that. It bounced first."

When a basketball goes out of bounds, what do the players all do? Each claims he wasn't the last guy to touch it. Once again, we'd probably all collectively faint if we saw a player turn to an official and say, "Hey, it went off my hand last."

After all, it's only cheating if you get caught. Right?


It's not the thing you think of when you think of sports today.

When you think of Roger Clemens, you think of a great pitcher, but you also think of a guy who didn't mind throwing at a batter's head.

When you think of John McEnroe, you think of one of the greatest tennis players of his generation, but you also think of a guy who was a foulmouthed, abusive boor.

When you think of Dale Earnhardt, you think of perhaps the greatest driver in NASCAR history, but you also remember that he was called "The Intimidator" for a reason. If he could wreck a guy to improve his position, he would. And did.

It still goes on today in NASCAR. Just look at the way Kurt Busch and Jimmie Spencer went at each other last season. When Spencer wrecked Busch at Indianapolis, Busch waited for Spencer to come around and then alternately pointed at Spencer and his own posterior.

Of course, you don't even want to go into NASCAR's history of drivers trying to get one over illegally on the competition.

But NASCAR isn't the only sport rife with legendary cheats. Baseball's history of corked bats and spitball-throwing pitchers is looked on as colorful. But it's also cheating.

Speaking of cheating, it's also cheating - not to mention unsportsmanlike - when athletes pump illegal performance-enhancing drugs into their bodies. But it's happening more and more, especially with Olympic athletes, who are supposed to represent athletics in its purest form.

The NHL doesn't have a problem with cheating, per se. But sportsmanship reaches all-time lows whenever the NHL allows its players to try to punch each other's lights out and packages it as part of the entertainment.

Boxing can't even have a civil weigh-in ceremony anymore.

A basketball player sinks a basket and pounds his chest. Or he pulls the jersey away from his chest. Hey, look at me!

Football players can't even do what they're supposed to do - score a touchdown or sack a quarterback - without turning it into a dance routine.

And every time Barry Bonds hits a home run, he stands there and watches it, as if he's never seen a home run before. Whatever happened to players putting their heads down and running around the bases?

Yeah, things have changed.

Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers was tickled a couple of weeks ago when his star player, Tracy McGrady, knocked down another player and then, instead of helping him up, as he had done in the past, he glared at the fallen opponent and then stepped over him.

But give McGrady and Allen Iverson some points for offering to give up their starting spots on the East's All-Star team to Michael Jordan. It was a nice gesture. And a rare one.

In football, they even have a penalty for "unsportsmanlike conduct." How quaint. The NFL also has had to crack down on the way players try to show up opponents. In the past few years, several players have been fined for making a throat-cutting motion after beating an opponent on a play. Nice. Real nice.

In recent years, sports has given us a new phrase in our vocabulary - trash talking.

It's everywhere, this less-than-civil conduct.

Florida State made a tradition of tearing up a patch of their opponent's turf to bring back with them after a big road win.

And a few years ago, Florida and Florida State engaged in this childish, unsportsmanlike ritual of stomping on each other's logos. And during one pregame scuffle, UF quarterback Doug Johnson tried to hit FSU head coach Bobby Bowden with a football. Of course, if you ask former UF head coach Steve Spurrier, he'll tell you that FSU defender Darnell Dockett wrenched running back Earnest Graham's knee after a play had ended.

The Florida-Florida State game has become one of the most uncivil rivalries in all of sports.

You'd like to think that a grass-roots campaign could start, but it's at the grass roots level where the situation is often worst. It seems every time you turn around, there is another report of a fight or a fracas at some youth league game, and we're talking about in the stands, with the parents.

Sportsmanship is almost an archaic word in today's society. We revel in bad examples, and give teams nicknames like Bad Boys, and think it's cute.

It's not.

We keep sinking to the lowest common denominator, and then we drag ourselves down even further.

But, hey, it's National Sportsmanship Day, so maybe we can ratchet ourselves up from the gutter a few notches.

Or maybe we can get one of those big foam No. 1 fingers and go out and root for our favorite team.


Peter Kerasotis can be reached at (321) 242-3694 or at pkerasot@flatoday.net

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