At a school like Ridgeview, we do not often have the opportunity to talk about sports, which is a shame all its own. As a consequence, we too often neglect the topic of sportsmanship. There are a great many things that playing sports can teach us that books cannot. We can study philosophy and commit a list of character pillars to memory, but they are things of theory and words. This is not to say that they are nothing, but to say that they are not enough. War, it is said, reveals what lays beneath – it exposes valor or cowardice and sifts the magnanimous from the lesser souled. War demands a heavy price for its revelations, and so it may seem slighting to compare the lessons of the battlefield with those of the sporting field, but such is the ultimate heritage of our sports. Like war, it matters not only what one is fighting for, but the manner in which one fights. The Italians, for instance, no doubt won their campaign in present-day Ethiopia in 1935-36, but they did so partly by using chemical warfare against defenseless civilians. Not a particularly glorious victory.
A team can win and be less for having won by virtue of the manner of their play. There are two general concerns with the lessons sports teach. The first one pertains to how players are frequently coached to victory and the lessons I fear they draw from this. To see parents or coaches more committed to the outcome of youth sporting events than their participant children, hurling insults and vulgarities, hounding and barking at children, demeaning and embarrassing them in front of others, is a shame, but unfortunately one made more shameful by its frequency and the little regard paid to it. More instructive in terms of the character lessons that can be learned, however, are the relatively few instances of sportsmanship on the field. The case of Paolo di Canio playing for West Ham United in 2000 is instructive. Di Canio was a controversial and volatile figure. He was a vastly imperfect man, but when presented with a very clear opportunity to kick the ball into an empty net, di Canio caught the ball out of the air stopping play with the match tied 1-1. Why? The goalie was injured and lying prone on the field. Di Canio’s logic was as follows: “I saw the goalkeeper was on the ground and in pain. During the game, the opposition is my enemy. But, when they are injured, they are my colleagues, and I must help them.” Those who are curious should watch the video.
When a player is hurt, and the one who has done the harm, instead of behaving like di Canio, struts and gloats, the noblest aspects of a sporting ethic are shown to have taught him nothing, the character education he is supposedly in receipt of has touched him not at all, and his breeding and true character are reflected in that moment for all to see and know. I hope that Ridgeview athletes know that much more is expected of them than simply winning, and that when they take to the field, they treat their competitors better than that. Di Canio had the opportunity to win the match, and his conduct up to that moment was hardly honorable, but this lone act brought him to the attention of the world. The message for our student athletes is to play hard but to live with an eye to greatness. A sporting victory is a pleasurable but fleeting thing. A genuine moment of glory will permanently bind itself and add luster to a reputation.