It’s been a week since Richard Sherman’s postgame rant made the Seattle Seahawks cornerback the subject of a lot of debates regarding competition and sportsmanship.
But the debate about whether one can be both an elite competitor and a gracious sport began, well, when we started keeping score. Since people began playing games, we’ve also been discussing how and if it’s possible for elite competitors to also be gracious on the field of play.
Is being a sore loser just part of being ultracompetitive?
Does compassion during competition lead to weakness?
And should we expect those who are elite competitors to always be gracious and polite?
In the last 30 years, with the rise, acceptance and even admiration of trash-talking, that debate has only gotten more complicated. Some coaches encouraged it, some punished it. Some players excelled at it, some shunned it.
Trash-talking flourished most in sports like football and basketball. Eventually, it wasn’t just acceptable, it became part of the strategy and part of the game’s culture.
To get into an opponent’s head was to give a team an advantage. It was a mental sort of pick, an emotional tackle.
And, from a writer’s perspective, all great stories have conflict, so it only added to the intrigue and dimension of covering games. (Which, if we’re being honest, can get monotonous without the occasional outburst.)
So while some writers criticized the practice, others praised it.
The issue reached a fever pitch because our insatiable appetite to see, hear and know everything our favorite players did, experienced and thought forced journalists to take us closer and closer to the action.
And that, as we now know, wasn’t always what we expected.
The trash-talking that was acceptable, even respected, on the field, drew criticism and condemnation off the field. The culture of sports, especially basketball and football, came under fire as a little “back and forth” on the field became the topic of discussion among fans — and maybe more importantly to business executives who sponsor athletes and teams — and frankly, it just didn’t look good.
What a couple of guys in football uniforms say to each other on the field sounds, well, pretty juvenile, to be honest, when you put them in street clothes.
Social media makes everyone a commentator. It does not, however, give everyone the good sense to keep some things to themselves.
So we have a young man trying to prove himself in a conference championship, and he makes a spectacular play. He tries to be the good sport and congratulate his opponent. But the man he just defeated does not make that same effort, and he shoves him away.
Seconds later, an unsuspecting Erin Andrews pulls Sherman, the 24-year-old Stanford graduate, into an on-camera interview where she asks him a great question. He doesn’t answer it. Instead, he responds with the swagger and bravado that he had used to try to intimidate his opponent all game.
As we saw, that made a lot of people uncomfortable. It also made some people angry, and just as many people proud.
The best analysis I heard of the outburst came from a former NFL cornerback who said that in order to play that position, it requires a special kind of mentality. Confidence doesn’t really describe the kind of faith a guy has to have in his abilities to compete at a position like cornerback.
But, he added, you have to recognize that the person you are on the field cannot be the person you are off the field.
I thought about that statement a lot. Should we ask players to be that person? Could we expect them to control themselves, if that’s the kind of anger, energy and audacity it takes to compete at that level?
And then I looked at the majority of players who make that transition without incident, and I feel it’s not an unreasonable request to require civility — even seconds after a game-winning play.
But the real question I’m left pondering is whether the culture of sport should evolve. There are a lot of things we used to do that we no longer believe are acceptable. We have made some of those behaviors illegal (hazing), and if they’re not a crime, they’re certainly socially unacceptable.
Is it time for coaches to try and elicit excellence without resorting to vilifying other players? Is it time for players to summon their best without tearing others down in the process?
I believe the answer to these questions is yes. I believe that because I’ve watched athletes in nontraditional sports continue to evolve their games without degrading others. They seem just as dedicated, just as crushed by a loss and just as motivated to win, but without the venom that infects some of our traditional sports.
Maybe the best way to get in an opponent’s head isn’t to call him names or criticize his skills, but it’s to work hard, be better prepared and simply perform better when it matters most.
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