It’s Only a Game
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“It’s Only a Game,” New Era, Jan. 1989, 26

It’s Only a Game

Even if you lose the game, you can be a winner by practicing true sportsmanship.

I hurriedly stuffed my “stripes” and whistle into my tote bag, dreading the long winter drive home. As the dressing room door swung closed behind me, I hefted the bag onto my shoulder and strolled out onto the darkened gymnasium floor. I glanced up once more at the still-lit scoreboard that read: Home 37, Visitors 41.

Only moments earlier five young men had been playing their hearts out, struggling to win their first and only victory at the end of a long, frustrating season. The crowd had filled every available seat and standing space in the small rural gym. They had yelled their throats hoarse, urging their sons and friends to perform at some superhuman level so that the memory of the season might not linger so disappointingly in their minds.

The burden of performance rested most heavily on a tall, square-shouldered farm boy. Even though he was notably the most talented of the small hometown squad, his and his teammates’ best efforts were not enough to achieve the victory that their hearts desired.

As I approached the exit on the far side of the gym, this same tall farm boy stepped from the crowd of somber teammates and school chums. I was somewhat apprehensive as he timed his stride to meet me at the door. Much too often in my 18 years of officiating high school basketball and football I had been approached by a disappointed fan or player wishing to release his frustration by verbally insulting my ability as an official or even my nonpartisan posture during the course of the game.

The young man had a hard, firm expression on his face as he blocked my exit. Suddenly he extended his hand and with a humble awkwardness blurted, “I would like to thank you, sir, for calling a good game. You know how much we wanted to win this one. We tried hard, but … anyway I know you tried to call just as good a game as we tried to play. Besides, it’s only a game.” He turned and melted back into the crowd of his friends. A warm feeling came over me as I stepped out into the harsh winter wind. This young man had achieved the greatest victory that could be won on the floor that evening. He had been a sportsman.

To wear the letter of a sportsman should be the greatest honor an athlete can achieve. The honor comes from the joy of competing with a skilled opponent whose fans are just as enthusiastic as yours. It comes from acknowledging the great dedication of every player, coach, official, and fan to his role in the game. It comes from reaching a level of self-discipline and teamwork that sets you apart from the athlete whose only joy comes from winning.

But for some reason the honor of sportsmanship seems the farthest thing from the minds of many participants. Hardly a game goes by that I don’t see acts of aggression, verbal taunts, and disrespectful gestures by players, coaches, and fans alike. What forces transform the worthwhile purposes of athletic competition into the short-lived thrill of winning? Perhaps the answer lies in a few misconceptions we have about athletic competition. Do any of these attitudes reflect your feelings?

To be a success, you must win; to lose is to be a failure.

How many times have we seen the desperation shot at the buzzer swish the net and, in that very instant, change a loser into a winner? And just as instantly, transform the winner into a loser? Does that fateful toss of a basketball make one team’s affiliation, one player’s effort, or one fan’s enthusiasm more worthwhile than another? Of course not. They have only experienced a moment in life that tests their maturity and self-control.

Al McGuire, television commentator and basketball coach of the 1977 NCAA champion Marquette Warriors, added this perspective in a TV interview:

“Losers learn by losing and winners win by winning. It’s important to win, because someone is keeping score. But … the only [truly] important things in life to win are surgery and war.”

The opponent is the enemy.

Competition requires opponents, an offense and a defense. But this adversarial role is only a means of testing the skills of each other. The intent was never to create a “good” versus “bad” confrontation. Yet that spirit is continually reinforced. “Our” team is good, made up of good players who play fair. “Our” fans are good, and “our” traditions also are good. “Their” team is bad. “Their” fans are bad, and “their” traditions are bad. Their only means of winning is to play unfairly.

We think we know the difference between “friendly” competition and life. But sharp words and cutting remarks inflict wounds that leave ugly scars. The response is usually as vicious. I saw the absurdity of this attitude in a community league game I officiated several years ago. Two players on opposing teams were aggressively playing each other. Each time, as they went up and down the court, they intensified their verbal and physical exchanges. Finally, after several fouls were assessed, both players let all of their frustration out, and a fight ensued. I had found it interesting that the two players referred to each other by their first names, and after they had left the floor I remarked to a teammate that they seemed to be acquainted with each other. He replied, “They are. One is a bishop and the other is his ward clerk.” In the heat of competition we forget about our common brotherhood.

The official is an enemy.

The acceptance of this notion has spawned a wave of defiance against the rules of the game and even verbal and physical retaliation against the game official for enforcing those rules.

Any athletic competition must be played with rules or there is no game. Without rules there are no skills. When those skills are tested against an opponent, there is an obvious need for a neutral judge or official to see that the rules are adhered to.

Sports officials go through an extensive training and study program to understand and properly enforce the rules of the game. In all my years of officiating, I have never known of an official who intentionally made a call that was wrong to penalize one team or another. Officials make mistakes that, at times, affect the outcome of a game. But those errors are human, even as the players’ mistakes are human. A good player will learn from his mistakes and strive to improve. So will an official. A skilled official wants to see each team perform at its greatest level of excellence, but he needs the support and good will of the fans, coaches, and players.

So if you have a few quivers of doubt about your own feelings of sportsmanship, don’t shrug them off. Use them as sparks to light a new fire of enthusiasm that comes from the joy of competing with a skilled opponent whose fans are just as enthusiastic as yours.

I’m not sure what ever happened to that young farm boy. I do know that he never reached any great level of athletic achievement. He doesn’t have any memories of state championships or come-from-behind victories. He was just a hardplaying young man who gave his best when he walked onto the court and understood that regardless of the outcome, “It was only a game.”

Illustrated by Bryan Lee Shaw