Whatever Happened to Sportsmanship?

Sunday, September 06, 2009
by Patrick Dorinson

Last Thursday the University of Oregon Ducks were thumped for the second year in a row by the Boise State Broncos, opening the 2009 college football season. Oregon looked pathetic and the Broncos looked a little better. As a matter of full disclosure, I graduated the U of O some 35 years ago.

At the end of the game, Oregon running back LaGarrette Blount punched BSU defensive end Byron Hout in the face seconds after Hout taunted him. It was a black day not just for my alma mater but in my mind for sports in general.

To be fair, Blount had been shooting his mouth off during the off-season about how Oregon was going to give BSU and “ass-whuppin” after they beat the Ducks last year in Eugene. And he kept up his verbal assault in the weeks leading up to the game.

But this column is not about college football. It is about the sorry state of college, professional and yes even high school sports in general and the “trash talking” taunting, and ridiculous over celebrating that has become all too commonplace today.

It is also about life and the society we have become.

Today, a player makes a tackle and he jumps around like he just won the Super Bowl. If the hit is particularly hard he stands over his opponent like some ancient Roman gladiator looking for the crowd to give their “thumbs down” so he can finish him. They will do anything to make an”ESPN highlight reel” that evening. It becomes all about them and not the team and it is all about the “me first” culture we have developed.

In the days leading up to any game, professional or college, there are players who can’t help themselves and taunt the other team. This leads to the next part of the cycle called “bulletin board” material where a rival coach either literally or figuratively, posts the comments on the bulletin board in the locker room so his players will get all worked up when they see it. This then leads to the inevitable taunting and trash talk when the teams take the field.

In the stands at many venues it is not much better as so-called fans taunt the fans from the other team with foul language and gestures many times in the presence of small children. Usually alcohol is involved and it can get pretty ugly.

My sister Mary who bleeds blue and gold for her alma mater, the University of California was attending a game at Oregon one year with her husband and my nephew. They were subjected to taunts and ugly comments during and after the game from mostly young drunken students. They are very lucky my retired U.S. Army colonel brother-in-law was not a few years younger or they might have received a real lesson in manners.

How did all this hooligan behavior both on and off the field get started and who is responsible for perpetuating it?

Well there is plenty of blame to go around. Let’s start with the on- field behavior of the players.

Whether it is high school or college, the people responsible are the coaches first and foremost. They are dealing with impressionable young minds and in this “win at all costs” world of modern sports they whip them up into frenzy and then have the arrogance to think they can control and direct this energy once unleashed.

What they fail to remember is that these are still kids and once you set this in motion it is uncontrollable.  Or maybe that is their whole purpose. Either way it is a failure on the part of the adults to provide guidance in what kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

In the case of the aforementioned LaGarrette Blount, he now will pay a heavy price of not only being suspended for the season but perhaps jeopardizing a potential professional football career.

If he is going to take all the blame for this unfortunate incident that is a load of cattle crap. I think it reflects poorly on his coaches who knew he had a volatile personality and did nothing to help him control it. As long as he was scoring touchdowns they looked the other way. They should be ashamed and should use this incident to remember that they are teachers just as much as they are coaches.

Maybe Oregon can start a new trend of letting your play on the field speak for itself. And they should paste a sign in the locker room that reads in big letters the old cowboy saying, "Better to shoot off your rifle by mistake than your mouth on purpose".

As for the behavior of the folks in the stands, we as a society are to blame. And this taunting, trash talking, boorish behavior is not limited to the sports world.

Check out some of the mindless fare on television’s “unreality” shows like “Survivor” or “Big Brother”. They are full of whiny narcissistic nincompoops who stab each other in the back and taunt each with false bravado all for the almighty buck and the dream they will become “celebrities”.

In politics and the media it is getting even worse. Political discourse on television has been reduced to shouting matches between left and right with everyone looking for their own “YouTube moment” even when they say something stupid.

We need fewer loudmouth pundits and TV and radio hosts and a few more mature adults. Don’t get me wrong I love to see a good battle of ideas and sharp elbows are required sometimes in politics, but the good debater should be able to tell you to go to hell and make you want to buy a ticket, not punch him in the nose.

Let me close by relating a story from my own youthful experience in team sports.

When I was a freshman in high school I went out for the freshman football team. My three older brothers had all played football and were much better athletes than I was. But I decided that I needed to prove something to myself regardless of how tough it might get.

The team was made up mostly of young boys who had never strapped on a full football uniform before and most of them had playing experience only in touch football. We had all come from different elementary schools that fed into the high school. We hardly knew each other at the time but we all were determined to make the team and gave it our all.

In the early season we were not very good and lost by big margins. But we never gave up not one of us. As the season went on we got better and those of us like me who didn’t get much game time practiced hard against the first team knowing it would make them better. We finished the season with a winning record of 4 wins and 3 losses.

The man who coached us was a man I will never forget. His name was Lyle Fisher. He was a math teacher and he coached freshman football and other sports. He took a bunch of ragtag kids with no experience and molded us into a team. And he made damn sure you knew the concept of a team where each one depends on each other was not just a sports lesson but a life lesson.

I’ll never forget that last game. Our first string players had a great first half and we went into the locker room up 21-0. In the locker room Coach Fisher told us he had coached young men who had more skills than we had and some who eventually became All-Americans. But he told us he was never prouder of a team because of the way we overcame our lack of experience, progressed and came together as a team.

And then before we went out for the final half of what would be my short football career, he said “Everybody up!” and we jumped to our feet. Then he bellowed, “Third team will receive the kick-off! Everybody plays!” Now you might think that the first team players would be upset about this. Maybe in today’s world but back then they yelled and hollered and encouraged their teammates who had not gotten on the field too much until the final gun.

In all my life I have never before or since had an experience like that. All because we had a coach who understood that the playing fields of sports are not just about winning games—it is about taking boys and giving them life lessons that will make them better men.

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook “friend” request from a member of that team. He sent me a note and asked how I was doing. I sent back that, “ #33 from Coach Fisher’s freshman football team was doing great”. He sent me back “So is old #66!”.

43 years later and we are still teammates.

 That’s what sports should be about. And more importantly that is what life is about.