The dilemma of sportsmanship

Super Bowl highlighted double standard in sports

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Welcome to Point/Counterpoint, the back and forth sports bar style debate column. This week we are looking at the Super Bowl’s aftermath and the questions of sportsmanship it sparked. Carolina Panthers player Cam Newton barely talked to reporters at his post-game press conference. New York Giants player Eli Manning was accused of not cheering for his brother. What does sportsmanship look like and what is its place? This transcript has been lightly edited.

JP: I feel like there is a double standard in sports when it comes to sportsmanship. The true definition of sportsmanship, I have always thought to be that sports are enjoyed for their own sake, and competed fairly and respectfully between teams. However the media and the public seem more inclined to be upholding this for the losers rather than the winners. Winners are allowed to bask in the glory, whereas losers are supposed to take the loss graciously. But why? The losers played their hearts out as much as the winner, why aren’t they allowed to be down about the outcome? To losers the mentality is “it’s only a game” but to the winners it is a triumph, an achievement.

Billy: I definitely agree that there is a double standard. I think some of this stems from a desire for the outsiders to feel the emotions of those who took part in the event. People want to feel happy because a team won, not remember that a team lost and feel sad or upset with them. There is a reason we always get to see the champagne spraying in the winning locker room during the MLB postseason,and not the gloomy atmosphere of the losing locker room. As far as I’m concerned, sportsmanship is only what happens on the field. Sure, respect should be carried over to every aspect of life, but sportsmanship consists of actions between the players and on the field. Cam Newton wasn’t showing poor sportsmanship by leaving his press conference. He was showing how badly the loss hurt, and I’m pretty sure none of the media members in that room had just lost the Super Bowl moments before. As much as people try to make professional athletes out to be superhuman, they simply aren’t. They’re just as human as the rest of us, and should be allowed to experience real human emotions.

JP: So that is an interesting point about it staying on the field (or court or ice or pitch) because that is the one place that we do see the flip side shine through more. Most sports have rules on their books that detriment anyone who doesn’t act in a sportsmanlike way, yet often those players are celebrated by the fans of the teams they play for. The first name that comes to mind is Ndamukong Suh, who is considered one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, yet beloved for that reason by Detroit fans when on the Lions. The Pistons of the early 90s embraced the “Bad Boys” label. Maybe it’s because I’m from Chicago, but those two stick out the most, though maybe that is just indicative of Detroit. But there are a lot of players cheered for going against the grain.

Billy: I think fans like to see that their players have fire. Obviously this fire can come through in ways that aren’t necessarily good for the sport, but home fans can still love it since it’s their boys. I think sportsmanship is more a code between athletes themselves and between athletes and officials. Off the field, there are more respectful or less respectful paths, but it doesn’t really speak to sportsmanship.

JP: So does that mean the fans are a the source of the double standard? Because I feel like most of us are able to differentiate between the shades of gray that dictate how to judge players as individuals. I feel like it is a sportscaster-perpetuated double standard. They are the ones who complain about when Newton doesn’t talk to them. They are also the ones who condemn or applaud (depending which team they are broadcasting for) each player. It also may be the league’s fault. There are rules in place that discourage poor sportsmanship, but none are really strong enough to make the athletes think twice before fighting or gloating.

Billy: I certainly think fans have something to do with it … I mean, let’s use Cam as an example … Fans of the Panthers love to see Cam score and do his whole endzone routine. However fans of the opposition are the ones who complain that he is being immature or showboating … That definitely wouldn’t happen if Cam was on the opposing sideline. Bad sportsmanship is taunting a guy after you knocked him out; it isn’t celebrating after a big play. These are games played by human beings, and the most annoyed people are just the ones rooting for the team that the big play came at the expense of.

JP: That’s true. That Seahawks fan who wrote the open letter to Newton about tearing down the 12th man flag got rebuked pretty hard for it. So I guess the other question is “Is there more scrutiny on some players than others?” Because I’ve seen many point out that after his loss to the Saints in the 2010 Super Bowl Manning just walked off the field, whereas Newton at least did as is customary and shook Manning’s hand after the game. Newton was criticized for lack of sportsmanship and Manning wasn’t, though Manning did talk to the press after the game. I would argue that the media is the one making the issue out of it since they are the ones who got snubbed. Should these have been judged the same way or not?

Billy: I think the difference is Manning shunned fellow players and Cam shunned the media. Naturally the media will make a bigger difference about the Cam thing because it affected them, although I feel his actions were actually a bit more excusable than Peyton’s in 2010. Neither are grave mistakes though, as a loss like that is heartbreaking.

JP: That’s very fair. Sportsmanship does seem very subjective, always depending on who is judging. Though it does seem like we have moved through the discussion. Any closing thoughts?

Billy: I think fans and media need to put themselves in the athlete’s shoes to understand what is happening. Athletes are real people with real emotions too, so those watching from beyond the sideline need to remember that.