What is sportsmanship? When is it appropriate?

Mirriam Webster defines sportsmanship as “fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition”. Sportsmanship is an interesting concept. In some ways, it’s like obscenity according to the Supreme Court. When faced with trying to “categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters” you sometimes just have to say that you “know it when you see it.” We all know, of course, that this type of definition is not good enough. Different people view different things as obscene or not obscene and the same holds true with sportsmanship. I grew up playing soccer, just like lots of other people, but I gravitated towards playing defense and over time turned into someone who stayed in the starting lineup despite being slower than most of the other players by doing the little treacherous things, like knowing exactly how long I could hold a player’s shirt before I would get called for it and understanding exactly where to place my body so that an opposing player would stumble over it without attracting attention. I thought that type of infringement was breaking the rules but not breaking the ethic of the game. In other words, I thought I was still showing good sportsmanship. An attacking player would be more likely to try to draw a foul by taking a dive or feigning injury. I always thought that was bad sportsmanship but now that I view soccer as an observer and not a participant, I can see how people might have varying opinions. Sportsmanship is an important concept because it defines the cultural (as opposed to rule-based) norms of a game but it is hard to define and varies from sport to sport and participant to participant. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read a few articles on the topic of sportsmanship that I enjoyed and would love to share with you. I think they create a compelling conflict within and between sports.

Sportsmanship Captured at NCAA Cross Country Championships

by Alison Wade for Runner’s World

This article represents almost a control case for our investigation of sportsmanship. It’s a classic human interest story that lauds athletes who stop and sacrifice themselves to help an injured or disabled competitor. It’s actually more balanced than most, in that it points out that there is an NCAA rule against helping another athlete and by doing so, excuses some of the other runners in a video of the incident who did not stop to assist the falling runner. Still, there is no criticism of two women who do stop to help the fallen runner, quite the contrary.

“It does not surprise me at all that Kate would do that. She is all about team and loves the sport,” wrote Minnesota coach Sarah Hopkins in an email to Newswire. “She saw someone struggling and tried to lend an arm to get her to the end. This was her first national meet, and I am sure that somewhere in her head she thought how awful it would feel to not finish, so wanted to keep anyone from feeling that.”

Is Competitiveness Poor Sportsmanship?

by Sarah Barker for Deadspin

In this article, Sarah Barker discusses several incidents including the one described in the previous article and asks a few important questions: Could media (social and traditional) be driving athletes to help each other even at the cost of their own disqualification to their team’s detriment? Why does it seem like women are disproportionately in the news for showing this type of sportsmanship? Barker, a runner herself, gives us the benefit of her own experience to answer these questions as well as sharing answers from some of the runners and cross-country coaches she reached out to.

Sportsmanship has been a way to ensure that no one goes too far to win, that individual competitiveness doesn’t pass into the realm of cheating or impeding other runners. It’s been about fairness and honoring the efforts of all competitors, but has not, in the past, gone so far as to sacrifice one’s own result to help another runner.   Spectating at a girls’ high school cross country race in the early 2000s, a competitor collapsed right in front of me. Though apparently uninjured, she lay on the grass, sobbing, as scores of runners streamed by. I must say, it felt cruel not to reach out and help her up, but as I bent toward her, a race official appeared and warned me she’d be disqualified if I did so. Some of the other runners urged her on as they passed by, but no one stopped. Eventually, she pulled herself up and carried on. That was just one of several such instances at the same meet.

Volvo Ocean Race: Sportsmanship on the High Seas

by Aaron Kuriloff for the Wall Street Journal

This is a similar article to the first one. It absolutely praises the sailers who went off course during a race to their own detriment to provide assistance to a competitor’s boat who ran aground and was in distress. [The article is worth going to, even if you don’t read it, for the crazy video that captures the power of the ship running aground on a reef as well as the amazingly calm demeanor of the crew as they respond to mitigate the damage.] What I find most interesting about the way the author writes about this, is how clearly he describes the cultural clarity within sailing of going to a competitor’s aid. It seems obvious to me from reading this article, that no one involved with sailing would ever write an article arguing against doing so like TK did in the context of running. A basic rule of the sport and of the Volvo race: Never leave a competitor in danger… “There’s a code amongst thieves out there,” said Ken Read, who skippered PUMA Ocean Racing’s il Mostro team to a second-place finish in the 2008-09 Volvo. “One minute you’re trying to beat the guy at all costs, the next you’re his life raft.”

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