THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
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.