Innocently enough, the NCAA agreed to partner with the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) for a national sportsmanship initiative called “RESPECT Weekend” to kickoff the college football season. The premise for RESPECT Weekend is for all of the players on each team to meet prior to the game and shake hands to demonstrate sportsmanship. While it is a requirement that head coaches do this before each game, participation in Respect Weekend was strongly encouraged, but not mandatory.
Presumably, the NCAA and the AFCA felt this could help prevent players from fighting similar to the infamous South Carolina vs Clemson brawl in 2004
In some meeting during the summer, RESPECT Weekend probably seemed like an excellent idea. Who would be against promoting sportsmanship and is shaking hands not an great way to display this? Two problems however: What exactly is sportsmanship and how is it properly demonstrated?
Sportsmanship is the actions taken by coaches and athletes that are the unwritten rules behind the rules of a sport. Its not showing up your opponent, but allowing for a graceful defeat. Sportsmanship is choosing to not run up the score when the game has been won despite what the game clock says. Sportsmanship is not shooting a three point shot in basketball with less than 10 seconds left and up by double digits or only calling running plays in football once the game has become out of reach for the opponent. Sportsmanship is not shaking hands before a game.
Looking at this idea from a pure football perspective, it is doubtful RESPECT Weekend was conjured up by someone who once played the sport. Its acceptance by all parties is assuredly the result of no one finding a strong defensible reason not to do it. There is a mental preparation that nearly all athletes go through leading up the game or event. Unlike golf, baseball or even basketball to a degree, football players are preparing themselves to do battle. To physically outmatch their opponent, to knock them to the ground if possible every play. It is irresponsible to have more than 100 men in this mental state all meet at mid field and come eye to eye with their opponent. You cannot predict the mental strength of all involved and should not bet on the emotional control of these young men.
An obvious counter to this argument is the sport of boxing. While it is true boxers “touch gloves” before the beginning of each bout, like football coaches, it is purely ceremonial. Boxers are well past thinking about sportsmanship at this point. The boxer has already personally decided whether he will allow himself to commit the acts of a low blow or punching after the bell well before the touching of gloves and you will not know what their decision was until after the match is underway. On June 28, 1997, Mike Tyson touched gloves with Evander Holyfield to start the fight and in the third round Tyson bit a piece of Holyfield’s right ear off. This is all to prove sportsmanship is developed during an individuals lifetime and demonstrated by testing of their will through the fire of conflict and opportunity, not through a ceremony.
LeGarrette Blount was the University of Oregon 2009 starting tailback. The Senior’s stats for the year will remain eight carries for -5 yards. Frustration following defeat at the hand of Boise State and the vebal taunting by Byron Hout lead Blount to drop Hout with one swift punch to the chin. It was shocking, indefensible and the act that will be forever linked to the first day of RESPECT Weekend. Both players disgraced themselves and their teams, but for Blount, he will never play college football again. Sportsmanship matters. Oklahoma State’s coach Mike Gundy has already declared his team will not shake hands with Georgia today stating:
“Our first concern was [we’ll] have 115 guys out there and they’ll have 70, it just takes one guy to pop off,” Gundy said Monday at his weekly media luncheon. “Then I don’t know how you’re going to break it up. How do you control something like that?”
There will always be a Tyson or a Blount that can send an event into disarray. The AFCA and the NCAA should focus on strongly encouraging its coaches to be the torchbearers of sportsmanship. Eliminate dirty play and penalize teams for running up scores. The latter though will always remain when a championship is decided through sportswriter and coach voting or the BCS system. If the NCAA really cared about sportsmanship in football it would create a playoff system to decide its champion. Otherwise you will always have coaches pushing the limits of acceptability like Oklahoma’s embarrassment of Texas A&M in 2003. That day the Sooners won 77-0 and all that was proved was that Bob Stoops will never have the discipline to be Joe Paterno. Paterno has twice had an undefeated team in a major conference that did not win the National Championship. Many argue it was due to the fact that Paterno refuses to run up a score when a game is officially out of reach. Paterno proves true sportsmanship and his legacy as a man trumps everything else. The NCAA does not need to invent acts of sportsmanship to improve the game. It merely needs to take a look at how the winningest coach in Division I football has defined his career. Winners do not happen by accident.