Sports and Civility

I love this Theodore Roosevelt quote (although it needs to be extended today to women) …

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly . . . 

Robin Baker drives for two of his 21 points in leading Flagstaff High School to a 63-58 defeat of Canyon del Oro in the Eagles’ title-game victory in 1975.

I have never known a time when sports were not a part of my life. I grew up the son of hall of fame basketball coach (Doug Baker) in the state of Arizona. In high school, I played four sports, although I was best in basketball. I played guard on my father’s 1975 Flagstaff High School team that won the state high school championship, and as we used to say when people asked whom we had beaten, “everybody we played!” During my last three years of high school we were 67-9. There was certainly a sense of hubris that was a part of our program, and we enjoyed winning and hated losing. We particularly hated losing.

My father came from a different era. He mandated a lot of what he called old-fashioned values to the team. At the time we usually did not understand, but later in life they took on more meaning. There is one lesson I remember most. In 1975 there was one team we disliked more than all the others we played – Page High School. It was not that their community was terrible or that the players were particularly mean or rude. For some reason, in football, they liked to “run up the score” on teams that were poor. During one football game that year, Page defeated Monument Valley High School 102-0, and their starting fullback had scored the last touchdown of the game. Even though we had a great basketball team, my father had a policy that we “never embarrass” another team. The goal was always to maximize your team effort, but that you always treat the other team with respect and you honor their effort with dignity. So, he would never let us run up the score even though we knew we could.

We had the Page High School game circled on the calendar. We thought, given my dad’s commitments, that this was the one game where running up the score would be all right. After all, it should be perfectly fine to crush a team that makes it a practice of crushing others, right? That night, the game went as planned. There was a period of five minutes in the game where Page did not get the ball across half court against our press. At halftime the score was Flagstaff High School 64, Page 18. We came into the locker room in great spirits. We were already doubling the score, thinking “home team 128, visiting team 36.” We had a chance; we could beat them by 100 just like they had done to Monument Valley. Humiliation was our goal, and it was within our reach!

Coach Doug Baker

My dad came into the locker room and was calm. He told us what we had done right and talked about the second half. When we came out for the second half and the ball was inbounded, he let the starters stay in only until the first whistle. When the whistle blew, all five of us took a seat at the end of the bench. Our second- and third-stringers played the entire second half. We won the game by 30 points but did not even reach 100. Several of us were more than a little upset. I will never forget my father in the locker room after the game telling us, “I know we could have humiliated Page tonight, but that is not why we play. We always treat others with respect and dignity even if they do not treat others in a similar manner.”

At George Fox University, I love our students and our athletic teams. We have had one of the best women’s teams in the country since 2000, and our tradition is one of the finest. Since childhood I have never liked losing, and honestly, we have not experienced much of it in the women’s program in recent days. I have people say to me, “Don’t you like those hard-fought close games?!” The answer is no. I prefer a blowout any day.

This month I had an opportunity to travel with our basketball teams to away games. The games were competitive and fun. There was a key turning point in one of them: One of our key players fouled out. At that moment the crowd became very noticeable to the few visitors present. As Sean, our player, left the court, the famous mocking jeer “left, right, left, right” began to ring out as the student body of the home crowd mocked his walk to the bench. I have to admit that it was one of the most irritating things I have had to listen to. We were, of course, unhappy with the game situation, and losing your finest player in a key moment proved difficult. As he kept walking, the “left/right” kept ringing out. It was a weird moment in a very fine game. At the end of the game, I will not soon forget the home fans chanting, “Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah, Heyyyy-eyyy, Good Bye.” It rang in our ears for the last minute.

We are a sports culture and we love our games. Too often, the “group mind-set” that dominates during games leads us to engage in behavior that we would never consider as individuals. We are part of the NCAA Division III, an organization that is unique in its commitment to sportsmanship. In the handbook on sportsmanship it notes, “What does sportsmanship mean? 1.) Cheer FOR your team, not against the visitors. 2.) Don’t get personal in your comments about players, coaches or officials. 3.) No profanity, vulgarity, racist or sexist comments. Be Loud. Be Proud. Be Positive.” That seems to me to be good guidance for all of us.

The point of athletics is to teach young people to dare greatly, to learn hard work, to strive valiantly. In a real sense, no participant is a loser if they have offered all of their talents and gifts in service of the team and the goals of the team. As players we give our all and as fans we attend games to support our team and strengthen their effort. We have no interest in decreasing the effort of the visitors – we want them to strive greatly as well. Our community is served best when both teams reach their potential and develop skills that will enhance their communities. After all, in Division III, only one team “wins” it each year. Victory is in the striving. John Wooden said it this way: “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.”

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