We can imagine that some coaches might be skeptical about our emphasis on sportsmanship. It’s not universally agreed that coaches have a responsibility to teach sportsmanship. Some of the objections are fairly prevalent, and we’d like to respond to them before we get under way.
Many coaches object to the call for sportsmanship because they see it as outmoded. Times have changed. Kids are different today, so you can’t coach them the same way that we were coached when we were kids. Other successful coaches let their players trash-talk or vent their emotions, so why shouldn’t I? I have to be in step with the times. You can’t expect players today to act like monks or nuns. Why can’t coaches let players be themselves?
Times may have changed, but in a very important sense, the sports we coach and play have not. Just because more people today, in sport and in society at large, act in disrespectful and uncivil ways doesn’t mean that we must judge such actions as acceptable. Instead of throwing up our hands and saying kids are different so we must coach them differently, we should ask ourselves whether in fact they are different because we’ve coached them—and in general educated them—differently. It may be that because there is such an emphasis on winning and being “number one,” we have forgotten the extent to which the language of sportsmanship has been central to the great athletic traditions. If unsportsmanlike behavior now seems to be the status quo, that doesn’t mean that it has to be. It does mean that coaches have a huge responsibility to constantly teach, practice, and exemplify good sportsmanship. Someone must step forward and challenge the status quo. The truth of the matter is, sportsmanship doesn’t restrict self-expression or require monkish behavior. There are good reasons for requiring players to be good sports, and people with good moral character are no less free to “express” themselves than are bad sports. They may simply do this differently.
The “times have changed” objection to sportsmanship in effect amounts to a form of historical relativism. Another prevalent objection to sportsmanship takes the form of a kind of cultural relativism. Values are relative to cultures, and many of the athletes today come out of urban cultures with values that are different from the mainstream values. In some cultures, outward displays of emotion are more acceptable. It’s just a bunch of old white guys who’ve never been to the playground in the ’hood who criticize taunting and trash-talking.
Certainly, the principles of sportsmanship will get expressed in different ways because of differences of culture and personality. And coaches certainly need to have an appreciation for cultural differences. True, a cookie-cutter approach to molding character—expecting all athletes to behave in exactly the same way—is unwise, impractical, and even unfair. But, as we will argue throughout this book, the basic principles of sportsmanship don’t vary from one culture to another, from one personality to another. Respect for opponents, for example, might be expressed in a more emotional way by someone from a more emotional culture or by someone with a naturally more expressive personality. But any culture that calls for disrespect toward opponents, or toward other human beings, needs to be challenged. That disrespect for opponents is valued in certain cultures (assuming, for the purposes of argument, that such cultures exist) is no more a defense of disrespectful behavior in athletes than claiming the mass murder of millions of Jews by Nazi Germany was acceptable because the culture of Nazi Germany found it acceptable.
Another prevalent argument is that coaches are paid to coach, not to be a parent, babysitter, or “moral educator.” My job is to coach, not teach values. That’s a job for families and churches, not coaches. If kids are less respectful nowadays, that’s not my fault. I have to work with the hand I’ve been dealt.
But, you don’t have any choice. You’re a role model and a moral educator, whether you like it or not. The issue is not whether you, as a coach, choose to convey values; the issue is whether you choose to convey the values of sportsmanship and whether you make this teaching a conscious part of your coaching. Would you want your child to play for a coach who wants no part of teaching values? Wouldn’t you want your child to be taught to respect others, love the game, and be responsible, trustworthy, and fair?
And of course there’s the long-standing objection to sportsmanship—that sports are about winning and losing. Winning is the point—period. That’s what we should be teaching our children. Life is competitive. If you want to get ahead, you’d better be realistic about these things. Sports teach you to hate losing, to love winning, and to do whatever is necessary in order to win. If I have to intimidate opponents or officials in order to win, so be it. And if others don’t, that’s their problem. Sports teach you to make the other guy the loser. On this view, competitiveness is seen as the fundamental virtue—in fact, the only virtue—in sport and in life. When competitiveness in athletes becomes the primary praiseworthy trait, sportsmanship becomes an impediment to athletic virtue.
First of all, in many, if not most, cases it’s a mistake to think that teaching and requiring good sportsmanship from your players are inconsistent with the pursuit of victory. In fact, as we’ll argue, not taking the pursuit of victory seriously is unsportsmanlike. There have been and continue to be fine coaches who demand both athletic excellence and moral excellence from their players. John Wooden is merely one example of a successful coach who insisted on character and integrity.
But, more important, the view that winning at all costs is what matters is based on a misunderstanding of sport and competition. Competitiveness, properly understood, not only does not conflict with sportsmanship—it requires it. In a 1995 interview for a 60 Minutes segment on sportsmanship, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose ability to win certainly wasn’t stifled by John Wooden’s emphasis on sportsmanship, remarked, “Our whole culture here in America has become a lot more vulgar. And I think it’s not considered cool to be a good sportsman. You’re considered square and soft. . . . There’s the whole process of celebration that’s gone beyond celebration. It’s taunting. I pity the people who are doing this, because they really don’t understand: Sport is a step away from the rule of the jungle, and they’re trying to move it back towards the jungle, when the strong survive and misuse the weaker in any way that they want. And that’s really unfortunate for our whole system of values in our country.”