What Ever Happened to Sportsmanship?

By January 23, 2014 no comments Permalink

My 7-year-old son likes the 49ers. They’re his second favorite team (next to our beloved Giants). I remember as a little kid liking lots of teams. It was a product, I believe, of curiosity and wonder about other places, other people. In light of the 49ers revelation, I told my son that, one day, our family would drive up the California coast to San Francisco, one of the most amazing cities in the world, where we have some old friends I’d like him to meet.

– Cool. Can they take us to a 49ers game?

– Probably not. But maybe we can get you a hat.

– Cool.

And it was cool because, with his second favorite team in the playoffs, we’d get to watch a playoff football game together. So, we got all our homework done early and sat down to watch the NFC Championship game. I was impressed by the stadium in Seattle, and the passion of the fans. My son asked me questions about Seattle, and I explained where it was and that the band who sings “Alive” is from there and so is one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, who is a Native American poet, novelist, short-story writer, filmmaker and even a comedian who loves basketball.

– Really? Cool.

– Yeah. Maybe I’ll read you one of his poems after the game.

– Cool.

But it wasn’t cool. And I didn’t read my son a Sherman Alexie poem after the game. He was really upset by the ending. It was intense, to say the least: Big plays and bad calls, and a truly horrific injury, from which I had to cover my son’s eyes to avoid the sycophantic amount of replays. And then came Richard Sherman’s heroics. What a play. Oh, man! Great game. Good try, Niners.

And then came Richard Sherman’s anti-heroics. Oh, no. He’s taunting the Niners’ Michael Crabtree. Crabtree shoves him in the facemask. A flag is thrown. Penalty, rightfully so, on Sherman. No, it was after the play ended, so Seattle keeps the ball. Game over. Too bad. Win some, lose some, right, buddy? But wait, there’s more. Now Sherman is making the infamous choke sign at somebody. And then things really got outrageous, and I, once again, had to cover my son’s eyes to hide him from the horrific (actually, I turned the TV off shortly after Sherman began his rant, but still, the gist was clear).

The rule in our house about sports is simple: If you want to play, you play hard and you show respect to your coaches, teammates and opponents. Period. There is zero tolerance for bad sportsmanship. Mope or whine or complain, game over. Taunt an opponent? Season over.

I explained to my son that there would surely be consequences for Richard Sherman. Between the taunt and the choke sign and the ridiculous rant, I mean, he behaved very, very badly. He didn’t cheat or intentionally hurt anyone, but he showed an utter lack of sportsmanship, which the team or the league — or the team and the league — would certainly not approve. Surely, I assured my son, there will be some sort of penalty, or remedy, for such blatant unsportsmanlike conduct. There would, at least, be a sincere apology.

I guess I was wrong. In fact, the team and the league have essentially been silent. Sherman offered an apology, but — somehow — has no regrets (which sort of takes the heart out of an apology). There’s been a lot of noise on social media, though, where many outraged people tried to penalize Sherman in a shameful manner, invoking race and class and a caricature unfitting of Richard Sherman. And so now, because of said shameful reaction, this isn’t really about Sherman and sportsmanship. It’s about white America being uncomfortable with black men ascending from the ghetto to positions of fame and power. It’s about white men being uncomfortable with black men going on caustic rants within the vicinity of a white woman. It’s about coded name calling, and Richard Sherman is a victim of both oblique and overt racism that has existed in this country since before this country was even a country. The narrative has certainly shifted from unsportsmanlike conduct.

While the essentially anonymous online universe of armchair commentators have both reviled and defended Sherman, the media seems to be largely in his favor. Sports journalists have hailed Sherman’s posture as refreshing and bold and distinctly devoid of the cliche-ridden same-old, same-old. Okay. Many have claimed, in his defense, that Sherman has risen from the streets of Compton, through the classrooms of Stanford and into the NFL as a perennial Pro-Bowl player. Very impressive. Oh, and he’s never committed a crime nor cursed in front of the camera. Okay. And he gives back to the community. Awesome. Some in media have even touted Sherman’s intelligence and marketing savvy; surely, this will make Richard Sherman more money, which is — after all — what it’s all about. This, I can’t get behind. And the notion that this is free speech, and therefore, not subject to repercussion… Tell that to the guy from Duck Dynasty (not that Sherman’s offense is in the same universe, but the result should be the same: Words are free to be spoken, but they can come with consequences).

The facts about Sherman’s life are worthy of praise, and the man may be an amazing athlete and impressive human being, but he is not a sportsman. He does not deserve praise for being bold and outspoken because the content of said expressions are decidedly unsportsmanlike. I’m sorry. This is not Muhammad Ali who, through bravado, was challenging oppression and civil injustice, while maintaining his integrity, all for a cause bigger than himself. As a professional athlete, Richard Sherman is only about Richard Sherman, who seems singularly obsessed with his status as an outstanding defensive back.

The incidents on Sunday are not isolated. Richard Sherman has a history of taunting on and off the field. The exchange between him and journalist Skip Bayless on ESPN First Take is painful to watch, embarrassing for everyone involved, and revealing of a huge flaw in Sherman’s character. He can be petty and disrespectful and prone to epic bouts of narcissism. During the program, which was arranged well in advance, Sherman and Bayless square off in a debate. The Stanford communications major clearly doesn’t understand the art of argument. Or respectful discourse. He simply claims, over and over, rarely listening or allowing for a response, that Bayless is a nobody. “I’m better than you,” Sherman says, again and again. And what had Bayless done to require a debate and earn such a thorough condemnation of his status as a human being? He had the audacity to claim that Sherman was not the best defensive back in the NFL. Shame on him.

The shame should really be on all of us. Sportsmanship should be the topic, with an emphasis on respect. Everything is tangential and a disservice to the attention we could be paying to how adults — in all fields — comport themselves as models of acceptable behavior. This could have been a teaching moment, where principles are reinforced and an understanding of acceptable behavior is emphasized. Instead, it’s become a circus that focuses on our ugly tendency to ascribe any misconduct to reductive defensiveness and petty excuse.

Think I’ll skip the Super Bowl and take my son bowling.

Published on The Huffington Post: What Ever Happened to Sportsmanship?

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