THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
Time has passed since the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII in Arizona. However, many keep focusing on one penalty flag that was thrown towards the end of the game.
With less than two minutes left in the game, Eagles defender James Bradberry was called for a holding penalty, giving the Chiefs an additional first down that increased their chances of taking the lead with little time for the Eagles to respond. The penalty was criticized by many across the sports-talk universe and the blogosphere, but Bradberry admitted in a postgame press conference that he did commit the penalty and it was the correct call.
The excuses given by those who disagreed with the call included a lack of consistency from the officials, a lack of severity of the hold, and everything in between. Claims were made by some fans that the game was fixed so that the Chiefs would win. The streets of Philadelphia were filled with angry fans in protest of the game’s result. Regardless of the arguments made, everyone making them ignored one fact: it was the correct call, and the offender admitted it.
Unlike many other topics in the public arena where facts and opinions are commonly confused and cause constant conflict, sports align more with inconsequential “watercooler talk.” They are a common topic of entertainment that break the ice between people who wish to socialize, and yet they are worshiped like gospel and must be protected from heretics. This begs the question of why sports are so sacred to so many, leading to outcomes like the denial of a penalty to make sense of a situation.
The answer boils down to a study of projection. Fandom develops through projection: people like to be associated with winners or with other brands where a common bond exists (family, location, school, etc.), so they project themselves onto those entities (be it a person or a team). This explains why many people across the globe become fans of teams such as the New York Yankees: their brand is the winningest franchise in the history of team sports. Similarly, people born and raised in the greater New England area (or with parents who were born and raised there) are usually rooting for the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Bruins, either due to the ties in proximity or loved ones. Along the same lines, the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of any college or university (or even high school) will tend to support the athletics of said school out of a pride like the bonds caused by family or location.
As these cliques of fans develop and grow, any perceived slight against the team automatically becomes a slight against the fanbase as well. A penalty flag thrown for a foul committed by a player on the Eagles might be viewed and interpreted as an attack against everyone who roots for them. This causes defenses to go up immediately and can result in poor fan behavior.
When this phenomenon occurs, those feeling attacked immediately try to deflect the attack back onto the attacker. In other words, the best defense is a good offense. The fans who feel attacked when an official penalizes a player on their team will point the finger at the official instead of objectively considering the facts that show the player might have committed a foul. Humans tend to lack the ability to look inwards at potential shortcomings and would prefer to point out the faults of others instead.
As if the simple examination of this experience with the fan base isn’t enough, the media has developed a reputation to make these situations worse.
Consider the number of analysts, talk-show hosts, and other media members who edified and opined about the call in question against Bradberry. Many of these voices lack the experience of officiating and do not necessarily offer their take with the proper background to justify their claim as to why the call may have been incorrect, citing opinions, feelings, and other intangibles with the hope it holds up in the court of public opinion. As a result, the arguments made were tailored to conveniently forget the rule that defines a holding penalty: they ignorantly ignore the fact that it was correctly enforced as well as Bradberry’s admission that it did, in fact, occur. This amounts to a defense attorney trying to sway a jury with emotion when a smoking gun is in their midst.
With the power the media holds in our society, fans tend to be more likely to blindly believe the words of these talking heads rather than to use their own critical reasoning to draw a conclusion. At this point, projection utilizes the “fanboy” experience, as fans pick sides on the opinion with the subconscious goal of ignoring facts simply to be on the correct or winning side of a debate. The resulting effect is a populus that declares the truth to be whatever the group decides rather than what the facts state.
None of this is to say that officials don’t miss calls. Incorrect calls are made, and officials tend to lose sleep over their mistakes. But officials make the fewest mistakes out of anyone on the field, pitch, rink, or court that day. Statistically speaking, players who strike out, drop passes, and miss shots happen all the time; are these failures not mistakes? Projection due to association causes fans to ignore these mistakes but recognize the ones from the officials which are few and far between.
It's always possible that an incorrect call could change the trajectory of a game, but the odds of it being the sole fulcrum that influenced the outcome of victory versus defeat is microscopic. Those who criticize the holding penalty easily forget that the Eagles’ defense was putrid that day: out of the 23 games they played all season (from preseason through Super Bowl), they gave up more than 30 points in six of them (including the Super Bowl), winning only two of those six. Regardless of the circumstances (preseason vs. postseason, for example), it’s very difficult to win a football game when your defense gives up more than 30 points.
It’s perfectly fine to be disappointed that the Eagles lost. It’s not okay to blame the officials when it was the correct call.
By Sean Gough
Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors
"Both teams on the gridiron that night decided to stop playing. Fans of both teams joined each other in prayer, putting aside rooting interests to comfort one another as they shed tears. Humanity dug into their pockets and turned a fundraiser Hamlin had established for his charity into a remarkable story of its own: what was once an attempt to raise a couple hundred dollars [has] approach[ed] $10,000,000 ...
But why does the world need a situation like this to wake up? Why does a man need to innocently brush against death for the population to see there is a problem with this entertainment cycle? ...
This is not a call for legislation that forces humanity to behave a certain way ... This is a request that individuals think deeply and critically about the decisions made each day in the name of entertainment. At what point will we reach the determination that football is too violent? ... Will it require someone to perish in battle while millions watch in horror? If football changes, will a less violent version of the game keep the same entertainment value and hold the attention of its audience?"
Answering these questions (from last month's post) in the wake of Damar Hamlin's injury at the Buffalo Bills-Cincinnati Bengals game would require at least a few changes:
1. Sports leagues need to regard their fans as more than consumers.
While they hemmed and hawed over whether or not to postpone the game, it appeared the NFL's leadership (not the on-field officials) showed how out of touch they were, as they were forced into the right choice by backlash from their constituents. Accounts claim they badly underestimated the character not only of the guys on the field, who refused to resume after a near-tragedy, but the fans around the world who were united in grief and support for Damar Hamlin. And through the lens of a dim view of fans as reckless consumers who would demand another three quarters of football at all costs — rather than people capable of empathy and horror at what they had just witnessed in the middle of a game — the NFL provided one of the reasons that sportsmanship has been a tough sell: professional sports leagues apparently do not believe the fans are ready for that.
The message has been sent from the big leagues to the little leagues: the "normal" way of doing things is built on the assumption that empathy is impossible or too much to ask. Just as politicians can choose to exploit fear and ignorance to gain power instead of appealing to the "better angels of our nature" (as Abraham Lincoln put that), leagues like the NFL have conditioned fans to tolerate a degree of violence, injury to the players, and bad behavior by fans that can seem inevitable. Cynicism breeds cynicism.
But in an instant, a public shocked by Hamlin's injury proved that a better way is within reach.
2. Fans need to regard themselves as more than just fans.
One of the ways these leagues have seduced fans is by conning them into believing that rooting for a team is a noble pursuit or a bond of affection like a family. But wanting a team to win at best is amoral: unlike a family where love is shared freely and burdens are carried by everyone, the players usually have no clue who individual fans are, and the fans don't give an iota of effort relative to the players who make the game what it is.
When these illusions are stripped away, fans can understand why the agreed-upon basic ethics in society should be no different in the realm of sports than anywhere else. Imagine how outrageous that would be if a stranger confidently punched another stranger for wearing a different style of shirt or using a different brand of phone. Or imagine how ridiculous that would seem as these strangers yelled at television commercials in a bar in the belief that somehow yelling would win them their preferred shirt or phone.
Shedding childish beliefs won't destroy the mystique or the entertainment value of sports.
3. Societies need to regard and reward greatness beyond the realm of entertainment.
If the kindness shown to Damar Hamlin by millions of people demonstrates anything, it's the need to put greater value in the ordinary good deeds of the majority of the public. Giving "our better angels" a chance to thrive also requires greater respect for other areas of public life. As strange as that may seem from an organization dedicated to sportsmanship, one of the surest ways to guarantee better sportsmanship is to de-escalate the societal obsession with sports, entertainment, and celebrity.
Aside from the responses of fans, my favorite Tweets in the aftermath of the Hamlin injury were from practicing doctors who have actually saved lives, like Megan Ranney, who's an ER doctor, the incoming dean of the Yale School of Public Health, and a Buffalo native and Bills fan. For no money, Ranney offered her expertise to calmly suggest what might have happened to Hamlin while she joined everyone else in wishing him well.
And as she sent these Tweets from hundreds of miles away, many anonymous people in Cincinnati averted a tragedy as they administered CPR on the field and cared for Hamlin in the hospital. Until we reward them with eight-figure contracts and ads for sneakers and cars, another rhetorical question seems appropriate: why not just start by teaching kids to admire what they did with half the zeal that we train them to admire athletes?
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
At the time of composing this blog post, Damar Hamlin has been released from the hospital in Buffalo. There are still many unknown variables, but the prognosis at this moment in time is especially remarkable.
The world was silenced that Monday evening in Cincinnati when Hamlin collapsed on the field and had to be resuscitated. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Hamlin had passed away and was brought back to life by the medical staff who immediately responded to the incident. His continued progress in his recovery is music to the ears of every person with a heart.
It would be foolish to speculate on the medical information that explains why Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest, especially when the sportsmanship of the media has been under fire for some time. Many who have seen the clip of Hamlin colliding with an opponent have noted that the tackle didn’t appear to be dirty or especially violent in the context of normal contact within the sport. At first glance, it did not appear to be “helmet-to-helmet” or worthy of any other penalty, whether from the rulebook or the understood convention of the brotherhood of football players. However, the chain of events (violent contact is followed by a severe medical emergency) and its unique severity (not many people suffer cardiac arrest while on the playing surface of a professional sport) yields a common discussion that needs to be addressed.
Gridiron football is an equal mix of brains and brawn, paying deference to rugby and soccer (the real “football”) while spawning spinoffs to cash in on its popularity. Whether it’s two-hand touch, flag football, or ladies in lingerie, the entertainment value is practically immeasurable, evidenced by the fact that its biggest championship game is practically a national holiday celebrated by people who don’t even watch the sport. The rituals of fans dedicating themselves to the sport have become a religion and a rite of passage, interrupting our regularly scheduled holidays with loved ones for the chance to park in front of the television for a nationally broadcast game.
In other words, combine a chess match with a ballet, complete with a ticking timer (to force action every forty seconds) and the violence and testosterone of an action movie, and the result is football.
However, the tragedy of Damar Hamlin might be the key to force society to open its eyes and pull back the veil: football is our modern version of the ancient coliseum, where young and impoverished souls sacrifice themselves for entertainment of the masses in exchange for their freedom (if they survive).
Although it’s not a blanket case, many players in football come from the lower class, correlating with poverty, a lack of education, and no opportunities to escape. Regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion, football is their ticket to a new life, ripe with paychecks large enough to alter generations of families in exchange for putting their bodies through the violence of the game that could result in permanent damage and, although rare, loss of life. The more we watch, the more we spend, and the more we dedicate to the sport, the more we feed into this archetype that has been in existence for ages.
Scary situations like Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest do have the power to bring people together in amazing acts of sportsmanship. In the wake of everything, both teams on the gridiron that night decided to stop playing. Fans of both teams joined each other in prayer, putting aside rooting interests to comfort one another as they shed tears. Humanity dug into their pockets and turned a fundraiser Hamlin had established for his charity into a remarkable story of its own: what was once an attempt to raise a couple hundred dollars is now approaching the $10,000,000 level.
But why does the world need a situation like this to wake up? Why does a man need to innocently brush against death for the population to see there is a problem with this entertainment cycle? Why does this impetus spark the financial generosity for a cause that probably should have reached its goal many moons ago?
This is not a call for legislation that forces humanity to behave a certain way in accordance with the law. Rather, this is a request that individuals think deeply and critically about the decisions made each day in the name of entertainment. At what point will we reach the determination that football is too violent and can no longer be played as it currently exists? Will it require someone to perish in battle while millions watch in horror? If football changes, will a less violent version of the game keep the same entertainment value and hold the attention of its audience? After all, our culture must stop and watch the details of every car accident; a reduction in football violence might turn the action movie into a romantic comedy.
The priority is Damar Hamlin’s recovery, especially considering that medical professionals do not know (at the composition of this post) what caused the cardiac arrest in the first place. (Imagine if the doctors determine that this could have happened even if he was not playing football.) When he is better, what answers will we have for these questions?
Sportsmanship and Opinions
By Sean Ryan
Chairperson of the Board of Directors
Thank goodness we live in a country where freedom of speech is a protected right from the government.
On November 17, 2022, Tonje Gjevjon, a Norwegian lesbian filmmaker and actress, was informed that she was under investigation for comments she made on Facebook against Norwegian activist Christine Jentoft, a transgender female who refers to herself as a lesbian mother. Gjevjon implied that men cannot be lesbians.
In Norway, this speech is punishable by fines and jail time. Gjevjon could face up to 3 years in prison for voicing her thoughts.
What Gjevjon said is irrelevant, as extremist views can go both ways politically. The issue is that she is facing jail time over things she said regarding her beliefs. Each of us is free to disagree with those beliefs as well as also voice opposition to those beliefs, but to be jailed over voicing an opinion is tantamount to tyranny.
A recent amendment made to Norway's penal code added that any speech that slanders gender identity or expression is grounds for fines and possible jail time. This fundamentally goes against human nature, as we are each allowed to have an opinion about anything. Consequently, of course, others are allowed to respond in kind.
Good sportsmanship is not about what you say, but in how you say it. Moreover, it’s about how you respond to someone else’s point of view. Norway's law defining the penalty of force and incarceration for voicing an opinion is the epitome of poor sportsmanship.
As we begin the new year, think not only about what you say before you say it, but also respond in a way that is level headed and logical.
"One cool judgement is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to do is to supply light and not heat." – Woodrow Wilson
It's Not Part of the Game
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to see family in Arizona. The trip coincided with the championship game for the Arizona Fall League, which was an affordable way to spend a few hours at the ballpark bonding with relatives in Scottsdale.
For the uninitiated, the Arizona Fall League (AFL) is a “graduate school” for the best prospects in Major League Baseball. Held during October and November in the desert climate, six teams are stacked with an equal number of players from five parent clubs each. For this championship game, the Surprise Saguaros (made up of the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates) hosted the Glendale Desert Dogs (comprised of the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cincinnati Reds) at Scottsdale Stadium, Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants. I sat two rows behind home plate, feeling like I was part of the game.
The AFL doesn’t just develop players. It gives MLB a chance to test new rules, such as the pitch timer, restrictions on defensive shifts, and larger bases. Further, it’s a necessary stop for aspiring umpires as they approach the opportunity to be hired to the fulltime staff. The umpires working this league usually fall into one of two categories: they’re either call-up umpires who have cracked the big leagues to fill in for the fulltime staff, or they’re the minor league umpires who would probably be next to replace the call-ups if they get hired.
The opportunity to officiate these special games is a reward to umpires who have had great seasons, much like how officials selected to work postseason games for all professional sports are rewarded for the same reason. It can also be a boost in confidence, demonstrating how the league values particular umpires with these assignments, rather than simply giving the assignments to the best umpires. For example, when the AFL hosted its annual “Fall Stars Game” one week prior, three out of the four umpires selected to work that game all had worked in MLB earlier that season. Thus, one might think this championship game would be officiated by umpires with similar experiences. However, the three base umpires were all unknowns, as opposed to the familiar faces working a week ago.
Nate Tomlinson (#114) was assigned to work home plate that evening. He was deputized during the 2020 shortened season as a triple-digit call-up and has been eligible to work games in the big leagues ever since. The league thinks highly of him, as he worked the Futures Game in 2017, which is not an assignment taken lightly. Being selected to work the plate for this championship game was no small feat, even for a guy who had a modicum of experience in the big leagues.
Nate had a great game. It wasn’t until the middle of the game that I began to hear the sarcastic chirps of fans complaining about the strike zone. “C’mon, Blue!” was the most common interjection. The game was tied in the later innings when the comments coming from the fans escalated with every close pitch.
A coach in the first base dugout said something to Nate about a strike call. Nate quickly turned to him (without removing his mask). “I’m not having any of that tonight!” he barked back, putting an end to any dissent.
The crowd around me amplified their displeasure with the call (which was correct). My blood began to boil as I witnessed the ignorance of the fans around me, leading them via peer pressure and convention to verbally berate a man simply doing his job. The crowd noise died down just as my instincts took over.
“Atta boy, Nate,” I said in a normal volume, perhaps just loud enough for those around me to hear.
In the matter of a mere moment, I began to question why I had just responded the way I did. My first thought was one of terror. I wondered if I had crossed a line by using his first name. I didn’t want to give the fans more ammunition in the form of his first name, even though it was announced over the public address system and was listed in the game’s box score. Many officials wish to remain anonymous, citing the fact that the biggest compliment an official can receive is the knowledge that nobody even noticed them. I thought Nate might turn around and have the stadium staff eject me for calling him by his name.
Then I thought of the respect I had just shown him. Had Nate even heard me, maybe his thought was, “Did someone in the crowd just cheer for me?” If I had been in his shoes, perhaps it would have been a welcome change from the vitriol that normally comes with the territory. Ultimately, I responded because I felt like I was being attacked. I projected myself onto Nate, as we shared a fraternal bond as keepers of the flame in the greatest game ever invented. Every derogatory comment at Nate was a derogatory comment at me, an innocent fan trying to enjoy his vacation.
Another close pitch came in. Regardless of the call, the fans of the Saguaros thought it was wrong. I looked into the first base dugout, thinking the same coach was about to chirp again. Instead, I saw something that was strangely comforting.
The coaching staff assembled on the side of the dugout nearest to me turned around and looked at something in the dugout, then turned back with a satisfied look on their collective faces. Then it happened again, even with the crowd becoming worse. It took me a few pitches of this same behavior to realize what was happening: a television monitor on a delay was behind them, and the coaches looked to see if Nate called the questionable pitch properly. Every time I watched the phenomenon, Nate got every call correct, leaving the coaches silent and content, but not the crowd.
A man one section over from me started making comments that increased on the scale of belligerence. “That’s the fourth strike of that at-bat, Nate!” said the man. I cocked my head to look at him while keeping Nate in the corner of my eye. I wanted to slap this stranger for the verbal abuse he was hurling at a man who has dedicated his life to the craft of officiating, sacrificing so much to trudge from city to city, hotel to hotel, just to live the dream that only so few could live.
My girlfriend leaned towards me. “Do you want to go over and say something to him?” she asked.
“No,” I said rather loudly, intent on having those around me hear what I was saying. “I don’t know if he’s drunk or if he has a gun or a weapon.”
A man on the other side of me turned to me. “Excuse me,” he asked, “but what are you talking about?”
“That man over there,” I replied while gesturing. “He’s being completely inappropriate in his comments towards the home plate umpire.”
The man became intrigued. “Do you know him?”
“I know some umpires,” I said. “I’ve been umpiring for fifteen years. I lead my local chapter of umpires. And I can say with certainty that behavior such as what that man is exhibiting is why we have a global shortage of sports officials.”
The gentleman became interested. He began to ask me about my background in the game, genuinely trying to learn more. He was one of the few guys who had heckled Nate earlier; after speaking with me, that behavior ended.
As our conversation about umpire abuse continued, an older lady behind me, perhaps in her early 50’s, chimed in. “That’s part of the game.”
At that moment, I refused to turn around and acknowledge such a ridiculous comment.
I began to wonder if most people around me felt the same way as her. If they did, they lacked the courage and fortitude to speak their minds. Most simply sunk in their chairs, choosing to focus on the game instead of the casual conversation I was having with a stranger. Maybe I was being judged, maybe not.
Although I wasn’t surprised, I was equal parts offended and angered that someone consciously believed that abusing sports officials was a right held by others. I was two time zones away from home, and I had encountered the behavior and opinions that I have sworn to change in others. Do I dare turn around and ask this woman, “Would you like it if I came to where you work and verbally abused you for hours on end?”
Our society has accepted the convention of poor sportsmanship in the same way many of our ancestors accepted racism as a convention. It is a learned behavior that is imprinted on our subconscious from our experiences. If our experiences consist of watching our parents partake in these behaviors, then we begin to mimic them as a way of fitting in with the adult crowd, begging for acceptance into the clique of cool kids. Whether it’s heckling umpires, booing players, hazing teammates, or any other accepted tradition, it’s time we stand up and speak the truth:
It's not part of the game.
By Sean Comerford
Board of Directors
After a stultifying day at work, I often look forward to sitting down at my computer to enjoy some video games. Games are big business these days, but even long before they were ever taken seriously by the mainstream, they have been a go-to release for me, particularly as a kid who was interested in sports but not particularly athletically inclined or talented. Despite my own enjoyment of many games with a competitive or team element, there is usually someone not enjoying themselves, and that person will let the other players know it—often with abusive, racist, and shocking language. In short, the same tendencies towards awful behavior that coaches, parents, and players seek to fight in the “real” world of sport occur online as well.
While unsurprising that some people will choose to behave badly in any venue available to them, the nature of online, networked gaming specifically worries me for a few reasons. First, much of the social pressure to behave is removed when online thanks to anonymity. Some participants will see this as license to act horribly towards their teammates or opponents despite any culture or accepted practices of the game, such as typing “GG” (good game) into the chat, win or lose. Second, bad behavior online is often viewed as having little to no consequences, as opposed to acting like a jerk at a Little League game, where a bully’s actions may result in punishment or retribution. Finally, although video games do come with a rating system to gauge age-appropriateness, even appropriately aged individuals can act in ways that are not acceptable to anyone. This includes abuse directed towards children or young adults, who already struggle with self-esteem issues and bullying online. Even as a grown adult, I find this behavior to be incredibly off-putting; it easily gets under my skin, leaving me angry or stressed out after playing a game, which is exactly the opposite of how I want to feel after using some of my leisure time.
So what can be done?
Some good first steps are technical. Most games have reputation management systems through which players can report others for abusive behavior. These "trolls" suffer restricted privileges in the game or can be banned entirely depending on the frequency and/or severity of their negative actions. Of course, these sorts of remedies miss much of the abuse, as they rely on action taken by the game developers and let toxic players off the hook if they are—for whatever reason—not reported even though they have acted terribly. Players can also act themselves by “muting” other players so they don’t hear their voices or read their chats, but this can unfortunately directly harm the competition of the game, as most online games require team coordination and strategy.
A brand-new game that I just played addresses the issue of toxicity by having players read through and indicate that they have understood a three-point “code of conduct” before unlocking the ability to play online with others. This is a nice approach, but of course, anyone truly determined to be awful can ignore the prompts and continue to make other people miserable.
Ultimately, as in other activities, education is imperative. The more that can be done to raise awareness among the participants in any activity that their bad behavior has a negative effect on others, detracting from everyone’s enjoyment and character-building, the better off everyone will be. Organizations like OSIP can help inform the public about their responsibility to uphold good sportsmanship, whether online or off.
Our Own Worst Enemy
By Sean Gough
Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors
As an organization dedicated to sportsmanship, The OSIP Foundation appropriately deals with incidents related to sports and games. But what if something deeper than that were causing bad sportsmanship?
That was the question that jumped out at me from the recent book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy (2021), by Tom Nichols. In discussing the origins of the book, Nichols explains, "The answer I came to is that there’s no way to track the decline of democracy with anything but large cultural changes, which have been in motion for 50 years. But I really thought the strongest relationship was the growth of an affluent, narcissistic society and the decline of civic and democratic virtue." He adds, "The democracies are affluent nations that have been at peace for decades, with very high technological and living standards ... We expect simple answers and we are infuriated by anything that seems difficult. We are quick to resent each other and blame everyone else for our troubles ... We are, literally, our own worst enemy."
When trying to fathom how youth sports increasingly have become sites of adult violence, these analyses by Nichols seem relevant and prescient. Sports are part of culture, but culture is bigger than sports. How else would we have brought such destructiveness to something that's allegedly about the fun of the game, the reward of the challenge, and the value of fighting for a common goal?
Granted, we understand the ugliness associated with competition in the public arena historically, from the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum to heavyweight fights in Las Vegas. We also understand the temptation to sulk or to scapegoat others in defeat. But when youth athletic leagues cancel games due to a shortage of officials who have fled the profession, and when old and young alike loudly and proudly attack officials and blame them for their losses, something else has gone wrong. We have become our own worst enemy.
Sports officials aren't the only ones facing violence from an angry populace demanding they win at the expense of the rules. Election officials and poll workers have resigned in droves across the country as they and their families confront threats of murder, rape, and intimidation. Regardless of political affiliation, the mere fact of the violence speaks to something dire and deeper than sports.
"We’ve become very entitled. We’ve become very self-centered," Nichols says. "We think that every inconvenience is a failure of democracy ... [Our] relationship with democracy is almost childlike. And when democracy doesn’t do everything we want it to do, we declare the whole thing a failure ... When people say democracy has to do better, normally they don’t say we have to do better. They say the government has to do better, as if it's some separate group of aliens who rule us from [another] planet."
In other words: it's easier crying foul and yelling at the refs than quietly doing our best and seeking the truth.
In a strange paradox, the advantages of freedom and relative prosperity have bred some of these problems. Our relative fortune has allowed us to forget the things that are responsible for life and to assign other things an outsized significance that does not match reality. That finally might explain why youth sports leagues have become crime scenes. When needs are largely met and societies are basically free, winning the ballgame can seem like life and death. But the ballgame can only seem so important because of the way of life afforded by a functioning democracy. As Nichols memorably writes, "We are losing because we have won. We are suffering because we are successful. We are unhappy because we have what we want" [Our Own Worst Enemy, p. 21].
But thanks to democracy, we also aren't stuck with these paradoxes. We can change what we value, and sports can offer admirable alternative models. For instance, when professional athletes make a crucial error in the middle of a game, do they respond by whining, sulking, and attacking the officials? Rarely (if they want to stay in the game). After quickly assessing and adjusting what might have led to that error, the game demands putting that aside and plowing forward. And if it is a team sport, their fellow players cheer them on and carry the burden for them (like a first baseman stretching for a ball delivered short of the base).
In sports as in democracy: by doing the work as individuals, we can succeed together.
I Wonder Why There's A Shortage
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
This is a true story that happened recently.
After already booking a tee time for a Sunday afternoon, I was asked the night before to cover a game in the early evening. Aware of the global shortage of officials, I took the game, aware that I would not play all 18 holes the next day. Tired, hot, frustrated, and hungry, I walked onto a field to umpire a baseball game between nine-year-old kids by myself. Hoping vulnerability would be my ally, I opened up to both coaches during our pregame conference.
“Guys,” I said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I was pulled off the golf course to cover this game by myself. I’m tired, hot, and hungry, and my golf game is absolutely terrible, but I know someone must cover this game since there is a shortage of officials. I ask that everybody play with good sportsmanship. And above all, please treat me kindly.” My wry smile was met with a chuckle, as both coaches were jealous that I had gotten onto the golf course.
Within two outs being recorded after the first pitch, the coach from the visiting team was complaining about the strike zone.
In the top of the second inning with two outs, a batter from the visiting team smoked a fly ball to left field. The left fielder made a fabulous catch to end the inning, causing the batter to begin to cry.
Is it childish to cry over this? Certainly. But the kid was also nine. If anyone is going to cry over this, a child would be the one to do it. However, the same visiting coach in question didn’t see it that way. He was having no luck calming the kid down, so he did what came natural: he fanned the flames and made it worse. “Stop crying, you baby!” he said.
Of course, this made the kid cry more. Now the kid refused to go out to center field out of protest. The coach sent a substitute to center field while making it worse. “You know what you are? You’re a quitter!”
Now the kid was sobbing.
The first pitch of the bottom of the second inning was popped up to center field. The new center fielder camped under it, only to have it go off his glove and fall to the ground. The coach turned back to the crying kid. “That’s on you for being a quitter!” he shouted.
Then I had to make a call at third base while standing behind home plate. “He’s out!” I shouted.
That same coach was now arguing from the third base coach’s box. “He dropped the ball!” he shouted.
I looked everywhere and could not see the ball on the ground. I stood by my call.
“The third baseman had to reach with his bare hand between the legs of the runner to pick up the ball! How can you not see that?” he argued.
“Look at where I am when I have to make that call,” I explained. “I can’t see that, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The coach had a few more choice words not suitable for print media, then he walked back to the dugout in disgust.
The first batter of the next half-inning smoked a line drive to right-center field. I hustled from behind the plate for a potential play at second base, but the kid took a turn and headed for third. I jogged to my left and positioned myself properly. The runner slid under the tag. “Safe!” I declared.
Now the coach was irate. He and his assistants created a cacophony of complaints, causing me to become irate as well. “That’s enough!” I shouted back.
One assistant coach didn’t stop, though. I ejected him.
With my blood sugar dropping and significant fatigue settling in, I desperately tried to stop shaking and calm down. My skin was slightly burnt. I was out of water. And I wanted to get out of there badly.
That’s when a foul ball hit my collarbone.
Nothing was broken, and I was able to continue the game after a medical delay to make sure I was okay, but insult was clearly added to injury…or maybe injury was added to insult.
The visiting team, complete with crying kids and complaining coaches, ended up winning.
I hobbled to my car when the umpire assignor and the ejected coach approached me. The coach was nice enough to apologize, although it had to be accompanied by a statement that he had never been ejected prior and he didn’t think what he said warranted an ejection.
I took a deep breath, still in throbbing pain from the blow to my collarbone. “Look,” I began. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. I’ve worked many levels, from young kids through college. I’ve befriended professional umpires. I’ve studied the rule book. I’ve tried to understand human psychology as it pertains to competition.”
Both men stared intently at me, as if they knew what I was going to say next.
“This, gentlemen,” I said, “is the type of game that makes me want to quit umpiring.”
There was a brief silence. In that moment, I couldn’t hold back my vulnerable opinion.
“I don’t understand how coaches can abuse these kids verbally by calling them quitters. I don’t understand how you can’t see that we have a global shortage of officials because of this behavior. Nobody wants to come out here and endure this kind of behavior for $50. It is ludicrous.”
I honestly felt guilt and shame for expressing my opinion. “Coach your kids however you want,” I concluded. “But without people like me, you have no games.”
By Mark Gola
VP of Marketing & Publicity
There are many different forms of poor sportsmanship. Most instances are fueled by negativity, an undesirable result, or uncontrolled criticism. However, there are times when adults believe they are helping, only to truly be hurting the athletes, coaches, and team.
It’s tough for parents to avoid shouting out what they see and feel during a sporting event, but coaching from the sidelines or behind the fence is a form of poor sportsmanship. This does not include reinforcing what the coaches are preaching, such as a helpful reminder to an athlete ("Keep boxing out!") or words of encouragement (“Shake that one off and get the next one!”). What we’re addressing are adults who holler directives with no regard for the coaches, the athletes, and the consequences of their actions.
You’re undermining the coaching staff. Whether you agree with them or not, the coaches are in charge of the team. They decide who is playing when and where, what game strategy shall be used, and what style of play is best. Yelling out instructions that conflict with what the staff is coaching is exceptionally damaging. It puts the athlete in a difficult position – "Who should I listen to? My coach or my parent?" It can generate doubt amongst other parents who would otherwise not think to partake in the same behavior. It can also cause strife between teammates. If the quality of the coaching staff is in question, address it in a parent meeting or after the season is over.
You’re not allowing the athletes to think for themselves. Telling an athlete what to do, when to do it, where to stand, and when to move is fastening shackles on their ability to develop instinct and creativity. Yes, it is painful to watch young athletes make mistakes, but it’s how they learn. Discuss teaching points with them before the game, after the game, or out in the backyard. But during the game, it’s their time to play. We’ve had our time.
You’re sending a message that listening to the person in charge is optional. This is a bad message to send on and off the field. It basically says, “Respect authority, but only if you agree with them. If not, don’t listen.” That will not work out long-term in sports or in life.
Most don’t want to hear what you have to say. Every parent who watches their sons and daughters compete have thoughts, opinions, and emotions. It’s completely normal. The need to verbalize those thoughts, opinions, and emotions becomes the issue. When a spectator constantly complains, yells, or coaches throughout the contest, it’s downright irritating. It takes away from spectator enjoyment.
If you’re a parent who has difficulty keeping your thoughts to yourself, remove yourself. Stand down in the corner or in the outfield to give yourself the freedom to react (within reason). If that’s too much to ask, you should ask yourself why.
It’s understood that not every coach in charge is the best. Some have great personalities but lack knowledge. Others can teach the sport but lack composure. If you’re a parent that has a lot to offer to young athletes, take the appropriate steps to become a coach yourself. But until then, enjoy the sporting event as a spectator.
A Culture of Complaining
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
During the height of the pandemic, I picked up a new hobby that I turned into a small business: baking. I found my grandmother’s old recipes and started dabbling, eventually passing the time by making desserts each week. When the state of New Jersey decided to join the 21st Century and became the 50th state to allow cottage food sales, I opened a small business where I sold my baked goods prepared from my home. It’s just a side hustle, but it’s a nice extra source of income that brings me great joy, not just because I can bring smiles to the faces of my customers, but because I can think of my late grandmother as I use her handiwork to keep her legacy alive.
When New Jersey finally allowed cottage food sales, a laundry list of regulations was attached to the legislation. My total profits each year are capped at a certain amount; I cannot sell to private businesses, only people; and I cannot sell outside of New Jersey. As a result of these restrictions, calculating delivery costs became a hassle.
I ultimately decided that I could deliver to thirteen counties in the state, but I couldn’t charge based on the mileage due to my restrictions to neighboring states. I had to average the cost and charge a flat free regardless of the distance traveled. Whether I traveled 5 miles or 50 miles, delivery of goods cost $24.99.
Consider the thought process of what went into this. The price of gas skyrocketed to over $4 per gallon. I was paying for use of my own car, insuring it, maintaining it, etc. Even the standard mileage rate that the IRS used to calculate tax deductions was getting high! I knew that the economy was troubled and that some people were struggling, but I also knew that I had to cover my expenses and not lose money if I wanted this business to work.
As my first orders began to come in, there was no issue with this delivery fee. My customers understood the cost of doing business. But when things started to pick up, more and more potential customers began to complain about this cost. The complaints were mostly on social media, as if these people needed their opinions heard by the public to be validated and to feel better about themselves. I tried to politely explain my math and reasoning, but people either didn’t respond or doubled down.
About a week after these complaints started, one customer called me after she had received an order. She raved about my cinnamon swirl bread, but she also inquired about the delivery fee. She politely expressed that she couldn’t afford the fee with the current economy, but she wanted to keep ordering and wondered if we could find a compromise.
That’s when good sportsmanship kicked in.
It’s not about what you say; it’s all about how you say it. This woman realized that a polite discussion might yield her promising results. It diffused the situation and made me want to help her. I ultimately crunched some numbers and offered her a financial compromise that allowed her to become a regular customer that was mutually beneficial for us both.
It’s no different in sports. When a call by an official doesn’t favor us or our team, we tend to complain rather than seek to understand it. Coaches yell at officials thinking it will make them get more calls in the future or make them feel better. However, this rarely works. In fact, it hurts them in the long run: why would an official suddenly see things the coach’s way after the coach uses aggression to make a point?
Good sportsmanship isn’t reserved for athletic competition. It can be used in capitalism. Rather than complain about the cost of goods or services, wouldn’t it make more sense to understand the cost of something and seek a solution? Better yet, if something is so outrageously priced, isn’t it better to simply say nothing instead of demeaning an innocent small business owner?
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.