THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
The attention span of sports fans has dwindled over the years, resulting in professional leagues making alterations to their games to force action and keep viewers intrigued through a consistent pace of play. For example, gridiron football added the play clock; basketball added the shot clock; and tennis added the serve clock. Baseball made the most recent and most drastic changes, adding a pitch clock that forces both the offense and defense to be ready for play (whereas most other clocks put the onus only on the offense).
One sport that doesn’t always come up when discussing pace of play at the professional level is golf. Sure, there are rules that govern pace of play, but the chances of coming up against one with risk of penalty are slim. A news story may pop up from time to time about the pace of play during a major tournament, but most professionals are conditioned to work at a pace that never truly results in an issue regarding the pace of a round.
However, as golf is an accessible and recreational sport played by so many people of so many ages, the pace of play at the amateur level (such as at your local public course) becomes more of a social issue than one that might result in a stroke penalty. The traffic jams that result in slow play do more to affect customer service and business than the actual competition within the sport. The resulting stories of aggravation tend to revolve around the group ahead or behind that skirt etiquette, resulting in golfers feeling things like anxiety, frustration, and/or anger.
Some pace of play issues simply cannot be avoided at your local course. If it’s a beautiful day when most people don’t have to work, the number of golfers who flock to the course can be quite high, resulting in a natural backup that happens like the ones during rush hour on major highways. However, even when these issues arise, golfers can take precautions to ensure they’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Most golf courses try to govern the pace of play so that everyone’s game can be more enjoyable. Groups of golfers are capped at four, and golf carts can be required in high volume situations. Some courses book better golfers earlier in the day and not-so-good golfers later in the day so that handicaps are more uniform and dictate a more proper pace of play. Different colored tees and their placement can change the difficulty of each hole, allowing a golfer with a higher handicap to start closer to the green than a more experienced golfer. Perhaps most importantly, many golfers have adopted the policies of “ready golf,” meaning the etiquette of waiting for golfers who are farther from the hole to go first is waived in the name of speeding up the game; in other words, if you’re ready to go, just go!
And yet, some golfers are still oblivious to these guidelines and their slow pace. Some players believe it is their right to take as much time as needed since they are paying customers, and if that means taking an eternity to line up a putt, then so be it. Others believe that the golf course is the perfect social opportunity to consume alcohol or smoke marijuana, altering their behavior and state of consciousness while ignoring the consequences this might have on others around them. This behavior can be reflective of the same obliviousness towards people elsewhere in life, demonstrating a lack of general courtesy for their fellow man.
Acting this way, though, isn’t just reserved for the golfers. Many courses employ rangers whose responsibility is to drive around the course and ensure that golfers are adhering to the rules, especially regarding pace of play. There are many rangers who do a great job, but there are also plenty of rangers who align more with the oblivious golfers, believing it is their job to treat the course like sacred ground and reprimand every person who so happens to commit even a minor infraction. Ultimately, both golfers and course employees have the power to do the same thing: create undue conflict for the public because of a lack of common sense and the inability to choose the proper words to communicate.
Regardless of our role on the course, the sportsmanship involved with our words and actions can significantly alter our experience and the experience of others. Walking the fine line between taking our time and keeping a good pace can take practice, but a simple awareness for others around us might be the catalyst to finding that balance. Course rangers might see a better pace when they ask for help from golfers to assist with their desire to improve the pace, rather than demanding change to adhere to the rules.
Public and amateur golf has the potential to become a powder keg of pretentiousness and arrogance that breeds contempt rather than enjoyment. The game of golf is already difficult, and yet everyone involved with the game can make it harder than it needs to be due to poor sportsmanship, poor communication, and a lack of awareness for others. Imagine how much more enjoyable a day on the course could be if everyone embraced the personal responsibility to be conscious and empathetic of the others present.
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.
While sitting at one of my favorite pizza places having a sandwich (which is ironic in itself), I was watching a soccer game on the television that was mounted in the corner of the restaurant. My friends behind the counter were invested in this game taking place in Europe, which is no surprise since soccer (or football, as it is more popularly known throughout the rest of the world) is one of the most universal games we have.
I noticed something interesting, though. The crowd at this game was singing in unison while the match was going on...and they didn't stop. It reminded me of a college football game, where sections of underage drunk students would constantly be making obnoxious noise in their attempt to will their team to victory. Thus, it also reminded me of the traditions we hold in American football (the NFL), such as the deafening crowd noise that arises when the visiting team is on offense, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game by not allowing the offensive players to communicate.
As a steward of the game of baseball, I always viewed this as unsportsmanlike. No matter my role with the game of baseball (be it player, coach, or fan...because umpire is slightly different in this context), my enjoyment of the game came from watching it unfold and participating in the role I had. If I was a player, I was never the cheerleading leader of my team; I focused on what my job was depending on where the ball was hit, or what I needed to do during my turn at-bat. If I was a coach or manager, I was thinking strategy and when it was time to remove my pitcher for a fresh arm. If I was a fan, I was trying to see if my thought process was aligned with the players and coaches of teams I was watching (and obviously rooting for the Yankees). I was never trying to be the loud and obnoxious fan that was attempting to influence the game.
In fairness, however, baseball in America does have one accepted custom that has found unanimously in stadiums. When the home pitcher gets two strikes on the opposing batter, usually the fans will stand and cheer to encourage the strikeout. This was started by Yankees fans during the dominance of Ron Guidry and his record number of strikeouts. And I will admit that I find myself falling in place with this custom, usually when there are two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning and we're one pitch away from winning the game.
This and the singing at a soccer match got me thinking about the different customs at sporting events throughout the world, and it led to a broad examination as to what is culturally accepted as well as a debate as to whether the cultural acceptance is actually a morally good thing.
If we stick with baseball, most of the cheering (or other fan reactions) will occur when a play is not occurring or a pitch is not being made. Fans cheer after a player gets a hit or after a pitcher records a strikeout. The cheering that occurs when a batter has two strikes on him doesn't have the exact same effect as the equivalent might in another sport because it is still up to the pitcher to execute that final pitch. Fans can cheer all the want, but if the pitcher grooves a fastball, a big league hitter will still turn on it and drive it 400 feet. Further, keep in mind that baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters in history failed seven out of every ten times at the plate. So when a batter has two strikes on him, the probability of him failing is already incredibly high; the cheering of the crowd "against" him really doesn't push the needle one way or the other.
Ironically, if we examine baseball in other cultures, we will find behavior that might seem unsportsmanlike, but is really traditional to the native land. For example, in Japan, each hitter has his own march that is played/chanted by fans during his turn at bat. This actually will include the use of trumpets and other instruments that might otherwise be seen as distracting. Yet, this is merely to encourage the home team's hitters, especially when the odds are against them (as they are against every hitter). So long as each march is played in accordance with the traditional rules of encouraging a hitter, it seems like this is also acceptable and not immoral in the grand scheme of fandom. (Latin American cultures have very similar practices, as well.)
While we're on the subject of foreign sports, let's go back to soccer (or football) as it relates to the rest of the world. The fans at these events participate in same type of behavior: any sort of singing, chanting, or performing is not done in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game, but rather to encourage the home team. It also creates a sense of unity among fans, which is greatly valued in non-American cultures among sports fans. So the constant annoying sound of the vuvuzela that is heard at a Spanish soccer game is welcome, no matter how much it makes you want to rip your ears off.
Similarly, soccer (or football...I feel like I have to keep saying it) is such an aerobic sport that the play never stops, even when the ball goes out of bounds. Players are so focused that the sound of the crowd rarely affects them, much the same as in baseball. What's very interesting is that both of these sports have such international appeal while also having such intrinsic beauty to the way they are played that it's no wonder their popularity continues to maintain a strong presence in the international community. These two sports are so different, yet they have more in common than you might think.
Speaking of aerobic sports, let's consider basketball and hockey. One of the biggest differences between these two sports and a sport such as baseball is the use of the PA system during play. In baseball, sound effects, music, and other similar things occur when action is not happening, such as in between pitches or in between innings. In basketball and hockey, sometimes the use of the arena's organ occurs while play is live. A basketball player may inbound the ball, and the organist might play something small and simple while the ball is being brought up the court. Gil Imber, the organist for the Anaheim Ducks, might play something while the puck is being secured in the Ducks' defensive zone and about ready to be brought out to mid-ice. So long as the PA system is not specifically being used to distract the players, there's no fault in using it to create atmosphere.
Fans at these events usually don't try to influence a game with the exception of the distraction of a player during free throws in basketball. It has become commonplace for the fans sitting directly behind the basket to attempt to distract an opposing player from making the foul shots he/she gets after being fouled. This is one of customs in fandom that doesn't serve a purpose because it may actually have an effect on the game. A basketball player's ability to shoot free throws should be determined by his athletic skill level, not on the ability of fans to distract him/her. We finally have our first example of poor sportsmanship in our discussion!
Let's consider sports such as tennis or golf. These are sports where silence is required while players play. It is curious to wonder if this is due to the high level of skill required to play either sport, or if this was some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that has been passed down through the ages. Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it begs the interesting question of whether other sports might benefit from this in certain fashions.
Although we could examine plenty of sports, let's end with the re-examination of American football. Fans clearly believe their crowd noise influences the outcome of a game. Players believe it too. In fact, teams have been known to give themselves strategic advantages (both legal and illegal) regarding noise in order to gain a home-field advantage. Some teams have illegally used fake crowd noise over the PA system to make it even more difficult for the opponents to communicate. The Minnesota Vikings have made it known that their new stadium is built in such a way that the acoustics of the building take the sound and reflect it directly into the opponent's sideline, as if a wave of sound was massively dumped on them. Why is this so important?
What's really funny about this is that football is very much like basketball and hockey in that the better teams usually find ways to "muscle" their way to victory. The execution of team skill doesn't always play out the same way, as opposed to a sport like baseball. (And that's not to mention that baseball is the only sport without a clock...you can't "take a knee" in baseball to run out the clock like you can in football: you have to get all 27 outs.) Yet, even though the better teams usually win in football, teams and fans alike feel drawn to using outside factors such as crowd noise to influence the outcome of the game.
This phenomenon has one good conclusion and one bad conclusion.
The good conclusion is that these practices bring fans together and unite them with the team. The nature of fandom is to feel like you, the fan, are part of the team and share equally in every experience. The psychological idea of being associated with the winner is what sports marketing and management uses to create campaigns that increase revenue left and right. Yet, fans eat it up because it gives them a larger cause or movement that unites them. American football is almost as powerful as any religion in the nation as such, which is ironic since it's played on Sunday.
The bad conclusion (and I would argue more important) is that the desire to influence the game as such by fans and with the endorsement of the franchise shows a severe character flaw in the psyche of the team as a whole. It's as if the team is not confident enough in its ability to out-perform the opponent, so they must use any means necessary to achieve victory. Perhaps fans get a pass on this since they don't know any better; it's so easy to be drawn in by the association with your team and your fandom that considering this psychological issue is not even on the radar of most astute fans. But when players encourage fans to support them, or, more importantly, when teams (especially the front office or any of the off-field personnel) encourage this type of behavior with the acoustic design of a stadium or the graphics that get shown on video boards encouraging fans to become boisterous, it makes this writer step back and ask that age old question that has yet to be answered: "Why?"
As a post script note, I ask this follow-up question. Is this the first catalyst into the stereotype of football players being below average when it comes to intelligence? Does this feed into societal norm that only people who aren't smart can play football? The range of questions that can rise from this is infinite, and the proverbial rabbit hole is so deep that it may never end.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.