When I was little — and I am sure I wasn’t the only one brought up this way — I was always taught to play fair when it comes to sports and competition. Whether that was while playing the game or the way I acted afterward, it was the way you handled yourself in tough situations that mattered and was most noticeable. These days, fans and players alike are too quick to broadcast their competitive impulses.
I grew up playing softball, so by the time I was old enough to lift a baseball bat above my head, I was in little league. At first I never knew what I was doing and would get confused when the coach yelled at me to run to the base after hitting a ball — but I was a six-year-old kid who didn’t know a tennis ball from a baseball.
By my second year in little league, I remember taking time during practice to go over handshakes, lining up after the game quickly and uniformly. The coach wanted us to understand that after every game, you always line up one-by-one and shake the hand of every member of the opposing team. You say “good game” to every single person no matter if you won or lost.
Sportsmanship changes over time. With age, I find that taking the time to shake everyone’s hands gets drowned out by the competitiveness of the game. By the time I played softball in high school, it wasn’t really a requirement anymore. I didn’t have to say “good game” to everyone and I could even get away with not lining up after the game and staying in the dugout until we left the field. Times changed and so did my manners.
Sportsmanship differs between athletes and fans. Both parties have the right to display it or deny it, but when you are on a team, you are representing every player before you that wore that jersey. You become bigger than yourself. But does that give you an excuse to ignore the opposing team just because they play a better game than you?
The line breaks between childhood and adulthood. The control taught to children is lost with age.
During the past couple of weeks, the eyes of the sports world — along with my own — have been glued to the Little League World Series. On social media, viewers have pointed out how teams still root for their opponents when they make a tremendous play or hit a home run. The teams seem to detach themselves from the game and sense of competition. Instead, the two sides start playing as a whole. The goal seems to be to play baseball, plain and simple.
The way children handle themselves when playing a game compared to professionals can be seen very differently, particularly in the context of this exemplary event.
Players are looked up to by kids, adults, cities and past players. They represent so much to hundreds of people and how they act reflects on the team. It has become normal to watch a game and see a fight break out or a punch thrown.
Earlier in July, a fight broke out at a youth basketball game in Atlanta between players and referees. Back in April, the Red Sox and Yankees had to clear their benches when Tyler Austin slid spikes-up into Brock Holt’s ankle. The incident resolved itself and the game continued until Austin returned and Joe Kelly tried to hit Austin. The National Hockey League even has a postseason fight log. I know you all remember The Malice at the Palace, the infamous NBA brawl between the Pacers and Pistons in 2004.
What happens on the field gets noticed by fans, and they find it okay to be disrespectful because the players have set this precedent on the big stage.
USA Today reported that an Eagles fan paid $5,000 to display a billboard outside of Gillette Stadium showing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady getting sacked and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles catching the Lombardi Trophy. A banner displaying the final game score, 41-33, was flown over Gillette.
Although I’m sure the billboard design was all in good fun, the question arises of whether it was necessary. Now don’t get me wrong, I wanted the Eagles to win last year’s Super Bowl just like every other fan who dislikes the Patriots. But I don’t think placing a billboard outside the New England’s home turf sends the right message. Decorum, people. Act like you’ve been there before (even though the Eagles haven’t).
When people drive by that billboard, they see a petty message being sent from the Eagles to the Patriots, not a fan having fun. Personally, I would not want to misrepresent any team that way.
This is where sportsmanship comes full circle. Sportsmanship doesn’t just apply to people who play sports but to fans, too. It is about respecting other people and treating others the way you want to be treated. That message gets lost in the fog of competitiveness and the drive of winning, particularly in the social media age when it is so easy to display one’s competitive impulses. Everything people do sends a message, so think about the message you are sending every day.
Jessica Wetzler Sports Editor