Dr. Lou’s View – Players, Fans, and the Standards of Sportsmanship

“Sportsmanship is an understanding of and commitment to fair play, ethical behavior and integrity, and general goodwill toward an opponent.”
– Brian G. Phelps, Director of Athletics, Fort Worth Country Day

I have written several columns since 2021 about the coarsening of dialogue and behavior among sports and entertainment fans. Poor fan behavior appears to have become more acute as the initial wave of the pandemic subsided and people returned in large numbers to sports and entertainment venues.

Once fans returned to venues, we sensed a change among fans attending live events, indicating a decline in sportsmanship and an increase in bad behavior. You may recall people rushing the gates at some major football (soccer) matches in Europe who didn’t have tickets.  

Like many, I was appalled to see fans throwing bottles at players and officials on the field at the Ole Miss v. Tennessee game in October 2021.

We’ve seen people using derogatory language and ethnic slurs directed at players during games and on social media as happened during the Euros 2020 finals at Wembley Stadium in London.

Fan behavior is one thing, but one would think that players themselves could, in most cases, set a good example in terms of behavior and sportsmanship. This should be the maxim of players who are honored with their sport’s highest honor, such as the Heisman Trophy.

The 2022 Heisman Trophy recipient, Caleb Williams from USC, an excellent quarterback with a terrific record, likes to paint his fingernails with messages, sometimes with a vulgar verb on one hand and the opposing team on the opposite hand. Some may view a vulgar nail embellishment as a subtle, even friendly raillery at a competitor. In my view, it is unsportsmanlike.

In my view, any player that is considered for and then wins the Heisman Trophy should already be inclined to adhere to the highest standards of public behavior, including good sportsmanship, and refrain from vulgar displays in any form. Mr. Williams appears to have a different standard for sportsmanship as he continued his “tradition” of vulgar nails in the next game, the PAC 12 championship game against Utah (USC lost). 
“One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it.”
– Knute Rockne, football player and Coach, University of Notre Dame

Mr. Williams’ celebrity and strong social media presence have apparently inspired a similar fashion trend among fans and players alike. Mr. Williams explained that he paints a message on his nails because of his mother, a nail technician. He often paints his nails to support important charitable causes, even promoting the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988). In my view, such messaging by sports and entertainment celebrities is appropriate and even beneficial to others.

While such messaging is laudable, I’ve yet to meet any mother (or parent) who teaches their children that brands anyone painting their nails, wearing clothing, or being tattooed with explicit, offensive, and vulgar words, as “good sportsmanship.” People who excuse vulgar messaging by players to others on the field of play because of Mr. Williams’ athletic prowess are defining down sportsmanship, creating a “rules for thee, not for me” standard.
In my view, fans are watching, and in today’s world, emulating the behavior of celebrities and favorite players.

The coarsening of fan behavior hit a new low last weekend when a young Minnesota Vikings fan flipped off the New York Giants’ Isaiah Hodgins, after Hodgins spiked the football after a touchdown. Moments later, Vikings receiver KJ Osborne scored a touchdown and presented the ball to the same fan. 

No doubt the fan was thrilled to receive the gift from Osborne. In my view, it signaled that coarse and vulgar fan displays, when rewarded by players, is acceptable behavior, setting a new low for sportsmanship. 
While this potential “new standard” for fan behavior and sportsmanship is concerning, there’s always signs of hope.
Consider what happened to Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin during the 3 January 2023 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest and was treated immediately by doctors and staff on the field. Against the shock and horror of his heart attack, both teams gathered around the rescuers as they worked to revive Hamlin and prayed for him and sent good thoughts his way. 
It was one of the finest examples of sportsmanship, by teams and fans, that I’ve ever seen. 

Hamlin’s sportsmanship was on display while in hospital. He thanked the teams, rescuers, medical staff, and fans. He sent apologies to his team for not being well enough to play. His team honored him and the medical staff before their game with the New England Patriots the following Sunday. The Bills carried “Pray for Damar” flags and held three fingers (his number) up during huddles to show their solidarity with their teammate.  

Unfortunately, we still find examples where players or fans who forget that there are limits when it comes to their behavior. Linebacker Alex Highsmith of the Pittsburgh Steelers was slammed for insensitivity as he celebrated a sack by performing a mock CPR. The public responded, with fans criticizing him and the team. 

In my view, fans have standards and expectations when it comes to good sportsmanship; they are closely watching their teams and their favorite players.
In 2019, Charles Barkley famously said, “I can’t be a role model for your kid. Your kid doesn’t know me. I can be an athletic hero, but a role model should be a mom, a dad, an aunt, an uncle, someone the kid has contact with.” I disagree.
In 2023, kids “know” their teams and favorite players. They follow them on social media, wear their jerseys, and watch replays of their antics on and off the field in near real-time.   
Younger fans and supporter groups often emulate the behavior they see on the field or admire their favorite players when they are not playing. So, when players are unprofessional or unsportsmanlike on the field or in life, over and over again, it can set a new standard where behaviors once viewed as bad sportsmanship are now the new norm for sportsmanship. And over time, it just continues to coarsen our game. 

In my view, we can do better and as fans we should demand better behavior and good sportsmanship!

Sportsmanship is a choice. Model it, teach it, expect it.
– Brian G. Phelps, Director of Athletics, Fort Worth Country Day

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