Grace in sports

Although I did not watch any of the 2006 winter Olympics events on TV, I casually followed them in the press, and the front page headline in the Sunday Plain Dealer caught my attention. It said Grace eludes U.S. Olympians: Too many athletes at Torino Games live up to ‘ugly American’ image and listed the many ways in which some US athletes did not behave well at the games.

I must admit that I am increasingly turned off by the way people behave at sporting events. It irritates me when people do not behave with grace and courtesy and politeness. To see athletes boasting and gloating and taunting their opponents when they do something well, to get angry and belligerent when someone else gets the better of them, and to loudly and rudely protest when the referee or umpire makes a wrong call, are all things that I find really distasteful, so much so that I rarely watch major sporting events anymore. And it is not just players who behave like this, sometimes spectators are even worse.

I am sure that much of my attitude is due to the influence of Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the K-12 school I went to growing up. The Principal of the school strictly enforced the traditions of the school about behavior at school sporting events. Students had to wear school uniforms whenever we attended any function in which the school was involved, even if we were at the events purely as spectators, and even if they took place after school hours or on weekends.

We were only allowed to applaud spontaneously for any good play. There was to be no organized cheering of any kind. And we were strictly forbidden to boo or jeer or cheer any mistake by any player, whether on our side or the opponents. Only shouts of encouragement or groans or sounds of shock and surprise (again spontaneous) were allowed. We were prohibited from deliberately trying to distract opposing team players when they were doing something that required deep concentration. In fact, we were expected to clap (spontaneously of course) good plays by our opponents as well. It was kind of like the behavior that we now see in golf.

Violations of these policies would guarantee us getting an extended lecture from our Principal at school assembly the next day, while if an individual were identified for doing any of this, some sort of punishment was likely.

The idea behind this strict code of behavior was that this would instill in us the idea of ‘good sportsmanship,’ that the quality of the game and proper behavior was more important than the result. We were drilled repeatedly with Grantland Rice’s famous couplet:

For when the One Great Scorer comes, to mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.

I admit that my school was unusual in enforcing such policies and during my school years, I chafed at all these restrictions that were not enforced by other schools in Sri Lanka.

While my school was undoubtedly extreme, looking back, I must say that I now feel grateful for that training. Even now, even when I am rooting for a particular team, and am pleased when the opponents make a mistake that creates an advantage for my preferred team, I cannot bring myself to cheer (at least openly) that mistake, and I even feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying the lapse by the opposing player.

I think that this attitude makes one enjoy sporting events a lot more on the purely technical level, because one appreciates good performances irrespective of who does them, although one’s own team’s successes add an extra zest to the pleasure. But on the other hand, I also feel a great sense of irritation with players and spectators alike who act ungraciously on and off the field, which has pretty much ruined watching sports for me, since this kind of ungracious behavior has become commonplace.

Of course, sports have become so professionalized, and winning so important and so related to money, that many players do these things simply to get noticed and to get some kind of psychological edge over their opponents. I find that international cricket has also descended into the pit with players now trash talking to each other, something that was highly exceptional in the past.

But although I understand the motivation, I cannot condone them and find them downright distasteful, so much so that I find myself instinctively hoping that showboating athletes will fail, whatever team they might be on, just so that they might learn a lesson in humility. And I cheered football players like the Detroit Lions’ Barry Sanders or the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton who, in their day, simply let their good playing speak for itself, without all that silly index finger raised “We’re number one!” childishness.

I have heard it said that Muhammad Ali was the originator for this kind of strutting and gloating and grandstanding and taunting and goading of opponents in the US. I really admired the physical grace and athleticism of Ali, and his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam war. But his cruel treatment of opponents, especially Joe Frazier who by all accounts was an honorable person, was inexcusable.

But why do spectators also behave badly, booing and jeering and taunting? Are they just imitating the behavior of the players? Was it always like this in the US, or is it also a more recent post-Ali phenomenon?

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