Sportsmanship, by example

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 9, 2018, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

I've never been much of an athlete, but for most of my life been involved in sports in one way or another. This despite the ongoing jokes with coworkers about my general disregard for "sportsball." I mean, I lettered in girls volleyball in high school (manager), spent plenty of time line judging, running clock, announcing players, etc. In college I played club ball and did some officiating, then after college I coached for something like ten seasons. Eventually I picked up tennis, took lessons and even did a USTA season. In other words, I've been directly involved in literally hundreds of contests, and I've seen a lot as a participant. I know what sportsmanship looks like, and it didn't always come easy.

I'll never forget having to hand out a yellow card as an official. I only did it once, but it was uncomfortable for me, as I'm sure it was for the player. The dude had put up a block and tagged the net pretty hard while the ball sailed over the block and out of bounds. It was a pretty obvious call, and he was pissed. It was actually the second straight time he did it, but I didn't make the call the first time because I was new, and unsure of myself. I kind of just let him be pissed and rant about the call, until he made it personal and told me to "open your eyes." It was at that point that I busted out the yellow card. He didn't made any more rants (or net violations) the rest of the match.

My next encounter with cards came in my first year coaching 17's, which is kind of the varsity of the club circuit (better, in my opinion, because that's where the kids get recruited). It was my fourth season coaching, and I felt like I had a lot to prove, with a bunch of small kids, some of whom were second string on their high school teams. In my second tournament, I had a seriously poor official in the playoffs. She had a ball come off of one of my blockers and land plainly on the other side. The line judge, a kid from a sitting team, called it out without being able to see through the defensive player and the two blockers. I wasn't going to yell at the kid certainly, but the official was literally looking at the floor where it happened and should have made the call. Like I said, my kids weren't that big, so getting a big block was a treat and I yelled up to the official asking how she could not override the call. I was pissed, and I felt like I was advocating for my kids. She yellow carded me. Later, after the opposing setter was catching the ball, double-hitting, just making a mess for a 17's tournament, I laid into the official again. One of my kids was actively trying to get me to chill out, but I persisted, and I got redcarded. I might have thought I was advocating for the kids, but I lost a little of their respect that day, not to mention that of the parents.

Which brings me to the US Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. By now you know what happened. The official gave Serena a warning for receiving coaching, which the coach admitted to but she denies. There's definitely a healthy debate to be had about the rule and how arbitrary its application may be, but that's not the place or time. Her second code violation came when she broke her racket after Osaka continued to put on the pressure. That meant giving Osaka a free point. Serena then started to lay into the official over the penalty caused by her throwing down her racket, which went on for awhile, until she called him a thief for "stealing" the point away from her. That's when she had her third code violation and gave Osaka a game. Osaka went on to win, but even without the penalties, she was beating Serena in most of the stats.

There has been a lot of anger over the whole affair, with accusations about sexism, double standards and the validity of the coaching rule. I think those are all valid discussions to have, and they're very important. But Serena still made a choice when she slammed down that racket. Even if we make the argument that someone else can get away with it, does that make it right? This is a professional athlete we're talking about. There is responsibility that comes with that, especially when you're arguably one of the best in history. I immediately thought back to the 2009 tournament against Kim Clijsters, where Serena threatened a line judge over a foot fault after slamming her racket down.

The stakes are higher when you're a professional, and one of the best. I let down my kids and parents, and I was just coaching a bunch of high school kids. Serena is an athlete at the highest level, representing women, moms and the United States. Slamming your racket when you're getting beat isn't OK, and debating the outcome of that by berating the official isn't OK either. The circumstances around rules and sexism matter, but it isn't right to simultaneously chastise others for bad behavior and use it as an excuse for someone else. It's like the right accusing the left of immoral behavior to justify their own in politics.

If someone plays sportsball, it's important to demonstrate sportsmanship, and be an example. The higher we go, the more of a responsibility that becomes.

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