THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
It was doubly late: late on a Wednesday night in late August when I went to my favorite watering hole to relax before calling it a night. The radio that was on throughout the restaurant caused the television sets above the liquor bottles to be muted, leaving me with only the away video feed (no audio) for the game between the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks and the host Los Angeles Dodgers.
Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker was at bat when home plate umpire Alex Tosi called a strike. Using the inaccurate graphic box that simulates the strike zone for visual context, the pitch was outside; it was a two-seam fastball that purposefully started outside the zone and sunk back towards the plate, but it was probably two inches away from the outside corner as denoted by vertical line superimposed on the screen. Tosi’s strike mechanic triggered displeasure from Walker.
Shortly thereafter, Walker grounded out. When the camera panned back to Walker putting his batting helmet away in the dugout, he was still yelling at Tosi for that call. Walker then slammed his batting gloves against the wall, shook his head again, and planted himself against the dugout railing overlooking the field. His eyes were fixated solely on Tosi as anger and displeasure emanated from every orifice on his head. The sweat that glistened on his bald white scalp wanted to turn into steam or smoke simply to escape the awkward tension, like a scared child that didn’t want to be around an inappropriately angry parent.
The camera would switch back to its normal angle in centerfield to televise each pitch, but the ten seconds of downtime in between each subsequent pitch would be filled with another shot of Walker. Without hearing the audio, I began to wonder about the impetus that would require the camera to continue its intent focus on Walker following his routine groundout. Was a director at the network controlling the broadcast and barking orders to keep focusing on Walker, encouraging the commentators to speak in favor of Walker and against Tosi? Or were the Arizona broadcasters going on an anti-umpire tirade that led the director to simply follow their voices with the appropriate visual shots? Regardless of whether control belonged to the director or the broadcasters, the schtick became saturated, causing me to silently beg the broadcast itself to focus on to the next batter and forget about Walker’s plate appearance.
The raging testosterone fueling Walker’s reaction became secondary to the fanning of the flames being done by the technicians controlling the video telecast. Even without audio, I was being told by the moving pictures to focus on Walker’s frustration and empathize with him, which might then manifest into a detesting of Tosi and perhaps all umpires. I wondered if there was a subconscious protocol being implemented by the director to truly influence the feelings and emotions of the viewers in a way that elevated one party on a pedestal and demoted another for the purpose of gaining ratings and revenue.
I considered myself lucky that I had the ability to abduct such information; the average viewer (especially with alcohol introduced into the equation) probably would never reach the same conclusion without being lectured. But the entire ordeal points to the potential that the media wields to control the narrative of the public. A simple repeated visual focus on an angry ballplayer yelling at an umpire, even without audio, can influence the way people feel, usually by invoking anger or a general uneasiness that points to conflict rather than resolution.
We may not be able to control what is put in front of us as we try to watch a game. After all, the media truly can control the narrative, regardless of whether the context is sports, politics, business, or anything else. But we do have the ability to consciously recognize these sleazy tactics. Perhaps the path to peace requires the vulnerability needed to acknowledge this social engineering, relying instead on our freedom to formulate our own opinions without subscribing to a phony gospel.
By Nadia Leunig
Secretary of the Board of Directors
I am an administrator in a small district located in Central New Jersey (yes, it does exist). One of the best suggestions I received this summer was to read The Power of a Positive Team by Jon Gordon. He discusses a myriad of team dynamics in the book that includes businesses, schools, and sports. While reading the book, I realized why I was so dissatisfied at the end of my son’s soccer season.
I never participated in sports as a child; my focus in school was Fine and Performing Arts. So imagine my surprise when my son asked me to play soccer when he was five years old. I knew absolutely nothing about the game but would do anything to support my son. I signed him up for the township’s recreational league and so began our soccer journey. After a couple of years, he was able to participate in the travel soccer program.
I learned the most about sportsmanship from that travel program. It is so easy to become one of those parents who yell at the referee about a call that was made. It was so easy to yell at our kids from the sideline to run faster and play harder. I really had to sit back and ask myself, “Am I helping my son by acting this way?” The answer was obviously no, and I had to change my mindset. As parents, we are one of the best people to show our children good sportsmanship, how to lose with grace, and how to navigate negative feelings.
Throughout the two years, I watched the team grow together. The first season was rough. We lost every single game. While some of the parents were not happy with that outcome, our coaches kept reiterating the importance of teamwork and foundational skills. We won only one game that winter, but we went undefeated that spring season. The boys even won a tournament where they were playing against a team that was many flights above them. All stakeholders in the team went into the second year with a positive outlook.
Near the end of our second year, though, I started to notice a change. At first, I did not know how to put it into words, but The Power of a Positive Team helped. There was a shift in the team's mindset: rather than being processed-focused, the team was becoming outcome-focused. There was more importance placed on individuals who wanted to win rather than the entirety of being a great team. I honestly believe this is what caused our team to fall apart. There were games lost that shouldn’t have been lost. The language that was being used toward the boys changed. I was not surprised when my son was not asked back on the team. He is a solid member of a team but is not a standout individual player.
At the end of the day, not making the team is not the end of the world. My son made another travel soccer team, and I hope we can continue to build that good sportsmanship and teamwork mentality. I wish the former team all the best and hope they can continue to grow like they want. If you are a coach and/or a parent of a youth sports team, remember that it is not about the outcome. Focus on the roots of your tree and you will see the fruit of your labor.
“No one creates success alone. We all need a team to be successful……Positivity leads to winning.” - Jon Gordon (2018)
By Jack Furlong
Watch any Major League Baseball game on television and there’s a chance you will hear an announcer use a phrase that is equal parts passive-aggressive, patronizing, and poor sportsmanship.
“It didn’t have to be.”
The phrase usually refers to an opinion regarding an umpire’s strike zone. Television graphics have advanced to the point where many broadcasts overlay an opaque box from the centerfield camera that attempts to represent the strike zone, and the broadcasters believe that the graphic is gospel when helping determine whether the calls made by the home plate umpire are correct. If a pitch lands outside of the box, yet is called a strike by the umpire, broadcasters take the opportunity take a snipe at the umpire for, in their opinion, being incorrect.
“The 1-0 pitch is called a strike, but it didn’t have to be.”
The use of this phrase furthers the narrative that authority figures do not have to be respected. It is a snide way to take a cheap shot without repercussions at someone who may not have the same opportunity to respond to the remark. Broadcasters are placing guised opinions into the dissemination of information, very much like the biased news casts that come from both sides of the political spectrum, which subconsciously sink into the psyche of viewers and are imitated by the public.
However, rather than attempt to edify against the use of this phrase with opinions, a better method to explain why this phrase should not be used is to explain why the graphic on the screen used by broadcasters is faulty and should be discontinued. If the box is removed from the broadcast, perhaps the opportunities to use the phrase will disappear.
Let’s begin with the height of the box, which does not change from batter to batter. The strike zone for each hitter is defined in the rules as the midpoint between the shoulders and the waist down to the hollow of the knee (the adage being “from the letters to the knees”). As ballplayers are not robots designed with the same specifications, every hitter will naturally have a different strike zone. For example, the strike zone for Aaron Judge will be much larger than the strike zone for Jose Altuve. Yet, the box on the screen has not once changed in height to adjust for these differences.
Second, the strike zone is meant to be three dimensional. A pitch needs only to catch any part of this three-dimensional zone to be deemed a strike by the umpire. The box on the screen is two-dimensional, more like a windowpane with no depth that needs to be touched by the pitch. Further, much like the lack of adjustments made for height, the position of the box in relation to the depth of the plate is never fully clear. Sure, we can be told the box is placed at the front of the plate (or at least in the correct spot), but such a representation cannot truly be trusted, similarly to how the height of the box cannot be trusted.
Third, the statistical analysis of how human umpires view pitches based on their setup and mechanics behind the catcher has shown an exceptional number of trends that have been accepted via convention due to their consistency. That’s not to say that convention is a reason to blindly accept something; rather, this convention allows us to positively use analytics to help us better understand what is happening. Umpires are taught to set up in “the slot,” defined as the space between the batter and the catcher. Their eyes are then meant to split the inside corner, giving them an exceptional look at the inside pitch, but possibly sacrificing the best look at the outside pitch. On average, even the most consistent umpires tend to have a 2-inch margin of error on the outside corner that is widely accepted by all personnel. However, the box on the screen does not incorporate this. (Interestingly enough, this trend is most common for umpires who are right-eye dominant when right-handed hitters are at bat. When right-eye dominant umpires set up for a left-handed batter, a small margin of error develops on the inside corner as well!)
Fourth, based on the fraction of moments an umpire is given to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike, an increased value is placed on the reception of a pitch by the catcher (sometimes colloquially known as “framing”). If a “borderline” pitch is received by a catcher with significant movement on the catcher’s mitt, a subconscious message is sent to the umpire that the pitch was not a strike and the catcher tried to move it back into the strike zone to make it appear to be one. In turn, it’s not uncommon to suggest that professional umpires might etch a picture of the strike zone into their vision to combat this, which does not account for all the minor nuances such as the changing height of the batter. Players like Aaron Judge have suffered because of this: Judge has had the most strikes below the strike zone called on him due to his immense height and the need for an umpire to visualize the strike zone to combat improper pitch framing.
Finally, the system used by Major League Baseball to evaluate umpires on their plate scores is completely different than what is presented on television with these graphics. MLB adjusts the strike zone from batter to batter in a “postgame processing” protocol, then applies a two-inch margin of error around the entire zone before determining how many of the pitches were called correctly by the home plate umpire. The graphics used on television in real time take none of this into account, creating a public persona to hate umpires while cultivating a private system that lauds them and proves they are still more accurate than any computer calling balls and strikes.
Thus, it appears that broadcasters who claim pitches “didn’t have to be” strikes may react in the moment without the educational knowledge of how the process truly operates. These broadcasters choose to be “malignant homers” to appeal to their fanbase instead of objectively remaining true to journalistic integrity. Rather than seek the approval of viewers, perhaps a better strategy might be to emulate the legendary broadcasters whose words painted pictures and truly enhanced a broadcast through genuine excitement, comfort, and familiarity.
By Sean Comerford
Member, Board of Directors
I have been following a lot of football (soccer) in the last few years and have very much enjoyed it. The international nature of the game along with the excitement of the recent World Cup, etc., make it a nice complement to watching purely domestic or regional sports. However, one thing that is a bit odd, at least to this American sports fan, is the tolerance of sponsorships on the uniforms of the players. The sponsorships are invariably more prominent and flashier than the actual club crests. This can be annoying but uneventful if a sponsor is something like a well-known consumer brand, such as a carmaker. However, the sponsorships for European sports teams are increasingly for gambling.
In a Pete Rose-esque situation, Ivan Toney, an English Premier League striker for the club Brentford, was recently banned from football for the better part of the next year because he was found to have bet on the sport numerous times against regulations. This included betting on his own team to lose when he was not scheduled to play. Unlike Pete Rose, however, Toney’s bookie was essentially emblazoned on his shirt -- Brentford is one team among many that is currently sponsored by a betting company in the Premiership.
This may not be shocking even to Americans now in our "everything is sponsored by DraftKings" existence. However, as people not of gambling age watch these sports, do gambling advertisements send a message that is harmful to consumers? In England, at least, there is some “consciousness of guilt” as shirts sold for youngsters are forbidden to display betting platform logos, instead featuring blank space.
There have been reports that the Premier League teams agreed to dial back betting sponsorships, at least on the front of shirts, in the coming years. It appears to be a tardy attempt to quiet some of the uncomfortable feelings that arose in the wave of this seemingly overnight takeover by the gambling industry.
Were professional sports not profitable enough even without betting sponsors? Was it not foreseeable that there would be repercussions to ceding “typical” sponsorship space to gambling companies?
Even if most who choose to gamble can do so responsibly, is sponsorship money worth ensnaring the small percentage of people that might become addicted? It seems that for now, on both sides of the Atlantic, the answer is yes, whether we like it or not.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
In August 2022 at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the St. Louis Cardinals. The only thing hotter than the outside temperature were the tempers of Cardinals rookie manager Oliver Marmol and veteran home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor.
Marmol took exception to some of the calls made by Bucknor on balls and strikes, which led to Bucknor ejecting Marmol. According to reports, the heated argument that resulted included Bucknor commenting on Marmol’s tenure in the league (Marmol being in his first year as a manager). This led to Marmol’s reciprocal retort that demanded Bucknor finally retire from umpiring.
Fast forward to Spring Training 2023 on the east coast of Florida where Bucknor was stationed and assigned to be the home plate umpire for a game with the Cardinals. According to reports, Bucknor refused to shake Marmol’s hand during the pregame plate meeting. This led to postgame comments from Marmol that further questioned his ability to umpire in addition to his class as a man.
Major League Baseball investigated the incident and eventually came to believe everything was behind them, clearing the air and putting the entire soap opera to bed. However, as media members and fans alike began to dissect the timeline of events, the same refrain of hating the umpire rang in the rafters. The question these people asked was the same: on behalf of his status representing the sport of baseball, why couldn’t Bucknor just be the “bigger man” and forget it?
Can you recall a time when you held a job in an industry such as retail, food service, or hospitality? If so, can you think of an example during said tenure when a customer was nasty, either for no reason or provoked due to a minor mistake? Was your window of tolerance ever so small or closed that it led to a confrontation with the customer that became more than it should have ever been?
That might be an accurate comparison of what occurred between Marmol and Bucknor that day.
Everyone who has or has held a job that involves customers, clients, or other people who are served or serviced by such work usually must encounter people who simply do not understand that the combination of unprovoked poor behavior, finger pointing, and catching people at the wrong time can lead to disastrous results. Emotions and feelings begin to boil, calling upon defense mechanisms for support. Words fly from mouths and through the air with the intent to attack, defend, and wage war without the use of rational thought.
For example, imagine a restaurant customer sitting at a table. The customer is not thrilled with the service of the waitstaff and decides to complain in a belligerent and boisterous way to the manager, taking personal jabs at the waitress assigned to the table. The manager explains to the customer that the restaurant is short staffed that day, as a few workers are sick, and the waitress in question came in on a day off to help. Further, the waitress has been dealing with a terminally ill parent, causing her performance at work to suffer slightly.
The customer refuses to apologize and simply demands better service.
If that customer continued to come back to that restaurant while that waitress was working, what would be the probability that the waitress would refuse to serve this customer, let alone even acknowledge the customer, knowing that what was said prior was hurtful and inconsiderate of what was happening in her life at that time?
Oliver Marmol may have felt that his actions were justified that day for a myriad of reasons (like the “defense” of his players), but the fact of the matter is that his words clearly struck a chord that caused C.B. Bucknor to be quite offended. Even if Marmol was provoked by Bucknor, there can be quite a difference in tenor between noting rookie status and the aging process. Sure, that may not justify Bucknor’s comment, but there is a distinct difference between grotesque phrases that can boil down to not “earning one’s stripes yet” versus being put out to pasture, similar to the difference between verbal taunting and physically assaulting. Further, being the “bigger man” doesn’t always mean to forget that someone treated you horribly; it can mean maturely standing up for one’s feelings.
Perhaps the real sin (or where the line was certainly crossed) was when Marmol decided to question the integrity of someone tasked with upholding the game of baseball.
Imagine a teacher disciplines a young student for bad behavior in school. The student asks, “What did I do? What could I have possibly done to deserve this?”
The teacher responds, “You’re ten years old in your first week of fifth grade and you’re talking back to me. I’m not having that for this entire school year.”
The student responds, “Then you need to retire! You’re terrible at your job and you’ve been doing it for too long! If you won’t give me what I want or deserve, then I demand the school gives me a teacher who will!”
That is essentially what happened between Marmol and Bucknor.
Perhaps a better example would be to translate this to a situation where a police officer has pulled an adult over for a traffic stop. The cop says to the driver, “I saw you driving dangerously, weaving in and out of traffic in a very unsafe way.”
The driver responds, “That’s preposterous. There’s absolutely no way I could have done that. You’re not seeing clearly and should have your eyes checked.”
Here’s an example of what the cop absolutely will not say: “You know what? You’re right. I’m a terrible cop and need to get glasses. Excuse me while I go home and rethink my life.”
Although positions of authority are held by fallible humans who are no better than any other human, the position of authority must be respected, especially if dealing with a comparatively inconsequential environment such as sports. Teachers, police officers, and umpires demand respect when they are on duty or at work. It’s certainly possible that the person holding that authority is not as honorable as we would like, but the uniform still requires the respect it deserves.
Therefore, can anyone blame Bucknor for feeling so insulted that he would refuse to shake Marmol’s hand the following year? Such a personal attack really seemed to get under Bucknor’s skin. We have no idea if Bucknor was experiencing something that day that might make him more sensitive, but that point is moot when we begin to consider that we should simply be treating others the way we would want to be treated, regardless of circumstances.
By Katelyn Mulligan
Chief Operating Officer
How many kids start playing golf because a parent or other adult has promised to let them drive the golf cart?
I was one of them.
Fast forward a few decades and you'll see I really enjoy playing, even though I’m not very good at it.
Years ago, I discovered my pharmaceutical employer had a golf league, the competitive equivalent of company softball with recorded statistics and official bragging rights at stake. As someone who was already playing softball for the company, I decided that adding one more activity was another way to play more rounds of golf and meet some colleagues.
I enjoyed playing in the golf league while it lasted. Ultimately, however, my colleagues who ran the league retired, leaving nobody interested in taking the reigns. After consultation with a different colleague, she and I decided we would reinvent the league as an informal club, complete with the same opportunities to play golf and enjoy colleague camaraderie without brackets and scoring. (After all, I didn’t understand how the scoring worked and didn’t want to take on that responsibility!)
Two years later in the present day, our new golf club (no pun intended) is a huge success. The number of people who have signed up skyrocketed to triple digits, far beyond the handful that kept the league alive. We give each other words of encouragement when a nice drive is hit, and we help each other look for a ball that’s lost in the rough. I hear no negative talk or snide comments (aside from the good-nature ribbing we naturally use). Instead, it's a plethora of positive camaraderie amongst colleagues, all of whom are wondering, once the round is over, when they get to do it again.
Now, I never witnessed any acts of poor sportsmanship while I was in the formal company golf league; however, now that it is less formal as a club, it’s reassuring to see so many people enjoying themselves and playing. No one seems to mind that we’re all at various skill levels; everyone knows the golf rules and playing etiquette, and that is enough. I don’t feel any worse than I normally do if my drive hooks and goes into the woods. It just affects my own individual score, not my team's ranking.
This poses a question regarding whether the league/club dynamic could be beneficial in other sports settings. What if children were mandated to participate in equal parts informal recreation and a competitive setting for their sports or competitive activities? Could this perhaps curtail acts of poor sportsmanship? Developing a child's ability to understand when to "turn it on" for a more serious competition could influence positive change.
This template has been applied before with mixed results. Kids who want to participate in their town's competitive summer baseball program, for example, are required to participate in the spring recreational league that correlates. However, the same kids might feel no remorse about skipping a less important game in the spring, as opposed to a more serious game in the summer. Further, many parents cannot understand that, regardless of the competitive level, it's just a game and no the end of the world. Understanding the delicate balance between playing to win the competition but not at the expense of maturity and good sportsmanship is quite difficult. If only the positive vibes could be bottled by my pharmaceutical company and distributed to everyone involved in competitive sports.
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?
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
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.