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Growing DisrespectFaster, Higher,...

The Dying Art of Sportsmanship

Last year, on September 6, 1995, Cal Ripken, Jr., immortalized himself in the world of baseball by breaking Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. But to Ripken, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, that day was just another day at the ballpark--another day doing what he loves best: playing baseball. His reasoning for playing the game every day is simple: "All I ever wanted to do was be a ballplayer in this city. This is what I do, this is what I care about, this is what I train for."

For many, Ripken represents all that is good about sports today. He respects and honors the game of which he feels lucky to be a part. He also respects the fans. Ripken can usually be found on the field hours after a game is over signing autographs for fans. He feels it is the least he can do. Ripken displays a respect--for the game and the fans--too often lost in a world of multi-million-dollar, multi-incentive and multi-year contracts. "The only thing I've done during my whole career is try to conduct myself on the field and off the field like an Oriole should conduct himself," he says.

A Growing Trend of Disrespect

If Cal Ripken and his streak represent everything right in sports, then the scene in a Kentucky gymnasium early this year displayed everything gone wrong. On the afternoon of February 4, two referees were physically attacked by a coach and his players. One came away with a broken nose and fractured jaw after the refs called an end to a game that had gotten out of control.

The team, which was sponsored by the Kenton County Boys & Girls Club, consisted of players ranging in age from 12 to 14. The coach of the team received a technical foul and was ejected from the game for cursing at the refs. Shortly after, the brawl ensued when the coach rushed the referees and was joined by his players in knocking the refs to the ground and beating them with their fists, feet, basketballs and even metal chairs. Both of the refs required medical treatment at a nearby hospital and filed criminal complaints against the coach and several of the players. Sports Illustrated heralded the event as "This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us."

An article in The Cincinnati Enquirer shortly after the incident said that many involved in amateur sports, while shocked by this latest incident, were not entirely surprised. These people said it is only part of a growing trend and is the result of a number of things: "lack of respect for authority; violence on television, especially in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League; and coaches who use technical fouls as a device to incite their teams on to victory."

Every day across America we see similar incidents displaying the loss of sportsmanship and respect for authority and opponents. Refs are verbally and physically assaulted, parents are sometimes excessive in the way they push their kids to be the best, coaches demand perfection from their players and punish them when they give anything less.

Children learn by example. So what examples do they find when it comes to sports? Turn on any Sunday football game to discover how easy it is to read the lips of irate coaches screaming at the refs and players. Open up the newspaper and read about the latest NBA brawl. Then stop and think about why this incident involving a Boys & Girls Club team in Kentucky took place. It's not such a surprise.

Incidents like NBA star Dennis Rodman head-butting a ref after being ejected and the late New York Yankee manager Billy Martin kicking dirt on umpires when arguing a call make a bad impression on kids who are watching. This type of misconduct should be dealt with seriously to provide an example for amateur athletes.

Faster, Higher, Stronger

In two months, the world will watch as the torch is lit for the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. The Olympics are supposed to represent the best in sports from around the world--the highest level of achievement. The Games are a time for national pride. There is a sense of magic surrounding them.

Yet even the Olympics have been marred by unsportsmanlike conduct. Who can forget the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident that became the media focus of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer?

While Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair displayed the benefits of hard work and a good attitude when they won their competitions, Tonya and Nancy were still the talk of the Games.

According to the Olympic motto, "The important thing in the Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing is not conquering but fighting well." That is why we play sports--or at least why we're supposed to. That is what we need to remember ourselves and teach our children. Being the best hitter, running back, three-point shooter or goalie is not what it's all about. Sports are about calling forth the best that is in us and becoming the best players we can be. It is about respecting ourselves and respecting others--teammates, opponents, coaches, refs and spectators.

Chad Hobbs, director of the Covington, Kentucky, recreation department, said after the attack on the referees that people--players, coaches and spectators--need to remember what amateur sports are all about: "Competitiveness is part of amateur sports, but so is sportsmanship and learning how to socialize. There's no disgrace in losing, if you put forth the best effort you can."

When team loyalty in professional sports depends on who has the biggest checkbook, when yards rushing and points scored matter more than grade point averages in many schools, and when four-year-olds are already working toward the pro's, we need to remember for our children's sake that sports are supposed to be for fun and that sportsmanship and a good attitude are just as important as winning. In other words, we need more Cal Ripkens.--S.H.B.

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