There are a lot of routines that pass for sportsmanship these days, such as half-hearted handshakes and tepid remarks about giving credit to the other team. The types of things that occur after every sporting event. Yet there are times when it actually seems genuine, too. For instance, when Ron McBride and LaVell Edwards met at midfield after Utah-BYU football games.
The loser was never happy, but both were honestly sportsmanlike.
Whenever I saw Picabo Street congratulate an opponent in ski competition, it seemed sincere. Baseball star Dale Murphy never once trash-talked an opponent. Utah's Eric Weddle showed admirable composure after last year's Utah-BYU football game as he congratulated quarterback John Beck on the Cougars' last-second win.
But I can't recall anything more moving on an athletic field than the scene following the United States' Little League World Series victory over Japan last week. After Dalton Carriker's walk-off home run gave the Americans from Warner Robbins, Ga., the title, he and teammates leaped into one another's arms. But only for a moment. There was no mugging for the cameras, no taunting the opposition, no chest-beating or crass gesturing. The Americans quickly left their dugout area and crossed the infield to comfort their opponents. Several on the losing team collapsed weeping. But when the American players arrived, the teams hugged each other, in some cases falling onto one another's shoulders.
It reminded me of something I had almost forgotten: Sports don't need to be about selfishness and self-promotion. The Americans' sympathy appeared heartfelt. They went out of their way to console a team that threatened to derail their dreams. The sides were no longer baseball players, locked in a struggle for international supremacy: They were little kids playing for fun. Imagine that.
This approach isn't all that common nowadays. When high school athletes are using steroids and college criminals are allowed by their coaches to play, it's natural to get cynical. And when arguably the most famous players in their sports Barry Bonds and Michael Vick are involved in steroids and dog fighting, respectively, it's hard to remember that sports should be fun.
Here's a novel idea: Maybe sports are meant to build character, not bank accounts French figure skating judges, crooked NBA refs and cheating cyclists and ballplayers notwithstanding.
That isn't to say cheating and poor sportsmanship are new. Ty Cobb wasn't exactly an Eagle Scout. Track star Ben Johnson took cheating to a whole new level. Wherever the stakes are high, the door is open to such behavior. But in this era it is far more prevalent.
I admit to being amused by end zone dances and rim-hanging dunks. I am entertained by the loud talkers and boasters after a victory. If I'm looking for a column, give me Terrell Owens over Peyton Manning any day, and while you're at it, give me Charles Barkley over John Stockton. Strong silent types may be great teammates, but they're lousy newspaper copy.
One of my favorite sports memories is being at the Super Bowl with Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders yammering in self promotion. But if that sort of bragging had happened after Carriker's home run, I would have been disgusted. It would have robbed me of the satisfaction of seeing kids acting like kids.
In honesty, I was one who thought televising the Series was dumb. Who wants to see a bunch of 12-year-olds playing a game that adults do much better? Besides, why make stars out of children?
I'm still not convinced televising Little League games is a good idea. Nevertheless, the final scene was worthwhile. It convinced me that sports haven't been entirely turned over to the cheaters, liars and boasters, and that once in awhile we still see the best of ourselves on the field.
It reminded me kids can still lead the way.
Long live the Warner Robbins, Ga., and Tokyo Kitasuna Little League teams.
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