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Sportsmanship and Gamesmanship: Bad habits are just a game away

Updated on December 20, 2011

Do sports really build character? There have been coaches for years who have supported the idea that sports build character; unfortunately it is not the type of character that we want to see our kids develop and grow in during their younger years. There are two types of competitive sportsters out there. Relating to those who want to win in sports, there are those who demonstrate sportsmanship and those who demonstrate gamesmanship. These are two very different philosophies, and gamesmanship is the one that is taught most among sports today.

Dealing with sports, Nlandu explains that the “central normative role in distinguishing the good sportsman, that is, the person of honor, from the bad sportsman” is trustworthiness (PLAY UNTIL THE WHISTLE BLOWS 77). Gamesmanship, however, is explained by Howe as “the attempt to gain competitive advantage either by an artful manipulation of the rules that does not actually violate them or by the psychological manipulation or unsettling of the opponent” ( “GAMESMANSHIP 213).

Clearly, sportsmanship is the desired trait, but that is not how our coaches are teaching the game and not how our players are playing. With the goal of winning in a close game or match, gamesmanship sometimes gives teams the slight advantage that they need in order to win. Although sports and competition are good overall for fitness, self-development, and improvement, the character traits of gamesmanship that are being instilled in athletes of today is causing them to develop the mentality that when it gets to crunch time, we should do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it means manipulating the rules and players to our advantage.

Sports and competition are not bad in and of itself; in fact, there are many benefits such as putting yourself through the stress of quick decisions based upon opponents and seeing well how you respond to them. They help to instill a good work ethic because, assuming you are the competitor, if your opponent is willing to work extra hard to be better at the sport, like morning practices for basketball for example, it is going to make you want to work even harder in order to be in better shape than them.

Relating to the actual competition part, the quick decisions are based upon who wants the touchdown or point more. If forces you to ask yourself, “How far am I willing to push myself to get achieve this goal?”. Howe explains that she believes the two main benefits of competition through sports as, “(a) the experience of ontological wholeness that is not generally training, but is released as a possibility under the pressure of joint competitors and (b) the psychological trial of the moral self” (GAMESMANSHIP 218).

So aside from the obvious physical benefits of sports and competition, there are psychological and moral advantages that make it worthwhile. The problem, however, relates to the answer of the previous question of how far you are willing to go to succeed.

The two different types of character that athletes are taught, moral and social character, are important because they ultimately contribute to whether a player is one who exhibits sportsmanship or gamesmanship. Good character doesn’t just happen automatically (Lodl PAGE NUMBER!!). It is taught and instilled into us by our elders, coaches, and leaders, and there is a big difference between the types of character that sportsmanship and gamesmanship yield.

For starters, sportsmanship is usually connected with moral character, whereas gamesmanship is usually connected with social character. Rudd describes both moral character as “defined in terms of moral values such as honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect”, and social character “by such social values such as teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice, perseverance, and work ethic” (Rudd par 17). The important thing to consider here is the different reactions that these two different characters would evoke.

For example, consider an athlete playing in a basketball game where there is only a minute left in the game and one person on the losing team just stole the ball and is sprinting to go score a layup down the court. Then, let’s assume that he steps out of bounds, but the referee doesn’t see that he did this. Two different responses are possible. The person who has more moral character, one who is honest, responsible, and fair, will stop the play and tell the referee that he stepped out of bounds. However, the person who has more social character, the one who is loyal to the team and who has a work ethic to succeed, will ignore the fact that they stepped out of bounds and will go on to score the winning point. Even though the specifics are different, this is similar for most sports. And to top it off, this behavior is actually encouraged.

There are many real world examples of gamesmanship, or the social character of doing whatever it takes to help out the team, being displayed, and they range from simple things as stepping out of bounds and denying it to purposely trying to hurt another player to give you an advantage.

Taking football as an example, we can come up with a few examples of each. Of course there is there is stepping out of bounds and denying it, but there are also many others. One is whenever the ball is fumbled and it is unclear who actually jumped on the ball first. When this happens, and there is a big pile of people trying to get the ball, only the few players at the bottom of the pile actually know who had the ball first and what happened under the pile. My coach would tell me to fight for the ball until the referee decided who actually has it. And I know from experience that it is definitely possible to change the game by stealing the ball while under the pile of player fighting for the ball.

Likewise, players even talk to each other about deliberately hurting the opponents star player so that they would have a better chance at winning the game. Coaches do not openly encourage this, but the attitude that gamesmanship encourages is to win by whatever means necessary, just so long as you follow the rules. In my experience, the intention was never to permanently hurt another player, just temporarily to take them out of the game for a little while. However, coaches do tell players to hit the opponents so hard so that they “think twice about coming at you next time”.

Coaches encourage gamesmanship in athletics today because it ultimately helps the team win the competition, but they don’t realize that they are developing bad habits for the players involved. The most common times when this attitude is stressed is when stakes are high and when physical force can seriously affect the outcome of the game. By this, I mean that the idea of “it builds character” mainly deals with more intense contact sports.

Statistics from Doty suggest that sports with more contact are connected with who have less moral character, or trustworthiness, than social character, or gamesmanship. “Athletes in men's ice hockey have 13 of 15 items in the bottom 5 lowest character responses...and have 4 of the 15 lowest character scores” (par 34). Similarly, “athletes in men's football have 11 of 15 in the bottom 5 responses...and 4 of the 15 lowest character scores” (par 34). As seen by the charts, it is usually this fact becomes evident. The rating scale was such that each athlete gives a rating to each question on a 1-4 scale, with 1 meaning that they agree and 4 meaning that they disagree with the statement.

This is important because this instills the mentality into the athletes that they should follow the rules most of the time, but should manipulate them whenever the time is getting close to done. This isn’t just a quality that sticks with a particular sport. If you are trained to think and act this way, you will eventually adopt it into other parts of your life. Cochheni explains this as transference (COCHENNI 205).

It basically means that as players are participating in sports, they are learning traits that will eventually be transferred to other areas or aspects of their lives. This is very important because the consequences of the gamesmanship attitude has legal implications if taken too far.

The line between gamesmanship and cheating is very thin, and because of transference of gamesmanship attitudes in sports to other aspects of life, gamesmanship should not be practiced, less we seek to receive a penalty for our actions, similar to the situation that the New England Patriots went through.

Horowitz explains their situation in “If you A’int Cheating, you a’int trying”. In 2007, the New England Patiots, an NFL team, had tried to gain an advantage over the other teams by recording the other teams signals and signs for plays (Horovitz 307). Stealing other coaches signs is actually encouraged and is considered “good coaching”, in the NFL, but the Patriots pushed their limits a little too far. It is completely within the rules to try to steal other teams signs, just so long as it is not done with any sort of recording device. Because the Patriots has a gamesmanship attitude of winning through all possible means within the rules, they had been stealing peoples signs for many years.

The “do whatever it takes to help the team win” attitude eventually “transferred” to other parts of their game-plan, eventually leading the the Patriots to use video cameras, thereby cheating and breaking the rules of the NFL. It was in 2006 and 2007 that they got caught for this form of cheating , and the NFL was not so lenient the second time they got caught; the Patriots were fined $250,000, and coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 (Horovitz 319).

Clearly, there are punishments for cheating, with some being much worse than others. The best way to avoid these is to eliminate the gamesmanship attitude that is created and supported by so many coaches, players, and fans, in the current sports community.

Through sports and competition, we learn many values that will stick with us for the rest of our life, such as working hard to achieve goals, all of which need to contribute to building a character resembling good sportsmanship more than gamesmanship. This will not happen automatically, however.

As humans, our natural tendency is to want to succeed in everything that we do. This is not a bad trait. However, when it comes the values that we look at more highly, moral values should always take precedent over social values. Some ways that we could contribute to developing this sportsmanship attitude start with not the players, but the ones around them, with the most important one being the coach.

Parents should tell the coaches if they feel like they are leaning towards more of a gamesmanship attitude. The notion is still true that you “Play like you Practice”. Coaches should have this idea always in the forefront of their mind so that they can conduct practices to where players do not turn into a gamesman who will manipulate the rules, as well as the physiological well-being of their opponents, to win the game, or competition that they are in because of the transference of character traits to other part of life.

Similarly, someone who has grown up with the gamesman attitude will be more likely to cheat in life because they are willing to manipulate the rules in a way that they are not necessarily breaking them, yet they gain an advantage nonetheless. Gamesmanship is a quality that is shown in almost all sports, from simple things as stepping out of bounds to deliberately trying to hurt another player, and people need to make a conscious effort to try to stop it.

This is another paper I did for college. Excuse the bad grammar wherever it is; my prof made me change my topic two days before it was due. If you liked it, feel free to comment on anything or even vote up and share if you want! Whoop for Sportsmanship! Thanks and Gig 'Em!

Works Cited

These are APA Format. I completely forgot to change them to MLA, but at least credit is given to the original authors in some form.

Doty J, Lumpkin A. Do Sports Build or Reveal Character?--An Exploratory Study at One Service Academy. Physical Educator [serial online]. Late Winter2010 2010;67(1):18-32. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 6, 2011.

Horovitz S. If You Ain't Cheating You Ain't Trying: "Spygate" and the Legal Implications of Trying Too Hard. Texas Intellectual Property Law Journal [serial online]. Winter2009 2009;17(2):305-331. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 6, 2011.

Howe, Leslie A. "Gamesmanship." Journal Of The Philosophy Of Sport 31.2 (2004): 212-225. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Lodl, Kathleen. "Developing A Game Plan For Good Sportsmanship." New Directions For Youth Development 2005.108 (2005): 127-134. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Mark Roark, et al. "Effect Of Staged Practices And Motivational Climate On Goal Orientation And Sportsmanship In Community Youth Sport Experiences." Journal Of Park & Recreation Administration 24.4 (2006): 64-85. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Nlandu, Tamba. "Play Until the Whistle Blows: Sportsmanship as the Outcome of Thirdness." Journal of the Philosophy of Sport May 2008: 73+. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Onofre Contreras, et al. "Effects Of Personal And Social Responsibility On Fair Play In Sports And Self-Control In School-Aged Youths." European Journal Of Sport Science 7.4 (2007): 203-211. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Rudd A. Which "Character" Should Sport Develop?. Physical Educator [serial online]. Winter2005 2005;62(4):205-211. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 6, 2011.


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