By Brad Herzog, author of the Count on Me: Sports series
Summer (and with it the summer sports season) is a good time to examine good sportsmanship—both the reasons for it and the reactions to it.
While writing Inspiring Stories of Sportsmanship, my goal was to highlight truly stirring acts of sportsmanship amid the action: A world-class miler stops, mid-race, to check on a fallen competitor; an Olympic fencer points out two touches by an opponent that the judges had missed; a high school basketball player intentionally misses free throws to show support for a grieving opponent.
But the evaluations of those acts are perhaps equally significant—for givers, for the receivers, and even (or maybe especially) for those who witnessed the behavior.
Golf great Bobby Jones once called a penalty on himself even though he was the only one to see it—and it wound up costing him the 1925 U.S. Open. He shrugged off the subsequent praise by saying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.” Indeed, often, when sports figures display remarkable sportsmanship, they don’t consider it remarkable at all. It is simply what you do.
After college softball player Mallory Holtman carried an injured opponent around the bases in 2008, allowing her opponent to gingerly touch the bases all after a home run hit, said Holtman, “She hit it over the fence and was in pain. And she deserved a home run.” When high school track star Meghan Vogel stopped to help a fallen competitor in a 2012 state meet, Vogel said, “If you work hard to get to the state meet, you deserve to finish. I was going to make that happen for her.”
Sometimes the givers of sportsmanship cite integrity as the source of their sporting instinct. At the 2006 Winter Olympics when a Canadian cross-country skier’s pole broke during a race, the Norwegian coach rushed out and handed her a new one. His explanation: Winning isn’t winning if you “don’t help somebody when you should have helped them.”
In fact, the momentary instinct to do the right thing can translate into a certain lifelong pride—the notion that a greater victory, a sort of spiritual triumph, has occurred. When the undefeated Cornell University football team forfeited a win against Dartmouth in 1940 after mistakenly scoring on a fifth down play, the school president declared, “We have done the right thing, and this will live with us. We shall not have to spend the rest of our lives apologizing for a tarnished victory.”
But the receiver of sportsmanship gets a lesson in priority and perspective as well. When an incorrect lane violation was called on high school runner Nicole Cochran during a 2008 state track championship, thus costing her a first-place medal, the runner-up (Andrea Nelson) simply walked over and placed her medal around Cochran’s neck. The third-place finisher then did the same for Nelson, and on down the line all the way to eighth place. Cochran later marveled that the thing she would most remember from that meet wasn’t that she wound up getting a medal after all, but rather “those girls who didn’t need anyone to tell them the right thing to do.”
Likewise, after German long jumper Luz Long offered advice to—and led the cheers for—his American counterpart Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics, four-time gold medalist Owens recalled, “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
So sportsmanship reaffirms the priorities of the giver and buoys the receiver. But here’s the thing—and perhaps the most important thing: It also provides a salient lesson for the observer. As Cochran’s track coach later declared, “We can all learn from what those girls did.”
In yet another case of a young runner helping an injured competitor, high school junior Josh Ripley stopped to pick up a bleeding freshman during a 2011 cross-country meet. “I didn’t think about my race,” he said. “I knew I needed to stop and help him.” Ripley dropped the kid off at a safe place . . . then completed his race. When Ripley reached the finish line in 211 place, the fallen runner’s coach and teammates cheered as if he had just set a new course record.
Do you think any of those kids will ever forget that moment? Any of the spectators? Maybe even any of the folks who later read about the act? It’s doubtful. So while sportsmanship is often a fleeting moment amid fast-paced action, it has the power to reverberate exponentially. After all, the title of my book is Inspiring Acts of Sportsmanship. Sporting acts are most potent when they inspire others to meet that standard. And when inspiration becomes aspiration, we all win.
Brad Herzog is the author of more than 30 books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including articles for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States, visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons. Visit his website at bradherzog.com.
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