Monday, December 13, 2010

The Good Sport

Sport is a preserver of health.
Hippocrates, ancient Greek physician

It isn't hard to be good from time to time in sports. What is tough, is being good every day
Willie Mays, Hall of Fame baseball player

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.
Michael Jordan, NBA player,
widely considered to be the greatest player in the history of professional basketball 

Every kid around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pele. I have a great responsibility to show them not just how to be like a soccer player, but how to be like a man.
—Pele, Brazilian soccer player, 
considered possibly world's greatest.

Throwing the Discus: Roman bronze reduction of Myron's Discobolos, 2nd century CE, Glyptothek, Munich
Photo Credit: MatthiasKabel
When I was a kid  growing up and playing a lot of unorganized sports in the 1970s, a common expression was "Be a good sport." The emphasis was on playing fairly, on having fun and on doing so within the rules of  whatever game we were playing, whether ice hockey, street hockey, baseball, football or tennis.

That expression is as telling as it is important. To be a good sport meant that you were not only playing to win, which is an understandably essential ingredient in any sports competition, but that you were also playing with integrity. Integrity and fairness is important in sport at all levels of competition, from the amateur athlete competing locally for a few dozen parents and fans to the pro athlete competing for millions of fans worldwide. Integrity and fairness protects the game from abuse.

So even at our unorganized level of playing, we wanted to win, but not at any cost. While winning was important, it was also important to know that we won in a fair way. That meant that everyone was playing on a level and even playing field, the only deciding factors were the athlete's ability, perseverance and desire to win.

And our sporting heroes at the time—mine were Jean Beliveau (hockey), Rusty Staub (baseball), Bob Griese (football) and Jimmy Connors (tennis) — not only played their sport at the highest athletic level, but also within the rules of the game.

Running for Sport: Youth soccer in Small Town USA: September 17, 2005.
Photo Credit: Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005.

But sport has changed since my first foray into it. (I remember watching the Stanley Cup hockey finals in 1967 between Montreal and Toronto.) It has, like many other things, become big business and part of the entertainment industry. Athletes negotiate multi-million dollar contracts, and many if not most team owners look at sports franchises as another business venture, part of their vast business holdings. The teams have to make a profit, and the pressure is on the players to win.

Winning teams tend to earn greater profits. That's the proven business model. Yet, the stress to win tempts some athletes to take risks with their bodies and their careers, using what is often called performance-enhancing drugs. That gives an unfair advantage to an athlete or team. So, what' the big deal if an athlete does that?

Plenty. Although sport might be packaged like entertainment, it's different in kind.  Sport is truly unlike any other business, because each contest is a brief battle in the contest between good and evil, so to speak, says Lewis H. Lapham in Money and Class in America (1988):
Unlike any other business in the United States, sports must preserve an illusion of perfect innocence. The mounting of this illusion defines the purpose and accounts for the immense wealth of American sports. It is the ceremony of innocence that the fans pay to see—not the game or the match or the bout, but the ritual portrayal of a world in which time stops and all hope remains plausible, in which everybody present can recover the blameless expectations of a child, where the forces of light always triumph over the powers of darkness.
Mr. Lapham, the noted writer and former long-time editor of Harper's Magazine, explains in his poetic fashion why we delight in sport. The battle. The competition. The heroic efforts. All of this is taking place in a controlled fashion. But we also wants fairness and integrity. An unfair contest casts doubt on the validity of the results and destroys the illusion of innocence. This makes the playing field uneven and tarnishes the game.

When the illusion of innocence is burst, it also makes it harder for kids, like my children, to look up to athletes the same way I did. And, even today, where many say they are cynics, we want to believe in the illusion of innocence, even if it's for the brief moment of the sporting match.

Now, of course, I sense that the vast majority of athletes play by the rules. But it takes only a few to place doubts in the minds of fans. To be sure, sports have an important and fundamental place in our society, which explains why so many people watch, play and coach sports. And athletes are still heroes for many millions of people, their hard-earned abilities watched and adored by many around the world.

So, being a good sport is important, not only for the fun of the game, but for the good of society.
I would like to hear your thoughts and comments on sports and your memories of it.

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