Monday, April 19, 2010

It's Called Sportsmanship

Sportsmanship is not just about being nice. It is much more important than that. It's about realizing that you could not compete without an opponent and that she has the same goals as you. ~Stephanie Deibler

The NCAA has been changing rules again, but at least this time, they aren't messing with the clock. They think they're going to reduce concussions by legislating against blockers forming a wedge on kickoffs. They won't, because the guys who were kamikaze wedge busters will still be running down the field at full speed to use their head to knock someone down. Y'know, concussions have been part of football since its inception. It's only in recent years, as we saw former NFL players acting punch-drunk, that people have to come realize the damage concussions do over time.

But, what the heck, no harm in trying.

Also, the NCAA has decided that messages on those eyeblack patches players wear to prevent glare (day or night; just how much glare is there in a night game) have got to go. This is supposedly a Tim Tebow rule (who had Bible references on his). Actually, I think the rules makers knew what was coming: Product logos. Good move there.

But, the rule that has everyone all discombobulated is making the taunting rule a spot foul. What that means is that when Joe Coolreceiver starts high-stepping and sticking the ball out at the defender at the 5-yard line, the penalty will be enforced from there, and, more importantly, the touchdown will be nullified. All over the place, commentators are going on and on about how the officials are taking the "fun" out of the game, and how players should be allowed to celebrate, and how players are being penalized for being happy.

Codswallop.

No one is talking about penalizing someone for jumping up and down like an idiot, as any of us would do, after making a huge play. Running around hugging your teammates and whooping it up with the crowd is fine. Yes, officials have screwed up and thrown flags just for someone being happy, but thankfully, it doesn't happen often.

What we're talking about here is the business of showing up the other guy, of insulting the opposition player, of being classless. In other words, we're talking about sportsmanship, or the sad lack of it.

I know sportsmanship is old hat, an anachronism, a dinosaur. The thing is, the disappearance of sportsmanship has coincided with the increase in the thug element in sports (an element many coaches seem to recruit actively). Don't give me any garbage about how it has something to do with the street culture. It has to do with being a goon.

Exhibit one is Mark Gastineau. Gastineau played for the New York Jets and started the crap of dancing like a fool over the prone form of the opposing quarterback whenever he got a sack. It was the very definition of classlessness.

Exhibit two is the endzone choreography of the Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins (the first time around, when they were winning). Happiness is one thing, but when 8 guys run to the corner of the endzone, get in a circle, and do something that's a cross between tribal ritual and spastic Rockettes, it's rehearsed and classless.

Exhibit three is Billy "White Shoes" Johnson who started all this nonsense about a hundred years ago when he played for the Houston Oilers (remember them?). Okay, doing a little dance in the endzone was cute once. But, if we had known it would lead to players planting cell phones in the goal post, I think everyone would have called for rules to stop the dancing--NOW!

Tom Landry, the builder and excellent coach of the Dallas Cowboys, flatly forbade his players to do endzone demonstrations. He told them that when reaching the endzone, "Act like you've been there before."

Amen, brother.

I know that coaches coach cheating. They teach linemen how to hold, defensive backs how to interfere, and quarterbacks how to draw people offside. I'm not expecting players to run up to the referee and say, "I'm sorry, sir, but you missed the chop block I threw at that defensive end. Please assess the appropriate 15 years."

But, if we can at least get the players to realize that the other guy is as deserving of basic respect as they are, then perhaps we'll have less jawing and jousting after each play. It has always struck me as odd that the entire team can hold a prayer meeting before and after the game, only to offer no respect to their opponents by taunting. Perhaps, the pregame religiosity should include something like, "Lord, keep all the players safe and keep me from acting like an egregious ass."

Just when one thinks that all sports are just one endless round of cheating, griping, dirty play, and disrespect of opponents, referees, and fans, there is one sport we can look to: Golf. Golf is the only sport I know of where players will call penalties on themselves. I've seen it many times, even did it myself when I used to play. It's just part of the idea of being someone that another player would like to compete with or just spend 18 holes with. Oh sure, you say, maybe some guys playing at Slippery Pines Par 3 in Podunk will call penalties on themselves, but just wait until the money is on the line.

Well, how's this. A guy named Brian Davis was in a sudden-death playoff with Jim Furyk in a recent tournament. Now, understand that there's a lot of money on the line here; the difference between first and second in this little tournament was $400,000. That may be small change to Tiger Woods, but I'm sure that Brian Davis (or Jim Furyk for that matter) sure as heck could tell the difference. At any rate, Davis took a shot in the rough and thought he hit a loose reed on his backswing.

Frankly, most weekend golfers have done something similar without even realizing it at one time or another, but it turns out it's against the rules. No one took notice of what Davis had done, and even he wasn't sure he'd done anything. He probably could have gotten away with it. But, because he's a golfer and being a golfer means you play fair, he asked a PGA Tour official if he had hit the reed. The official went to a replay, and told him, Sorry, sport, but it appears you did.

Davis was assessed a two-stroke penalty and conceded the tournament. Now, as if that isn't enough integrity, Furyk, who should have been jumping for joy, felt badly for Davis. He acknowledge the crowd quietly and gave his kids a hug. Because he didn't want to show up his opponent.

In the case of both Davis and Furyk, it's called sportsmanship. And it's nice to see that it's alive and well somewhere.