Defining “Sportsmanship”

Why do sports make us lose our cool? Does no one think that’s weird?

From your first peewee match to your last high school or college match, you’re preached at to demonstrate “good sportsmanship.” When I try to illustrate the term in my head, I think of athletes shaking the hands of their opponents, playing by the rules, halting play for the injured, respecting referees and officials, and just not being a jerk. But when I think about every [major] sporting event I’ve watched on television or attended in person, I can almost always recall the opposite of what “good sportsmanship” meant to me.

It’s so fascinating how emotionally invested we can be in what is literally a game. I remember how in high school I would sometimes be so mad at particular players on opposing soccer teams that I would not shake their hands at the end of the match. But like, why? Why was I like that? And why was everyone else like that?

Have you ever been watching a football game, and one guy makes a good hard tackle, and when the other guy gets himself off the ground, he just goes and shoves the guy who tackled him? Naturally we’re like:


If we’re being honest with ourselves, we are sitting there ENJOYING a display of bad sportsmanship. I mean, if we’re just spectators, then a situation like that is more exciting than a game where everyone plays nice. But what if we were the players? We would be getting increasingly frustrated over one action in one GAME. IT’S A GAME.

When you go to a sports event with friends, there is nothing more fun than trash talking the opposition. Cheers and jeers, chants, calling out certain players and making jokes about them, trying to get inside people’s heads, being loud and obnoxious, and having a good time being a terrible human for an hour or two. *I attended my first South Carolina football game as a student this past weekend. When our team kicked the ball off, we would always shout “Go! Fight! Win! Kick ass! F*ck Clemson!” ….. We were playing against Kentucky.* But again, if we’re being honest with ourselves, that is irrefutably bad sportsmanship. We expect the opposition to be nice and submissive and decent, but we also expect to be able to be prideful in whatever way we see fit, no matter how offensive or aggressive. It is a beautiful hypocrisy that makes sport entertainment infinitely more fun.



It can be argued that nothing brings out our inner bad sportsman quite as well as the infamous referees. They are some of the few people who are constantly given aggressive grief for simply doing their job. If a player on the team of which you are in favor does something wrong, and the referee calls him or her on it, you blame the referee. Shut up, yes you do. I don’t know the psychology behind it, but there’s that hint of implicit bias inside us where even if we look at the instant replay, we are somehow able to morph the images into a position where OUR guy did nothing wrong. See no hear no speak no. Or something. We think so highly of ourselves, that we KNOW the referee is out to get us. He’s blind, he’s deaf, AND he hates you. These are all facts that you can recall with your fourth beer in your hand and your nacho farts circulating in the seats.

If we live in a world where some people watch hockey solely because they know they’ll see multiple fist fights, how much can we really say about what sportsmanship is? Maybe we made it up to feel better about who we are. Like the five second rule, or the Bible verses people use as instagram captions. Maybe sportsmanship is just another classic human case of “It’s fine when I do it but it’s unacceptable when you do it.”

What about “cheating?”


This is a more complicated subject than we might think. If your FAVORITE team or player is accused of winning something unfairly, I sincerely believe that you might deny it. Even if you know nothing. Isn’t that interesting? Cheating is obviously wrong. There is no athletic integrity in winning by cheating……BUT. What if the other team is a bunch of jerks? Can you bribe the ref under those circumstances? Who knows, man? Gotta be some wiggle room somewhere, right?

I think that when you get right down to it, sportsmanship, like many other ethical concepts, is all about respect for your fellow man or woman.

Hm. Imagine that.

Respect for our fellow men and women.

When your opponent is down, you help him up. When he holds out his hand, you shake it. When you are defeated, congratulate the winner. Be careful when you trash talk, because that person’s mother could be sitting right next to you. Be aggressive without being evil. Apply all the simple aspects of integrity you learn in life to the field, or court, or track.

You might think we’re terrible sportsmen, but at least we’re not gathering in a coliseum to watch people get mauled by lions anymore.

And hey, we’re all human.


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