Sportsmanship is a term that has been out of fashion for a long time. But you can bet it's going to make a comeback.
Sometimes you don't know what you've lost until you're hit in the head with a 2-by-4. Or maybe a flying chair or Ron Artest's fist. Sometimes, we need attention grabbers, like a Clemson player kicking a fallen South Carolina player in the head. Or a 60-year-old fan punched by a 6-foot-8 pro. Or mothers clutching small children as players and fans brawl all around them.
Often, it's hard to spot turning points, especially as they are in progress. This time, it's not. This is sportsmanship's window of opportunity. Everybody needs to grab this chance with both hands. Welcome back, old friend, you've been gone too long.
The last few days may actually turn out to be among the best we've seen in sports in a long time. Nobody got seriously hurt, but a serious problem got a ton of attention. That's win-win. Usually, to stir public furor, somebody gets maimed. Not now. Every time we see the now infamous replays we expect a broken neck. Instead, nothing. For once, we get the lesson without the tragedy. We see the problem vividly defined with few consequences, except punishment for the perpetrators, as it should be.
Don't worry. Our current age of sports rage won't suddenly be replaced by boring good behavior just because there's a fuss. It took decades for our games to reach their current disrepute among decent people. It'll take years to reverse those trends. Go with the flow of indignation. This time, it's good.
There is also little danger that, in our disgust, we will punish jock offenders too severely. The word "consequences" is almost as remote in our collective memories as sportsmanship. Even yesterday, Artest had the gall to say he shouldn't have been suspended for the rest of this NBA season. He's lucky he's not kicked out two years. What part of the Constitution says you have the inalienable right to make $6 million a year after you charge into the stands to beat up the people who pay your check?
But Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden takes the cake. He still thinks your first 10-minute riot should be free. "We don't have a track record of this," he said. "Gosh, if you cut everybody's head off over one offense, that wouldn't leave much leeway."
Our recent brawls have made us think. No wonder our heads hurt. We're not a nation that enjoys working on complicated subjects, or respects the ability to do it, as much as we once did. We have become a sports culture that likes easy, simple answers that are "fun." This coach is an "idiot." That player is a "thug." When we pigeonhole, stereotype or stigmatize in sports, as is often done in politics, we turn our foes into cartoons. That's good for a laugh or a ratings point.
But it comes at a high price. As soon as we lose respect for the complexity of other people, it's suddenly easy to dehumanize them. That's how polarization, which may be the poison of the age, sinks its first roots. We see the uniform of an "enemy," not the 19-year-old Clemson student inside the jersey. We invert the traditional world of good sportsmanship where your opponent is your equal, your reflection and your method to measure yourself. Above all else, your foe is a person like you so you treat him as you would wish to be treated yourself. There's some "rule" along those lines. But it's easy to forget.
That's the danger now. As we lose our sense of sportsmanship, we get addicted to the kick, the rush, of demonizing others, of pigeonholing, stereotyping and stigmatizing. Watch the Red Sox Nation as it calls the Yankees "the Evil Empire." The phrase started as a joke, but the life it took on is a symptom of the disease. If you think Detroit last week was bad, imagine what it could have been in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park last month. The stage was all set the year before: Zimmer vs. Pedro, the bullpen brawl.
Luckily, the watched pot didn't boil. These days, however, almost every rivalry in every sport simmers just below a boil. Edge sells. And a regular season NBA game can end in a mass rumble. When we raise the emotional stakes in our games, we raise the intensity. But, in introducing a fake seriousness, by saying games matter more than they do, we raise the danger, too.
When people discuss religion, politics or sex, we expect them to make fools of themselves. They always have. With games, the premise is supposed to be different. The stakes are much lower. You cheer and boo in earnest. But then you go grill some burgers in the parking lot, maybe even talk to fans of the other team.
Unfortunately, especially in the last decade, we've turned up the heat under our games. Huge salaries fool us into mistaking money for meaning. Perhaps some of us have even mimicked the venomous level of partisan discourse on our serious subjects and, inadvertently, contaminated our behavior when we turn to the games we merely wanted to enjoy.
Whatever the case, we've lost our balance, that's for sure. Our three major contact sports have always been controlled violence. But "controlled" was the key word. The tool we used for generations to maintain that control was sportsmanship.
That's where we need to turn now to regain our balance. We know it. Now, in countless ways, we need to start acting on it.