By Alex Tekip
Ever since collegiate athletes were young, playing youth sports in their hometown, they have been encouraged to practice sportsmanship. Constant reminders from a dad on the sideline encouraged children to play to win, but to respect their opponent. Handshakes and compliments after games served as a code of conduct. However, once athletes make it past peewee soccer and little league, official regulations are put into place; mandates put forth by the NCAA. Professionalism and lack there of becomes rigidly defined.
In order to create a behavioral code of conduct for college athletes, the NCAA must first define what “sportsmanship” is. According to the NCAA’s committee for sportsmanship and ethical conduct, there are seven ideals of sportsmanship to which an athlete should adhere: respect, caring, fairness, civility, honesty, integrity, and responsibility. The Big Ten Conference has a “BIG policy,” encouraging student athletes and fans to be bold when cheering on their team, but do so with integrity and respect for the opponent, as a great leader would.
However, the policy that hits closest to home is Michigan State University’s values regarding the behavior of athletes; such as respect, positive attitude, focus, accountability, continued improvement, and integrity. Sportsmanship policies are geared more towards fans, under the “Spartan Fans, Raise Your Shield” campaign.
Why is it that MSU does not seem to have an athletic policy directly mentioning the word “sportsmanship?” It is likely that one reason for this is the detailed sportsmanship and athletic behavioral policies of the NCAA and the Big Ten. But, there could be another reason, one that is a little less obvious: the implications of giving a concrete definition to sportsmanship.
Juan Javier Pescador, who teaches college sports history at MSU, said a concrete code of scholarship would place even more pressure upon student athletes because they would be expected to perform with a high level of athletic ability while “(being) forced to follow a code of conduct in which they have no say.”
Pescador also believes that sports governing organizations and athletes would have a much better relationship if one could learn to listen to the other.
“The disconnect that exists between athletes and institutions make it difficult for any athletic governing board to create a policy that is accepted by both,” Pescador said. “Athletes are of a younger generation and have a very different idea of what sportsmanship is than those of the older generation; the ones who make the rules.”
It seems what athletes and athletic administrators need is a compromise, an agreement to show respect for the game in a way that is understood and agreed upon by both sides.
In 2007, The United States Olympic program launched a campaign to promote good sportsmanship. The guidelines required athletes to follow the conventions of sportsmanlike conduct, such as “assist competitors in need,” “acknowledge competitor’s skills,” “appreciate those who support you” and “accept praise with grace and humility.”
These behaviors may seem relatively simple to enact, but it is difficult to do so in a society that gives more media attention to actions that seem to promote unsportsmanlike conduct, such as the infamous “stomp” by Detroit Lions defensive tackle, Ndamakong Suh during a heated Thanksgiving Day game.
According to a Forbe’s survey, Suh’s actions placed him at number four on the list of “Most Hated Athletes in America.” While apologetic for his actions, Suh noted that after one foul action he was “suddenly on the same level as Skeletor–the worst.”
In a later interview with ESPN, Suh remarked on the prestige that comes with being an athlete and the importance of having a professional attitude, stating that “[playing sports] requires a calm and composed demeanor, which cannot be derailed by the game, referee calls, fans, or other players.”
This year saw another incident similar to Suh’s at the collegiate level.
During the Michigan vs. Michigan State game at Spartan Stadium this year, Michigan State defensive end William Gholston supposedly violated the Big Ten’s sportsmanship conduct rules by punching lineman Taylor Lewan and twisting the helmet of quarter back Denard Robinson. MSU and the Big Ten put Gholston’s actions, for which he was flagged during the game, under further review with the result being Gholston’s suspension from MSU’s homecoming game against Wisconsin.
While there was no arguing that some sort of consequence would come from Gholston’s actions, it is important to note that he was simply following orders.
In an Oct. 17 interview with USA Today, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, “We were trying to play ‘60 minutes of unnecessary roughness,’ and we were lucky that we didn’t get called on every snap.”
Both Gholston and Jordan Kovacs, a safety for the University of Michigan, who were also interviewed by USA Today, had the same feelings as Narduzzi.
Kovacs noted the intense rivalry between the two teams requires nothing less than playing rough, that it’s simply “how it goes.”
Gholston defended his actions saying, “Everyone makes mistakes when (they’re) trying to go hard.”
Gholston said he viewed the helmet grab as him giving it his all during a heated game which required him to do so, but the MSU athletic department as well as the Big Ten conference ultimately considered Gholston’s conduct to be “unsportsmanlike.”
According to some sports columnists and bloggers, such as ESPN.com’s Brian Bennett, the Big Ten’s intervention in this matter reflected a broken sportsmanship policy within MSU. Head football coach Mark Dantonio made very little comment on the investigation, which, according to Bennett, lasted three days longer than it should have. MSU could have made the process painless and easy by giving Gholston the one game suspension themselves, without intervention from the conference, according to Bennett.
It is situations like Gholston’s that Pescador calls into question where authority, the media and the athletes themselves view an athlete’s performance differently. Pescador said this results in miscommunication between all three of these figures (as seen in the Gholston case), and reflects the “media revolution” that is overtaking sports at all levels.
“Athletes, both at the college and professional level, have very little private life,” Pescador said. “They are subjected to a lot of pressure based on how they are perceived by the media, and must cultivate a public figure at all times. If athletes view their athletic performance as them versus regulations/authority and vice versa, they could face serious consequences, especially in their public image.”