Shortly before the decisive Game 5 of the 2013 National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, I, a Cardinals fan, texted my friend Dom Cosentino, a Pirates fan, the following message: "So, hey, good luck tonight. See you on the other side."
Dom, then a Deadspin editor and now a Jets beat reporter for NJ.com (he broke that Kellen Winslow story last week), responded thusly: "Go f--- yourself." He even wrote a post about it. Everybody loved it.
Now, a lot of the praise for Dom was probably because it was cool to hate the Cardinals and their fans last October. But mostly, people tended to side with Dom's pregame assessment more than mine because, well, it felt more honest. And in retrospect, I think they may have been right. The more I think I about, the more I realize that I told Dom good luck before the game because I wanted him to consider me classy, above the fray, not looking for anything but a competitive game well-played … more than anything, a good sport.
But none of that was true. I didn't want Dom's team to have good luck. I wanted them to lose. Dom was a lot more upfront about that central fact than I was.
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In the wake of my column earlier this week defending Richard Sherman after his postgame tirade Sunday, the most common email I've received in response as been to extol the virtues of "sportsmanship." A sampling:
If you had been watching the game and then see his comments there is no way you could see it as anything other than a real obscenity to sportsmanship and to football.
Im not sure if you played sports but there is a such thing as sportsmanship and respecting your teammates and opponents. … You have tainted US Today and they should be ashamed to have a writer like you. (Ed. Note: A version of the column ran in Tuesday's print version of USA TODAY.)
Sportsmanship, as it is commonly defined and applied to the sports we watch on television, revolves around decorum. You shake the hand of the opposing coach after the game. When the camera is on you, you praise your opponents and downplay your own accomplishments. When asked a pointed question, you demur and deflect, preferably with a meaningless cliché. These are the paces we put all our athletes and coaches -- people who have devoted their lives to these games, who have worked harder for this than most of us have worked for anything -- through for our own amusement and our fulfillment.
This sportsmanship, it's about being as dull as possible, by design. It is putting on a blank, bland face for the world even though, deep inside, you want to scream. It is play-acting for the sort of person who picks up their newspaper, shakes their head and can't believe what the damned world is coming to. It's a crock.
I understand why we might wish for this as an ideal. I have a son, and there are certain values that I want to instill in him, ones that youth sports can help administer and foster. (Well, eventually: Right now he's 2 years old. He has to stop chewing on every ball I give him first.) But youth sports are about teaching. It is my job as a parent to show him what is right and wrong in a hands-on, systematic way. It takes time and devotion and repetition. It takes work. It is not my job -- and it is not work -- simply to point at someone on television and say, "act like that person" or "don't act like that person."
Sportsmanship on a youth level is just making sure that kids understand basic mores of human behavior. You will get a lot farther in life if you are humble and respectful of others. It's part of the social contract. But I'm not sure professional sports are part of that social contract; they certainly have no connection to youth sports. If you're a professional athlete, playing a hypercompetitive sport watched by the whole world -- most of which is actively hoping you fail -- that pays you millions of dollars, well, a little hubris then can go a long way. You'll get a lot farther by having some swagger, because you know the other guy does. Sportsmanship, when applied to adults, particularly professional ones, is mostly an illusion, a story we tell ourselves so that we might continue to pretend that what we are watching has some sort of connection to real life.
They're also about control: They're about fans, and coaches, and leagues, attempting to force some sort of order on a situation, and people, where such order does not apply. Just because you sitting at home don't approve -- just because your job over at the mortgage lending firm doesn't feature people talking trash into microphones -- doesn't mean you're right, or that athletes should adhere to what you think. They have a different job than you. It's not their job to raise your kids, or to make you happy. Their job is to win.
It is also completely disingenuous to pretend that sportsmanship is somehow the driving force of sports. It isn't. It's showmanship. No one shows highlight videos of coaches meeting at midfield. (Unless one of them is angry with the other.) For crying out loud, the First Lady is mean-mugging after dunks now. Showmanship is exciting. Showmanship is what we tune in for. It's only later, when we start feeling guilty about it, when we start trying to impose real life on sports again, that we start harping on "sportsmanship." It's a card we play when we want to feel superior. Like we're above it all.
But we are so, so not. We are the biggest hypocrites of all. When our team wins over our friend's team, we rub their face in it. Bragging rights are the point. We don't care how our team plays, not really: We just want them to win. We don't hold back. It's when the other guy, the one that just beat us, starts strutting that we get upset. That's when we suddenly start crowing about "sportsmanship."
Bah, humbug. Sportsmanship is for children. Showmanship is for adults. I hope your team loses, and I hope my team wins -- and wins big. And so do you. There. Doesn't it feel better being honest?
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