COACH’S CORNER: Does sportsmanship matter anymore?

Snider’s Lukas Rohrbacher looks to bring down Nate Starks of Carroll during the team’s showdown last season. Photo by Leverage Photography

When watching Indiana high school football or listening to it on the radio, I am sure you’ve heard many advertisements from the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA).

For those who don’t know, the IHSAA is the governing body of Indiana high school athletics. One of the things that it often touts is the “face of sportsmanship,” usually citing examples of good sportsmanship on its social media accounts and encouraging athletic departments to recognize those athletes and community members.

While this is a wonderful way to get some athletes recognized, I ask the question: does sportsmanship matter anymore?

I ask because in going to football games at all different levels this season, it has been very apparent to me that sportsmanship is not a priority for some football coaches.

The older generation would say this is a sign of the times. Young people don’t care much about being a good sport or doing things the right way and that’s why things are the way they are. Is that true? Sure, things have changed in our world in the last 30 years, but has sportsmanship died off? 

I looked into this problem and talked to several people to try to find the answer.  

Every head coach will tell you that they want their players to be good people. Many coaches say that they are okay with losing as long as their team plays with class. Unfortunately, that is not the case much anymore.

There is not a single coach who would rather lose every game with respectful players with good sportsmanship than win every game with players who lack it. In this culture, winning is EVERYTHING.

Coaches are going to do whatever they can to try and win. After all, that’s why we play the game. If you have a winning culture you are usually a better sport, but not always. Last year during the Class 4A State Championship, a player from East Central scored an amazing touchdown while taunting a New Prairie defender from the 10-yard line to the end zone. The player received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty but remained in the game, a dominant East Central victory. 

Many questions arise.

Should the touchdown have been called back? Should the player be suspended? Should the player be benched by his coach?

Of course not, and I’m sure many feel the same way. At the end of the day, coaches and players want to win.  

Unfortunately in many programs, sportsmanship has become a sign of weakness. Over the past year, I have attended almost every youth football organization in Fort Wayne – PAL, Metro, CYO and Charger Youth, to name a few. At every single one of these leagues, I witnessed the following scenario:

Two opposing players try to help each other up and a coach says, “Don’t Do That!”

You might be scratching your head and asking why. What is wrong with wanting to help an opposing player you just tackled or ran over? Again, let’s go back to the current culture. It’s all about winning and defeating your opponent. Sportsmanship doesn’t matter. 

If this concept is uncomfortable for some, unfortunately it’s not just a football issue. Go to any youth basketball game and you will see a similar lack of sportsmanship. There have been too many instances of our youth players not shaking the hands of opponents, taunting and insulting other players and officials.  Sadly, all of these things have become the norm in sports.  

So who do we blame for sportsmanship not being important? Let’s think about pro athletes. Everyone loves to blame the pros for how the youth acts. There is some truth to this. In big-time college football and the NFL, sportsmanship is not a priority. But at the end of the day, kids are not watching these players enough to blame them for this. When I was growing up, I remember a playoff game between Green Bay and Minnesota when after a touchdown reception by Randy Moss he pretended to moon the fans in Lambeau Field. I remember being very offended by the disrespect he showed on the field.  However, despite broadcaster Joe Buck saying that that was one of the worst things he’s ever seen,  Moss became a superstar. People rarely talk about that incident and focus more on his amazing Hall of Fame career. 

Are the parents to blame? While parents are a big part of it, I don’t believe they’re the main reason. Trust me, no one wants to be the parent in the stands as their child is being chewed out by the coach because of an action that they did on the field. At the end of the day, every parent wants their child to be a respectful person, so it’s hard to blame them fully for the lack of sportsmanship.  Every parent teaches their kids different values, but at the end of the day, no parent wants someone to say that their child is not a good sport. 

Are coaches to blame? More often than not, coaches are to blame. From high school down to the youth level, it is very apparent that many coaches going into the field today are not valuing sportsmanship. In some cases, they are not even valuing the growth of their players as people. Unfortunately, many coaches are only looking out for their own self-interest, using players to better themselves and gain publicity through them. 

It’s because of this that sportsmanship becomes even less of a priority for some. It’s more important to get that perfect clip of you celebrating a touchdown dance with a player than teaching a player the importance of respecting your opponent.

All of this creates a society for high school football players today where they are very confused. This reminds me of a youth football player staring down at an opponent they just tackled. The player has to stand there, look at their opponent and think “Should I help them up? Or do I just walk away thinking I’m better than them?”  

Does sportsmanship matter? Regardless of what you may think of a team that doesn’t show great sportsmanship, the court of public opinion doesn’t impact wins and losses. Down the road, it might become a problem when a player who is not a good sport seeks all-state or all-conference recognition. There is no statistic calculated for sportsmanship, but there are statistics called wins and losses.  

The truth is, no matter what any football coach tells you, one thing they value more than anything is winning. Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest sportsmen to ever live, once said “If the game isn’t about winning, then why do we keep score?”

As much as people on social media would love to let their voices be heard about a certain team’s lack of sportsmanship, at the end of the day as long as the team is winning, most people don’t care anymore.  

Does that mean that sportsmanship is dead? Certainly not. There are so many great instances of sportsmanship still left in high school sports. Even though they aren’t as celebrated as much as wins and losses, they are still important. Just this year, a Wayne player was nationally recognized for helping a Northrop player off the field after a play. Some of the greatest examples of sportsmanship are often some of the most memorable in a coach’s and player’s memory.  

One example in particular is something I will never forget.

Northrop and Snider are bitter rivals in every sport. The rivalry recently has become very one-sided, but in 2013 the Bruins and the Panthers had an epic clash on the gridiron. The game went back and forth, eventually leading to a 35-28 victory for the Panthers on a late fourth-quarter touchdown.

Northrop coach Tim Martone and Snider coach Kurt Tippman met at midfield as coaches do to engage in the usual “great game coach” conversation. But this time it was different. Coach Tippman asked if he could talk to the Northrop team before Coach Martone. Martone agreed, and he and Tippman walked over to the defeated Bruins. Tippman began to talk about how much he appreciated how hard they played and how they showed great class the whole game. This was the opposing coach saying that about a team that nearly beat them for the first time in years.

Now you might be saying that it doesn’t matter because they still lost. But it was the act of showing sportsmanship that didn’t go unnoticed. I know that meant a lot to my father. Even in a loss, the rest of the players felt as if they did the right thing and were ready to go the following week. 

Sportsmanship isn’t dead. Maybe it just takes a few well-rounded people to revive it now and then. I don’t think we’ll get back to a place where sportsmanship is the No. 1 goal of football or any athletic program, but I still believe that there is a place for showing that you can win the game AND be a good sport about it. 

So yes, I think sportsmanship matters. It matters a lot. 

Coach‘s Corner appears weekly at Outside the Huddle. The author Ben Martone played football in the SAC and has coached at North Side and Northrop. He is currently a teacher at Weisser Park Elementary in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for writing this. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am with what I see in some youth sports. When one opposing team’s child fan blows an air horn or opponent on the court is continually squeaking their shoes on the court while an 11-year old kid is taking a foul shot is in bad taste. Maybe in the NBA but not in leagues and ages where development (and sportsmanship) should be top of mind. While my child is only 11, I’ve refused to have him play for coaches that don’t foster sportsmanship, winning be damned.

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