Underlying all of the principles of sportsmanship is the assumption that participation in athletic competition is meaningful, valuable, worthwhile. Why else would we play? One of the reasons we owe respect, even gratitude, to opponents, teammates, coaches, and officials is that they make it possible for us to compete. They make it possible for us to participate in something valuable. The overarching concept that we use to refer to what we are participating in is “the game.” And, of course, the game is more than a game. We may have played a game Friday night, but by virtue of playing that game, you participated in the game. And just as a team effort is more than the sum of the individual efforts of the players and coach, the game is more than a particular game played on a particular day, more than a set of rules that determine how you go about trying to win, and even more than the sum of all of the individual efforts of the countless athletes who’ve played the game.
No matter what sport we’re talking about, “the game” refers to a historical entity, rich in traditions and stories, greatness and great failure, tragedy and comedy, wisdom and folly. If you pick up the bat, you’re participating in the same game that Babe Ruth played. You’re drawing from his greatness, and you pay tribute to it with your efforts and achievements. There wouldn’t be a game without the efforts and achievements of all the participants, but the game is something greater than each of us, and probably even greater than all of us. You can’t point to the game in the same way you can point to an opponent or teammate. But you can realize that there is such a thing as the game and that it makes it possible for you to aspire to excellence, to understand something about the human condition, and to develop good character. It is the game in all its complexity that gives us the opportunity to play, and for that reason we owe our respect to the game.
Because respect for the game is less a matter of particular behavior and more a matter of an overarching attitude, the development of that attitude can have a tremendous effect on young athletes. You must do more than teach your players the skills and strategies of their particular sport. Coaches are also educators of what philosophers once called the “passions” or the “sentiments.” Coaches constantly attempt to motivate players, instill desire, generate intensity, reward effort. Coaches perpetually deal with the feelings, emotions, and basic attitudes of their players. Because the development of good character involves the development of basic attitudes, coaches who take the moral education of young athletes seriously must teach them respect for the game.