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Sportsmanship is about substance and humanity, not insincerity

Sportsmanship is arguably the primary baseline of all sporting endeavors. There's no other tenet of sports that's more important. And that's why, despite good intentions, much of what we're seeing before high school sporting events around the state this winter reeks of insincerity.

Before most games, students address the crowd with various takes on sportsmanship pledges and expectations. Some have made videos about the "Class Act School" idea borne of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, a relatively new sportsmanship initiative that encourages student-led discourse on acceptable behavior.

Again: the intentions are noble. It's not a bad thing to get kids talking about issues affecting the games they play. Most of the pledges talk about how sportsmanship isn't about words. It's about actions, specifically how you react to the flow of the game and whether you practice proper rhythms of accountability. Actions matter.

Full disclosure: I'm as guilty as anyone else regarding "say one thing and do another." A friend of mine, who does bluntness rather deftly, is quick to remind me about this. Hence, my directive for 2018 belies what I do for a living: words. My directive is shut up and do it. Be the change you want to see in the world.

But, as a writer, I can appreciate the power of words, pledges and the like. All the pregame prattle about sportsmanship rings as hollow unless the athletes and student spectators follow with their actions. And many do. But, unfortunately, there are pockets of students who don't.

I don't like legislating sportsmanship. Example: the end of game handshake. A handshake does not necessarily symbolize good sportsmanship. A handshake symbolizes sportsmanship when both parties mean it. Some kids are growing up with the legislated act of the handshake, not really having any idea what it means. Other students know that a handshake has some value when two people engage in eye contact and meaningful conversation.

Have you ever seen a postgame handshake line after a high school game? A conga line of "g'game, g'game, g'game," usually with heads down or eyes elsewhere. It has all the substance of a video game. My recommendation would be more like this: Two lines form, and then the kids walk towards each other. They have one opportunity to shake hands and meaningfully connect with another athlete. That would be the "class act" CIAC officials envision.

But because we are conditioned to think that not shaking hands is unsportsmanlike, we force the kids into a perfunctory, hollow act. Ironic, huh? Sportsmanship is about substance and humanity. Look your opponent in the eye. Shake the hand, don't slap it. Say, "good game" or "congratulations" or "you're a hell of a player" or whatever else comes to mind. Not have some meaningless act forced on them that looks good, accomplishes nothing and feigns sincerity. It teaches insincerity.

"One of the great tragedies of life is that we seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying," Dr. King once said. "A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. We proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but we sadly practice the very antithesis of them."

Brilliant man, that Dr. King.

The same applies to the pregame sportsmanship pledges and the "we're a class act school" routine. Nice to hear. Except that the only barometer that measures true sportsmanship happens as the game plays out; on the court, in the stands and every moment in between. Sportsmanship is an act. Not words.

I worry that pregame pledges and postgame handshake lines teach the wrong lessons: As long as we go through the motions, we keep the adults happy. The adults feel vindicated — look what our kids are saying about sportsmanship! — and everybody goes home happy.

Convenient? Sure. Meaningful? No.

I'd be happier if kids talked about this stuff among themselves and the held each other accountable on the courts, locker rooms and student sections. Post spectator expectations on the gym wall in nice big letters. And then hold people accountable for their actions. Talk less, do more. I'm game.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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