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Reclaiming the principles of sportsmanship

One of the assumptions we make in this book is that coaches—and, for that matter, administrators, parents, fans, officials, and everyone else involved in youth athletics—are moral educators, whether they want to be or not. That does not mean that they are moral indoctrinators—indeed, they should not indoctrinate. It does mean, however, that, inescapably, they play a role in the formation of character. For this reason, it is important to understand that sportsmanship is not just a matter of acceptable behavior but of excellence of character—or, in the language of the classical tradition, sportsmanship is a virtue. It is not altogether coincidental that there has been a return to the classical understanding of virtue, to “virtue-centered ethics,” right at a time when so many of our athletic superstars in professional and big-time college sports have become models of anything and everything but good character. It is particularly sad because sport has long provided an arena in which the central ethical concept has been excellence of character.

When we speak of a return to a virtue-centered ethics, we have in mind the turn from ethics centered on principles and rules for right action and good conduct to ethics centered on the importance of good character. Sportsmanship, then, is not just about following rules, behaving a certain way because that's the way you're supposed to behave; it's about what sort of human beings we choose to become.

There may be a good deal of disagreement about exactly how to flesh out the content of an excellent character. What is clear, though, is that sport requires and shapes character traits. It's not by any means the only arena—so are the classroom, the music practice room, and, in most households, the room with the biggest TV set—but it's an important one. How you set up a practice, talk about the game, respond to discipline problems—everything you do—sets the tone, takes a stand on what sort of character traits you value. How you respond to a lazy player who merely goes through the motions of a strenuous drill, a player's taunting of an opponent, a player of mediocre talent whose effort was superb—all of these responses tell young athletes what kind of character you value, what sort of human beings they should aspire to be. In short, we're better off to admit that we are moral educators, try to think as clearly about these difficult issues as we can, and develop our athletic programs accordingly. Coaches don't simply stamp out human character like, say, automobiles in a factory. In fact, one of the things we have to remember is that coaches have to make good judgments not only about the abilities and limits of athletic ability but also about the natural dispositions and limitations of character. But coaches do provide an opportunity for the practice of virtue.

In fleshing out the virtue of sportsmanship, you'll come to see that practicing sportsmanship means practicing an attitude of respect. Respect is an attitude of positive evaluation, a recognition of something, some reality that merits understanding and attentiveness. To respect something is to value it and treat it as worthy in its own right. To respect something, I have to overcome my inclination to be selfish, my inclination to see the thing only in terms of my own needs and interests. To respect my parents or to respect my country, for example, is to esteem or to honor something outside myself and to realize that there are right and wrong ways to act in relation to these independent realities.

To be a good sport, I must understand my situation and see things broadly, not simply in terms of self-centered desires to win, to be famous, or to be mentioned in the headlines of the local newspaper. As a player or participant, I should respect opponents, teammates, officials, the coach, and, in the broadest sense, the very activity in which I am engaged. It is important to remember, however, that we are talking not simply about rules for behavior but about the habit of respect—a habit of respect that becomes a part of someone's character.