Saturday, November 3, 2012

Putting the Sportsmanship Back in Sports

It’s long been a familiar sight to National Football League fans: a player scores a touchdown and celebrates with a rehearsed dance routine for the fans and the cameras, sometimes in choreographed collaboration with a few teammates.

This kind of end-zone celebration has been the norm now for decades – and not only after touchdowns. Frequently a defensive player will jump up after a mere tackle in the backfield and congratulate himself like a breast-beating gorilla. You’d think no one had ever made a tackle before. There is an off-putting conceitedness about such displays that simply smacks of bad sportsmanship.

Passions run high on the football field, and players can’t be expected not to celebrate a great play – nor should they be. But there is a difference between sincere jubilation and what comes across as taunting. “Exultation” is from a Latin word origin that suggests jumping for joy, and joy is infectious and uplifting. When the line is crossed from that genuine exultation to self-promotion and gloating, it’s not uplifting – it’s obnoxious, and the sport then is no longer healthy competition but vainglorious one-upmanship.

The NFL can impose penalties on players who engage in “prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations,” though that isn’t always enforced. But the Wall Street Journal reports that Mike Mularkey, first-year head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, has initiated an unprecedented reduced-celebration policy. Rather than punishing an over-exuberant player, Mularkey donates to charity every time one of his scorers merely hands – not tosses – the ball to a referee afterward, rather than spiking it or launching into a move that often looks uncomfortably like a Chippendales audition. It encourages the players to think beyond themselves and behave more altruistically.

Mularkey isn’t trying to be a killjoy. He's simply avoiding possible penalties and trying to instill in his players an attitude wisely articulated by former USC coach John McKay: “When you get into the end zone, act like you've been there before.” Mularkey rejected the idea of individual celebrations to begin with, since each play is a team effort. And indeed the linemen on the team, whose contributions are rarely recognized, love the new change; in fact, Mularkey has been “very, very” surprised at how well all the players have taken to the concept.

Fans appreciate it too. The comments section of the WSJ piece reflect a desire for a return to more sportsmanlike conduct. “Out with crass; in with class!!!” one wrote. “Maybe the beginning of a return to civility?” another asks hopefully. The attitude reflected in nearly every one of the comments is, “It's way past due.

Team spirit and fan appreciation aren’t the only things Mularkey’s program has been good for. His donation is matched by the Jaguars' foundation and, according to the WSJ, as the status of the program has grown, seven local companies have pitched in to raise $28,000 this season for the Ronald McDonald House.

From the music industry to reality TV to politics to sports, our culture for decades now has increasingly celebrated narcissism and trash-talking over “old-fashioned,” less self-centered values like personal dignity, humility, and respecting others. “Sports don’t build character,” goes the saying attributed to sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun. “They reveal it.” And the self-effacing good sportsmanship being fostered by Coach Mularkey reveals better character than any end-zone dance step.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/2/12)