A Treatise on Sportsmanship: What it is and isn’t

If you attend even a few high school sporting events a year, you’ve heard the speech.  The public address announcer typically takes a moment, sometimes more, to exhort those in attendance to practice good sportsmanship.  Often the pregame address will go into detail as to what types of behavior constitutes poor sportsmanship.

So what is sportsmanship, anyway?  Merriam-Webster defines sportsmanship in this fashion:  conduct (as fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport.

Over the past several years, the Maine Principals’ Association has made sportsmanship a priority, along with many of its member schools.  The MPA has expanded its sportsmanship program to include all sports.  A recent example of this change has occurred in basketball.  Previously, sportsmanship awards were presented at the state championship games based on conduct during the regional tournament.  Over the past few years the entire season has been taken into account.

While we have a dictionary definition of sportsmanship, the de facto definition has shifted over the years.  We define sportsmanship or a lack thereof in much same the fashion U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity in the famous 1964 ruling of Jacobellis vs. Ohio.   In siding with the majority, the justice couldn’t put his finger on obscenity but stated “I know it when I see it”.  In this case when the court overturned the ruling by the state of Ohio, Justice Stewart deemed the manager of the Heights Art Theatre did not violate obscenity standards by showing the film The Lovers. 

As our social norms have changed, so has our definition as to what is acceptable behavior in our gyms, fields, and rinks.  You see, there is a difference between what is normal and acceptable in everyday society and what is tolerated in the fields of play.  Sport simply has a different societal code, a gamesmanship so to speak, that is just, well different.

The MPA and individual schools should be applauded as to the steps taken to ensure a positive atmosphere exists during contests.  In some instances have we gone too far in the other direction?  I tend to think so.  There has grown an increasing muddying of the waters as we live in a uber sensitive, everyone is so easily offended, society.  I had a parent come up to me a few years ago following a game on the road just incredulous how a student section could be allowed to yell when our players were shooting free throws.  My response was:  they were yelling?  So what, I didn’t notice.  I just considered it a normal part of playing on the road.

Recently, a couple of spectators at a high school basketball game allegedly got their undies all caught up in a wad.  Their reason?  They were so outraged the opposing student section held up newspapers in front of their faces while their starting lineup was being announced.  Rather than dismiss the complaint for the pettiness it was, the offending school supposedly has banned the practice going forward.

High school sporting events should be a place where kids can let loose and just be kids.  Unfortunately, not all, but too many administrators have gone overboard in policing the environments at their schools.  Many would rather ban than educate.  It’s okay to have rivalries with the good-natured ribbing of the opponent that years ago were part of those contests.  Obviously, any obscenity and personal attacks should not be allowed.  Clever chants add to the atmosphere of a high school game.  As an aside, if I hear a student section rhythmically shout “you can’t do that” again, I just might lose it.  Not that it’s offensive, it’s just getting really, really old.

At the other end of the spectrum is the grandstanding and utter phony, trite displays of sportsmanship.  You’ve seem them, especially if you’ve attended any number of tournament games at all.  They start with the pregame introductions.  It’s as though the participants are running for public office.  The player gets introduced and shake hands with just about anyone within twenty feet of them.  They shake hands with the officials, the opposing coach, and then the alternate starter of the other team.

Another rite of the game who’s time has past is the post game handshake line.  With few exceptions, this spectacle is done for show more than anything.  Most of this time the routine lasts about thirty seconds, if that, with the participants slapping their opponents hand going through the line, monotonically mumbling “good game”.

A much more meaningful gesture would be to have a two minute meet and greet time court side after the game.  It would look similar to what transpires towards the beginning of a number of church services, in which congregants shake hands with other members and visitors.  Like the pastor advises the congregation, make sure everyone gets at least one handshake.  Each player would then find a few opposing players and take 10-15 seconds to congratulate, encourage, and so forth.

You see, sportsmanship has nothing to do with the gamesmanship and occasional tom-foolery that happens in the stands.  It is so much more than timeworn traditions which have become devoid of meaning.  It is performing to the best of one’s ability, while showing respect for the opposition.  It is about winning with grace and losing without excuses.

As we enter the new year, let’s resolve to practice true sportsmanship.  Let’s also resolve to use some common sense so acts of gamesmanship are seen as just that.  By making those determinations, here’s hoping we can maintain a positive, yet fun atmosphere, for all players, coaches, officials, and spectators.


Bob Beatham

About Bob Beatham

Bob, a lifelong Bangor resident, has just completed his 21st season as the Public Address Announcer at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Bob is also the public address voice for John Bapst Crusader football. He also currently serves as the scorekeeper for John Bapst basketball. Bob is an avid follower of Maine high school athletics, particularly football and basketball. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate is the service coordinator at Aging Excellence, which provides in-home care for seniors..