Sportsmanship needs to be revitalized

It sounds like a corny, old-school word. But its essence and its effect, when practiced, are at the root of not just orderly sports participation but, by extension, a world in which fairness and civility rule.

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Warriors coach Steve Kerr was taunted in college by Arizona State fans over the murder of his father, Malcolm, who was killed by Islamic radicals in Beirut in 1984.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was taunted in college by Arizona State fans over the murder of his father, Malcolm, who was killed by Islamic radicals in Beirut in 1984.

Loren Elliott/Getty Images

When Steve Kerr was a senior guard at Arizona, he was taunted before a game by Arizona State hecklers, who shouted, “P-L-O!’’ and “Where’s your dad?”

“PLO” referred to the Palestine Liberation Organization, designated a terrorist group by the United States in 1987.

Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut, had been assassinated by Islamic radicals in the hallway outside his Beirut office in 1984.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Kerr said after the game. “For one thing, it brought back memories of my dad. But, for another thing, it was just sad that people would do something like that.”

That sadness is what brings us to our topic today: sportsmanship.

It sounds like a corny, old-school word. But its essence and its effect, when practiced, are at the root of not just orderly sports participation but, by extension, a world in which fairness and civility rule.

Recently, we had the brouhaha over LSU star basketball player Angel Reese taunting Iowa star Caitlin Clark near the end of the NCAA championship game in Dallas. LSU won 102-85, and Reese had 15 points and 10 rebounds, but the talk was all about her holding up her hand in front of Clark and pointing to where the championship ring would go and mimicking actor and pro wrestler John Cena’s “You can’t see me” taunt.

Afterward, Reese said the criticism of her gestures was racially motivated. She was correct in that everything in America has racial overtones and significance. Indeed, that Iowa started five white women and LSU five Black women assuredly was one reason the game was the most watched in NCAA women’s history. The polarity was symbolic and unavoidable.

Reese also pointed out that Clark had made similar gestures in the past and not been criticized for them.

That may have been true, but the point should be that this was the big stage, and sportsmanship needs to be practiced by all, regardless of outside forces, by Reese, by Clark, by everyone. For at the root of sportsmanship is a thing called moral reasoning, the ability to know what is the right, honorable, virtuous thing to do in any situation.

Moral reasoning is so important that philosophers and psychologists claim it is needed to propel societies into a better world.

This all may seem like a reach from a quiet basketball taunt, but TV picked up the visuals, the internet replays them endlessly, and, for many viewers, this was the first time they had watched championship women’s college basketball.

A compounding part was analyst Cheryl Miller’s comments afterward that Clark should have responded to Reese’s taunts, that somehow Clark was complicit. The fact that Clark let the moment die quietly was a good thing.

The NFL has anti-taunting rules. So does the NBA, with the rule book going to all caps: “A PLAYER(S) GUILTY OF TAUNTING MUST BE SINGLED OUT AND PENALIZED.”

Baseball and hockey have ways to deal with taunting or showboating, not all of them proper.

The disturbing thing is that studies have shown the longer a person plays sports, the lower his or her moral reasoning.

The athlete may not even be aware of what sportsmanship is, never had it enforced by parents or coaches. From the Illinois High School Association: “Sportsmanship is playing fair, taking a loss or defeat without complaint, not gloating when winning, and generally treating opponents and officials with courtesy, generosity and fairness.”

The good news is that moral reasoning — thus, sportsmanship — can be quickly taught.

I think of the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine when I think of dignity acourt. I like the way the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo handles himself. I think of former Sky players Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker, too. I think of John Wooden, Anthony Rizzo, Barry Sanders and so many others, old and new. Role models are out there, people who embraced empathy along with competitive fire.

I also think of Kerr, the Warriors’ dignified coach. That he gives his players books to read that have nothing to do with basketball but everything to do with life is a gift he must have learned from his late, scholarly father. And his mentor, Phil Jackson.

After that Arizona State taunting episode years ago, young Kerr said nothing but answered by coming out and scoring 20 points, going 6-for-6 on three-pointers — in the first half.

That’s sportsmanship.

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