This seems to be the tone of many recent media articles. In the wake of Victoria Azarenka’s numerous medical timeouts for injuries unknown, Luis Suarez’s admission of deliberately diving, and Lance Armstrong’s continuing drug confessions, all we seem to hear is that sportsmanship, on life support for many a year, has finally slipped away and quietly died.
Some of these rants seem to be directed towards professionalism, or that now almost everyone is a professional, to sports where being professional is not guaranteed by lottery funding. Certainly football is on the receiving end of a battering almost every week, over diving, bad tackles, or simply the crime of being paid very, very well. Some commentators seem to have linked the rise of professionalism in all sports to an associated lack of sportsmanship. Money talks, in the eyes of the press.
With such ire blowing over the back pages, I feel the need to disagree. Sportsmanship, in my eyes, has always been a sham. It hasn’t died. It was never alive.
I first feel the need to differentiate sportsmanship from politeness. Shaking hands with the other team and going for a drink is good manners, holding your hand up if you get a lucky net cord is considered likewise (although again, I don’t see the point- why apologise for winning a point, even if you are lucky, since winning was your intention when starting the game?).
Good manners, the niceties which prevent sport from being an entirely confrontational interaction, are not dead, and probably never will die. However, this is not ‘sportsmanship’. But then again, what is?
The problem is that no one has ever properly defined sportsmanship. Abiding by the rules is often stated as a founding tenet, being honest when playing the game. But this is down to the quirks of human nature, rather than any moral code which we should follow. For instance, rugby union players are still considered to have played a sporting game if they clap the other team off at the end before the dwarf throwing, even if they have spent the preceding 80 minutes using their hands in the ruck, an illegal act. Can anyone remember the last 6 Nations match where the constant refrain from the ref wasn’t “Hand out of the ruck, blue! Hands out!”? The idea that sportsmanship is synonymous with honesty is ridiculous. The reason why we have referees is that, human nature being what it is, no one can be trusted to play fairly all the time. So to bleat that playing dishonestly is unsportmanslike is ridiculous. In fact, since nearly all sportspeople cheat at some point or other in their careers (Messi’s headbutt in the European Super Cup tarnishes in an otherwise unblemished career), to not cheat would be unsportmanslike, as one would not be behaving as sportsmen do.
Then we have the wonderfully nebulous concept of the spirit of the rules. What is the spirit of the rules? Were they once alive, and are now haunting us, returning to sportsmen and women at night, rattling, groaning, as spirits? The rules are written and down and codified in all sports, to be clearly understood. The idea that, say, by not walking in cricket, one does harm to the game, even though one has broken no rule, is ludicrous. We can’t live our lives, or play our sports, by some subjective judgement about the ‘spirit’ of any game. The objective, the rule, is all we can live by, because it is ultimately fair, agreed on by all. Customs come and go. Now, rugby players are sin-binned for violent conduct, whereas in years gone by a punch-up was part of the fun. Games and sporting culture, the norms of what is allowed or beyond the pale, modify and change. But with rules, obeyed, we have clarity, of what is permitted or not. Sportsmanship is like an extra set of rules, but not agreed on and never defined, by which players are measured by outsiders. This is entirely unfair. The only dictate we can follow is the rules. If one is allowed to take a time-out, then it is there to be taken. No ifs, not buts. I can do it. The rules say I can. We have rules for a reason.
So to conclude this rant. The idea of sportsmanship’s death is stupid. People have always cheated, or disagreed with decisions, or used gamesmanship. There never has been an arcadia where everyone was good, playing for queen, country and the old school. Just look at W.G. Grace, Jardine, McEnroe or even Pele. To have some ridiculous concept, outside of the rules governing the game, by which we must abide or be ashamed and worthless, is a dangerous fallacy. So sod it. The only things players should abide by is their own consciences. The rest, leave up to the ref.