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What are the boundaries of sportsmanship?

POSTED: October 26, 2013 2:00 p.m.

A few times now I have written about the value of sportsmanship and people when it comes to respecting competition, but what exactly are the boundaries of sportsmanship?

In golf, it is considered cheating not to penalize yourself, even if you think nobody may notice the infraction. I’m sure that every last one of you who’s ever played golf has nobly admitted his own mistakes and announced his cheating self, right? None of you would ever seek to take advantage of another player’s inattention to the game, would you?

I loathe to consider it.

So what, then, are the boundaries of sportsmanship? If it is unsporting of you to not announce your misdeeds in golf, is the same true for other sports?

Why have we never seen football players ever go up to officials and say, "Hey, ref, I was holding on that last play."

I’ve never once seen a coach scream at an official for missing a penalty on his own player. Can you imagine that conversation?

"Come on, ref, you’re killing me! My guy was clearly roughing the passer there, are you blind or something?"

Or could you see a baseball player or softball player informing the umpire that the last pitch of a full count was actually strike three instead of ball four?

I imagine it going over about as well as the ending to "Liar, Liar" when Jim Carrey starts yelling at the judge after winning a court case, claiming that he’d beaten the system.

That judge didn’t quite know what to think of the matter, and frankly, neither would I.

I know I’m posing some truly absurd questions here, but I feel like there’s an interesting debate to be considered. Why is it expected in some sports for the player to be "gentlemanly" and announce his errors, accepting a penalty he may not have needed to take, but in others it is acceptable behavior for athletes and coaches to just accept an inaccurate judgment?

Think back to the most outrageous moments in sports you can remember. The likelihood is that a horrendous call or judgment by an official is at the center of that moment. What is the worst ever missed call you can think of?

Now do you think the opposing coach or players should have admitted the error had they noticed it, or should they have just moved on with whatever the result of the call happened to bring?

Of course, there are a hundred reasons a coach might not feel like it is his or her responsibility to "correct" an official who missed a call in his or her favor. For one, the coach may assume that the official saw something that he or she did not. This happens all the time, it’s very possible that an official just had a better viewing angle than the coach did.

It is also possible that the coach might have the same wrong opinion as the official, or the same poor view of the events on field. I know that these are all possible reasons, but let’s be completely hypothetical here for a second.

Let us assume that a certain coach has a complete view of the field and knows for certain that the official is wrong. We’ll even go another step further and say that the coach knows for certain that the official has inaccurately instituted a rule, the outcome of which benefited the coach.

Is it that coach’s responsibility to correct the official, or should the he just accept that little gift from the universe?

I could pull out plenty of examples from recent memory, but they would all make me look like a bitter Georgia fan (which I am), so I will avoid doing so. Let’s just say that certain rulings in two of the last three UGA football games have made me wonder about this concept of sportsmanship, shall we?

Yet I have once more digressed.

If we can all agree that sportsmanship is best defined as participation in athletic competition with integrity, honesty and mutual respect, then what is a coach’s or player’s responsibility when they know a ruling or judgment is wrong?

I know I am probably in the minority here when I say this, but I personally feel like it is, in fact, a participant’s responsibility to inform officials when they are inaccurately or wrongfully receiving the benefit of a poor judgment.

If there is any reasonable degree of uncertainty on the coach’s part, then they are excused for the benefit of trusting the officials, the same officials I am sure the coach will offer no benefit of the doubt when a close call goes against him or her.

If you go to the grocery store and you receive more money back in change than you deserve, is it right to just take that money as a little present? No. You would slap your child on the hand if they knowingly took more change than they ought. You yourself would probably leave that cash register with a nice feeling of moral superiority were you to give back extra change you didn’t deserve.

So how then do we expect coaches and athletes to live by a double standard of sportsmanship and integrity? If your favorite team suddenly started overturning calls that went in there favor because it was the right thing to do, I imagine most of you would instantly call for that coach’s head. Literally.

I realize that there is no hope of this behavior taking hold in football, or any sport for that matter aside from golf, but I still feel like it is a concept worth discussing.

If we put our children into organized sports so they will learn about integrity and sportsmanship, we are doing them and ourselves a disservice by only going halfway on the most important lessons they can learn from sports. If we’re going to teach sportsmanship, let’s at least pretend that it really counts.

If nothing else, how would you want to be treated?



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