September 28, 2010
Sportsmanship, Competition and Civility in Athletics

National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach visited Indiana as part of his 50-state Civility Tour. Here is a recap of one of the events–a panel discussion about Sportsmanship, Competition and Civility in Athletics. Clark Kellogg, Vice President of Player Relations for the Indiana Pacers served as the moderator. Joining Chairman Leach on the panel was Bill Polian, President of the Indianapolis Colts, Coach Beth K. Wilmeth, Head Women’s Volleyball Coach, Northwestern College, and Dr. Bernard Franklin, Executive Vice President, NCAA.

Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council, introduces our distinguished panel.

Chairman Leach opened the luncheon discussion with a few general remarks on the topic of sportsmanship and civility.  Noting that whereas sports and games have rules and boundaries, politics is virtually ungoverned and in fact often encourages ignoring or breaking what rules there are, he commented that “the sports ethic is higher than the political ethic.”  Why is it, he asked, that in an era of great challenge and unprecedented depth and quality of leadership, American democracy seems to be stymied these days as never before?  Why does the political life hold so little appeal for the vast majority of the nation at this time?  And how can sports be used as a model for respectful competition in the political sphere?

Beth Wilmeth, women’s volleyball coach at Northwestern College, then discussed her team’s Honor Call system, under which players self-report when they touch a ball, even if referees do not see it.  The Honor Call system came about following a particularly successful year for her team and the desire to mark it as a “legacy season,” one which would have a lasting impact.  She, in conjunction with her assistants and players, decided to initiate a series of concepts that would help her players govern life both on and off the court; one of these concepts was “integrity,” and the Honor Call is the way they chose to realize it both in sport and life at large.  Coach Wilmeth discussed initial reluctance not only from some of her players but also many referees, until they got used to the Honor Call; she notes that, now that the system is more familiar in their league, many opposing players will voluntarily self-report fouls as well.  She also related a few anecdotes of her players feeling that the Honor Call inspired them to pursue greater integrity in their academic and personal lives as well.

Dr. Franklin then discussed his idea of the “classroom beyond,” the notion that high school and particularly collegiate sports systems have a responsibility to help their players develop emotional, as well as athletic, skills and values.  Civility, he argued, is an expression of one’s values: sportsmanship and respect for the other, whatever the field, are the core values that drive civil life.

Mr. Polian was then prompted to discuss the Indianapolis Colts as an organization that seems to hold itself and its players to a higher standard of civil life than many other professional football teams.  He noted the importance of respect, not only for one’s teammates but also for the opponent and for the game, as a critical value for the Colts leadership to personally express and foster within their players. Citizenship, respect, and responsibility to community and others are also key values that he and the Colts leadership hope to inspire in their players.

Mr. Kellogg then prompted the panel to each name and discuss a single word or concept dear to their concept of sportsmanship and civility.  Chairman Leach cited the concept of the team, the power of trust in one’s comrades and the cooperative spirit it encourages.  Mr. Polian discussed respect, noting that it is often overlooked in the mass media; it is far easier and more popular to magnify incidents of confrontation and scandal, he asserts, than to show the deep mutual respect that professional athletes have for each other, regardless of team affiliation.  He discussed his role on the NFL’s competition committee and its ongoing rulings restricting of taunting and celebrations as a necessary defense of respect for the game and the other.

Coach Wilmeth chose to discuss integrity, charging that one’s character is more important than winning.  One’s “honor and ethic” in the competitive circle, in her opinion, reflect into one’s life outside it.  Dr. Franklin then expanded on her thoughts, exploring the idea of character.  He related the anecdote of a pair of cross-country athletes who came to the aid of a competitor in medical distress; although they had, by dropping out of the race, cost themselves the opportunity to compete, they had undeniably shown great character and argued, as Coach Wilmeth had, that we can foster ethics in the real world through the experience of sport.

An audience question then prompted discussion of the boundaries of honor and fairness: How far, he wondered, does Coach Wilmeth’s Honor Call system extend and how far should we expect athletes to go in pursuit of competitive integrity?  Coach Wilmeth noted that her players only call a certain class of foul, which occurs at the end of play; they did not want to interrupt the flow of play with self-reporting that could easily be seen as intrusive by judges and opponents.  Mr. Polian noted the contextual nature of sporting ethos; golfers are universally expected to self-report rules violations, whereas many other sports have umpires actively watching them.  Each is expected to live up to a model of sportsmanship, but the mechanics of violation and reporting are different.  Dr. Franklin concluded with a reflection on the need for balance between competition, honor, and respect for the sport ethos.

Another audience member questioned: how can we bring notions of respectful competition into the political sphere?  Chairman Leach agreed that this is a noble goal, but felt that the political sphere was failing in any sort of attempt at fair play.  He mused on the public’s role in the “dirtying” of politics, noting that things are only likely to change when politicians are forced to take note of a public desire for change. 

Another discussion centered on the idea of “stakes:” is the degree of abuse and the need for regulation higher when there is more to be gained?  The panelists generally disagreed, noting that children and adults will cheat at the simplest of board games when essentially nothing is at stake, but professional athletes will, at times, potentially cost themselves great amounts of money by self-reporting fouls.  The day’s final discussion was on the topic of learning an ethical system: can athletes – or anyone – be taught sportsmanship and respect, or is it essentially governed by one’s upbringing?  Both Chairman Leach and Mr. Polian noted that, challenging as it can be, athletes can be taught or “straightened out” if the conditions are right and the player shows dedication and interest as well, but some (if not many) might be too far gone to be helped.

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