Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is Sportsmanship?

Following a US Open tournament, where ESPN became the self-appointed sportsmanship police, there has been a lot of discussion about what is gamesmanship and what is sportsmanship. Unfortunately, opinions have been heavily influenced by ESPN and viral videos online.

Earlier this year, a Facebook friend who doesn't even know the rules of tennis shared a video to my feed of Jack Sock, supposedly showing good sportsmanship. The video, full of captions explaining what was happening to viewers who don't understand tennis, showed Sock tell Lleyton Hewitt to challenge a shot. Hewitt, looking surprised, decided to follow Sock's advice and as a result won the point. Seems like good sportsmanship, right?

What that video didn't say is that it was an exhibition match at the Hopman Cup, where players genuinely care very little whether or not they win. The reward for Sock's actions was the adoration of a pro-Hewitt Australian crowd, and it came at the cost of one point in an exhibition match.

While I was thinking through what I wanted to say in this article, I came across this tweet, which only strengthened my opinion:
The reason there is a misconception about sportsmanship today is that concession has earned a morally elevated status compared to competition. The reason we love sports, however, is that there is competition. That is what sports are - competition. So, while honesty is admirable, conceding any edge in sports is nothing like sportsmanship.

Many wanted Novak Djokovic to wait until after Stan Wawrinka served to take his medical timeout even though Djokovic would have had no chance in that game. In other words, they wanted Djokovic to concede instead of compete. Djokovic decided to compete. In the final of the last major of the year, Djokovic chose to compete. Make no mistake about it, that is the only crime of which he is guilty.

Now, there is also the issue of the so-called "unwritten rules." Most people don't seem to know what the term implies. They (mainly just Jon Wertheim) think that unwritten rules are rules of sportsmanship that everyone must follow.

On the contrary, unwritten rules is a term that comes from baseball, which refers to a special set of agreements to do something that would be illegal if spoken out loud. That's the reason they are "unwritten." For example, when your teammate gets hit by a fastball, you as a pitcher have the responsibility to now go hit someone on the opposing team with a fastball. Unwritten rules are not a moral standard that we should appeal to, but a form of revenge that is a necessary evil at best.

One of the best examples of sportsmanship in tennis is Rafael Nadal. Though it is one of the worst memories for me as a tennis fan, when Nadal pointed at the net in the 2013 Roland Garros semifinal, he was showing good sportsmanship. He knew the point was rightfully his. Instead of conceding the point, which he really did not deserve to win, he was going to make sure that the umpire made the right call. He was going to fight for that point and concede nothing. Is it not Nadal's fighting competitive attitude that he is loved for? That is what sportsmanship is.

Of course, breaking the rules for a competitive advantage is not good sportsmanship either. Athletes that use performance enhancing drugs show the worst kind of bad sportsmanship. Same with juniors who intentionally make bad calls. However, let's not confuse that with players lying about touching the net or a double bounce. If you can fool an umpire on a judgement call, that's a competitive advantage and it shouldn't be conceded. It's like a pitcher doing a balk-pick. If you can get away with it, great. But if you get caught, don't even try to argue it.

Yes, arguing when you know you are wrong is bad sportsmanship - especially when you threaten to shove a ball down a lines person's throat for calling a foot-fault.

Overall, ultimate sportsmanship is shown by fighting tooth and nail for every advantage within the rule book to win your competition regardless of the sport. That kind of competitiveness is what every fan wants to see when they watch sports. Why was Hewitt so surprised by what Sock did? Because Hewitt is one of the most competitive tennis players in the world, and he would never do what Sock did.

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