In most cases, when people start bemoaning the lack of “sportsmanship” among today’s athletes, my teeth itch. It is the same thing that occurs when I hear people wailing about a lack of “civility” in our politics, as though democracy was ever meant to be a polite business and Lincoln was never lampooned as a gorilla. People like to talk about sportsmanship because it’s an easy way to avoid acknowledging exactly how far they themselves would go to succeed. Be noble in our place, they tell athletes, for those times when it’s too much trouble for us.
Sports today are conducted in a context that makes true sportsmanship — which is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing that your opponent is basically the same common clay deserving of the same respect as you are, not because of talent, but simply because he or she is another human being — almost impossible. Sports today, at almost every level, have arranged themselves in such a way that the athlete is made a commodity. The games are a clash of walking narratives, of competing sales campaigns, of a design competition between marketing techniques and strategies. This has exacerbated the emotional conflict that always has been present when we talk about our athletes — we want ferocious, brain-scrambling passion from them when the ball is in play, and conspicuous public politesse when it is not. If the latter gets tangled up in the former, then we get what seem to be endless arguments about how America is being wussified, and how we have become a soft and passive people, and a lot of rancid talk about people playing in skirts and so on. It’s a wonder more athletes don’t simply go mad.
Over the past couple of weeks, two events seemed to show us how ambivalent we truly are about our desire to have our games impart moral lessons. On the night of October 30, a matchup between Mountain Ridge and North Canyon high schools outside of Phoenix somehow managed to end as a bad Michael Bay movie. Mountain Ridge has an autistic player on its roster. With his team leading 48-8, the Mountain Ridge coach put the player in the game. This is where stories, well, diverge.
A North Canyon player planted the autistic boy in the end zone, 20 yards away from the action. A Mountain Ridge player took exception and a general brawl ensued. The North Canyon coaches insisted they weren’t informed about the autistic player’s condition. The Mountain Ridge officials insist that everybody in the conference knew about the situation. Both teams ended up forfeiting the game.
Then, three days later, in Cincinnati, a terminally ill young woman named Lauren Hill scored two baskets for Mount St. Joseph’s College against Hiram College. The game was rescheduled by the common consent of the two schools and, remarkably, that of the NCAA, in a spasm of humanity, and was moved to Xavier’s larger arena to accommodate the demand for tickets. The brain tumor that is killing Hill prevents her from easily using her right hand, so she hit her first shot left-handed. Neither shot was contested. That didn’t matter in the least.
There are precedents for both of these events. In 2006, a high school special-needs player named Jason McElwain got very famous by hitting six 3-point shots in four minutes. Eight years earlier, the women’s basketball teams from the University of Connecticut and Villanova agreed to let an injured player named Nykesha Sales hit an uncontested layup in order to become UConn’s all-time leading scorer. (The arrangement required UConn to give Villanova a layup in return, so that the game began 2-2. And, yes, if this had happened at CCNY in the 1940s, someone would have gone to jail for it.) Even though both of these were acts of the purest charity, the reactions to them were quite different.
McElwain became a symbol of grit and determination and how good people can be to each other. Somehow, though, the arrangement struck on Sales’s behalf became a national controversy about the integrity of the record book at the University of Connecticut. Columnists went into orbit. Sports-radio talkers were last seen somewhere beyond Jupiter. UConn coach Geno Auriemma responded in kind. It even became a plot point on King of the Hill. These were famous events. One of them was heartwarming. The other was a demonstration of how things can go very badly. The two events that happened in recent weeks are famous events, as well. Whether they’re lessons, however, is a more difficult question.
Me? I think the whole thing comes down to participation trophies.
Somehow, the unremarkable notion that every young kid on every team should get a trophy to put on his or her shelf at the end of every season has become controversial. The Washington Post summed up the whole thing last summer, linking participation trophies to a generalized feeling that the Millennial generation is unusually “entitled.” One trip to Pizza Hut for a postseason celebration and a child is lost for life, I guess. (How did we ever win the West anyway?) The participation trophy has become a metaphor for whatever people want it to be: the loss of our competitive spirit. The erosion of our national values. The loss of manufacturing jobs. The new rules regarding when and how hard you can hit the quarterback. Inevitably, when the arguments about any of this reach high tide, somebody throws the idea of a participation trophy out there as though it closes the case.
It’s all nonsense, of course. Some people are born competitive, some become competitive, and some have competition thrust upon them. Many of the people making the argument against participation trophies are the same ones who wring their hands about parents who go off the rails at Little League games or confront referees in peewee matches at the local rink. If this truly is the participation trophy generation, it’s also a generation that includes Anthony Davis and Russell Wilson. Somebody somewhere is doing something right.
Placed in this context, what recently happened in Arizona and Ohio, as well as the earlier cases of Jason McElwain and Nykesha Sales, illustrate a paradox that may very well be beyond our ability to resolve, a conflict between ego and id, a cage match between heart and the more volatile precincts of the human viscera. (Some concept of allegedly endangered masculinity is mixed in there, too.) Is the story of the melee in Arizona a story about a triumph of community and the human spirit that ended in a brawl? Is the story of Lauren Hill an exception, is it the rule, or should it be the rule? And is there really some sort of continuity between those stories and the weaponized charity that the NFL is employing now as part of a strategy to get out from under an autumn of public-relations catastrophes? Charity loses a bit of its moral luster when it’s put to those kinds of purposes. Charity is not supposed to be camouflage. Sympathy is not supposed to be a bludgeon.
What we’re dealing with, ultimately, is kindness. Maybe there’s no place for kindness in what our sports have become, but I’d be loath to work in that world if that is the case. Kindness is not weakness. It is not soft. It makes demands that occasionally are very difficult to fulfill. It doesn’t suit well to camouflage. It usually breaks free, or the camouflage becomes unsustainable, because kindness is uniquely resistant to easy compromise. It was kindness that gave Jason McElwain the chance to be a star and Nykesha Sales a chance to hold a record. It was kindness that put that player on the field in Arizona, and it was an implicit insult to that kindness that set off the brawl that ended the game. It was kindness that lifted Lauren Hill to her uncontested layups that were not really uncontested because Lauren Hill was competing against an opponent that always wins — an opponent that, with all due respect to the athletes of Hiram College, is of a different order of magnitude than any opponent anyone will face on any court anywhere, forever. Kindness is not as useful a word as “sportsmanship” or “civility,” but it is a more powerful one, vast and encompassing, and something to which we are all entitled, no matter how well we play the game.