I’m sitting in the stands at my son’s baseball practice right now. The coach just gave them the rules—not suggestions; not what he would like them to do, but what he demands they do—regarding sportsmanship. He just looked to the stands to tell us, the parents, the rules apply to us too. If we want to be present to watch our kid slam one over the fence, we have obey the rules of good behavior.
I’m pretty happy about that.
This week two basketball games in two different states have shown all of us the polar opposite sides of sportsmanship. In Mississippi in a not-so-friendly rivalry, the score got one-sided. The losing team began intentionally fouling to stop the other team’s drives to the basket. After one foul, two players began fighting. The benches cleared and before long, the fight spread to the fans—parents and other students—in the stands. When it was over, 12 people had been arrested, another dozen or so treated for injuries.
I sometimes see things in shades of black or white rather than grey. This is one. The high school athletics officials in Mississippi should suspend both programs for a year. Not fair to the players who didn’t start it? Too severe for those guys—who may not get to college otherwise—hoping to win a coveted full-ride athletic scholarship? Too bad. Fights like this don’t just pop out of nowhere. They’re bred from a culture of slack discipline.
Now to the other game. Dekalb, Ill. High School went on the road to play Milwaukee Madison. They, too, are rivals. Three hours before the game, the Milwaukee team surrounded their teammate, Johntel Franklin, as he stood in his mother’s hospital room as she lay dying. Her cancer had returned full force and the family decided to take her off life support. Johntel’s coach offered to cancel the game, but he said no. He told his coach and his team to go win it for him and for his mother.
The game started an hour late. Just as the 2nd quarter started, Johntel walked into the gym. His coach called a time out and told him to come sit on the bench with his team. He asked the coach if he could dress out and play. Illinois state athletic rules say if a player in not on the roster at the beginning of the game, the team has to take a technical foul, giving the opposing team two free foul shots.
The Dekalb coach, knowing Johntel’s mother just died argued with the referees for a full ten minutes, saying he didn’t want the points and asking them to just let Johntel play. The referees refused. Dekalb had to take the free throws, so the coach asked for a volunteer. The team captain raised his hand. The coach whispered something to him and he trotted to the foul line.
He bouced the ball, spun it in his hand and did what his coach told him to do—he threw the ball about two feet and let it dribble away. The second shot barely left his hand. The playing field level again, the teams resumed play. Johntel scored ten points—for his mom—and Dekalb, the team that gave up two gimme points, lost what turned out to be a very close game.
Sometimes winning is not measured by points on the scoreboard. It is definitely not determined by who gets the last punch in at a basketball game. Sportsmanship is high class. You don’t need to look any further than Dekalb High School to see that.