Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2004 / 19 Kislev, 5765
Sportsmanship? What's that?
Given the oversized role of sports in American culture, the Indiana
Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl was bound to become a national Rorschach test.
This disproportionate absorption of the nation's time and resources is
sometimes justified by the assertion that sports develop character.
In some youth leagues, that's probably still the case, where there is a
coach who tries to make it so and a critical mass of parents who refrain
from acting as their child's manager or agent.
But, interestingly, the character-building attribute of sports seems to
dissipate as the skill level progresses.
While there are many admirable professional and college athletes, it would
be hard to make the case that, as a class, they exhibit superior character.
An alternative rationale is that sports reveal character. But even this
seems increasingly doubtful.
I suspect that boorish fans and athletes actually tend to behave better
outside of sports than when watching or participating in them.
Sports have become, to a remarkable degree, a release for anti-social
behavior, particularly for young males. Spectators and athletes alike tend
to indulge in and rationalize behavior that, outside of sports, they would
recognize as reprehensible.
In the wake of the Pacers-Pistons melee, NBA Commissioner David Stern said
he would try to enforce a higher standard of conduct among players and
forge a new social compact with fans.
That's an admirable endeavor. But it will have to overcome the phenomenon
Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified in a 1993 essay as "defining deviancy
Moynihan's thesis was that a social organization could regulate only so
much deviation from behavioral norms. If deviancy began to exceed that
capacity, the organization would change the standard, accepting behavior
previously found objectionable.
Moynihan was referring to the acceptance of levels of criminal violence
that in previous eras would have been shocking much more serious stuff
than sports. But his observation helps explain what's been happening in
sports, on the field and in the stands.
Profane language has always been part of sports. But relatively private
expression has become a public cheer, as crowds frequently respond to what
they perceive as poor officiating with a unison chant of "bull____!"
Booing is now regarded as a fan prerogative. But what moral or ethical
standard deems booing an appropriate way to show disappointment in your
team's performance or contempt for the other team? For that matter, what
moral or ethical standard approves showing contempt for the opposition in
an athletic contest in the first place?
It used to be the norm in basketball that if you knocked someone down, you
helped him back up and asked whether he was OK. Now that's regarded as
That minor erosion of sportsmanship transgresses rather easily into
trash-talking, taunting and in-your-face celebrations.
I doubt that there's a scintilla of evidence that a callous disregard or
contempt for your opponent enhances athletic performance. Yet it has become
Flopping deceiving an official into believing that a foul has been
committed when it hasn't is now a valued basketball skill and actually
Even the rules of the game have defined deviancy down. Largely ignored in
the finger-pointing following the Pacers-Pistons brawl was the actual
triggering cause: NBA rules that provide incentives for hard fouls to the
Ron Artest may have violated a social norm because of when he put a hard
foul on Ben Wallace, way behind with little time left in the game. But such
hard fouls are not only acceptable, in most circumstances they are regarded
In a NBA playoff game, the homicide squad will be called out before a cut
to the basket will decide the outcome.
From a marketing perspective, the lax enforcement of the rules during
playoffs has always perplexed me. When the NBA has its largest audience, it
puts on its worst show. And officials determine outcomes as much by not
calling fouls as by calling them.
But from the standpoint of regulating player behavior, providing incentives
for hard fouls will inevitably lead to confrontations. Which begins the
process of defining deviancy down.
This may seem like a lot of prissy moralizing. For many sports fans,
attitude is what gives the game its edge, its excitement.
But Moynihan's lesson is that if you don't want beer thrown on players or
players fighting in the stands, you have to draw the line well short of the
behavior you seek to avoid.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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