Saturday, November 14, 2009

Michael Josephson: Character Counts: Does sportsmanship matter?

  To lots of athletes, coaches, and fans, sportsmanship is an outdated concept. Like the Miss Congeniality Award in beauty contests, many think it’s for runners-up and losers.

  The barbarians believe rules are made to be broken, that it’s wise and proper to do whatever you can get away with.

  Did you see the of University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert violently yanking an opponent’s pony tail and tripping, shoving, punching, and kicking a host of other players?
  Women’s soccer has become a rough, physical game, but still there are rules that govern the sport, define fair play, and prohibit dangerous acts that can produce serious injuries.

  Many people were horrified by her conduct and approved of her subsequent suspension.

  But what about the adults who taught her to act like a thug or looked the other way?

  The referee should have enforced those rules immediately, and her coach should have pulled her out of the game after the first incident. Even the passive reaction of the opposing coach and her players who accepted – and thereby encouraged – Lambert’s brutish behavior contributed to the problem.

  But before we give up on sportsmanship, do you remember the story of Sarah Tucholsky, who hit the first home run in her life in a collegiate softball game? While rounding first base, she tore a ligament and fell to the ground in agony.

  After the umpire reminded her coach that Sarah would be called out if anyone on her team tried to help her, the other team’s best hitter, Mallory Holtman, asked if she and a teammate could assist Sarah. The astonished official approved the unheard-of gesture, which the rules did not prohibit.

  As Mallory and her shortstop carried Sarah around the bases so the home run would officially count, the players and spectators realized they were seeing something extraordinary – a spontaneous, unselfish act of sportsmanship that was so uplifting it brought tears to the eyes of even grizzled veterans.

  Mallory’s example taught us what sports can be if we let character count.

  About the author: Michael Josephson is the founder of the Josephson Institute, a non-for-profit organization which develops and delivers services and materials to increase ethical commitment, competence, and practice in all segments of society.

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