Why Sportsmanship Programs Fail, and What We Can Do about It: We Need to Redefine People's Understanding of Competition, Which Should Be about Striving for Excellence

Article excerpt

"Nice guys finish last." This well-worn phrase crops up in sports as frequently as weeds in a garden. It reflects the deeply held belief of many athletes, coaches, fans, and sports media personnel. That it is unsupported by research may be irrelevant. In the sport world, it has truthiness, as comedian Stephen Colbert would say.

Most educational institutions and sport leagues have charters or mission statements that proclaim the value of ethics, affirm the building of positive character, and support core values. Many also have formal sportsmanship codes that coaches and athletes are charged to follow. There is no compelling evidence, however, that schools or leagues that have embraced positive-sounding missions and codes have any fewer problems with rule violations or poor sport behavior than those without them.

One reason why such well-intentioned efforts may have little long-term effect is because coaches and athletes typically put "sportsmanship" into the same mental basket as being nice, polite, gracious, and courteous. It is about being well-mannered. It is about "showing cordial courtesy to all visiting teams," as one line reads in the sportsmanship code of the North Atlantic Conference (NAC, n.d.) of the National Collegiate Athletics Association. The NAC goes on to define sportsmanship as including "showing civility toward competitors, coaches and officials" and "being a gracious competitor and accepting both wins and losses with dignity" (NAC).

When athletes are told to act like good sports, such exhortations often carry about the same weight as being told to say "please" and "thank you." Many wonder, "What does being polite have to do with crushing the opposition?"


Sportsmanship programs often crash against the hard rock of belief in the "nice guys finish last" aphorism. If you have to be bad to be good in sports, then being nice will never sit atop the priority mountain. To get ahead, you do not have to be a good sport. Instead, according to locker room mythology, you need killer instinct. Competition is a battle, not a dance, and you had better be ready for combat. Given this common belief system, is it any wonder that the "sportsmanship" trophy handed out at the season-ending banquet is viewed--at best--as a consolation prize?

If you think this is an exaggeration, you may be right. Most people who play or coach sports, or engage in other competitive activities, do not fully subscribe to the belief that bad triumphs over good in competition. And yet there is widespread belief that it is difficult to win without occasionally bending the rules, that talent and effort alone are insufficient, that there is an inherent tension between virtue and victory, and that everyone cheats a little. Even in these scaled-down forms, the "nice guys finish last" motif is sufficiently strong to make sportsmanship seem an "add-on" luxury.

Reclaiming Ethics: A Radical Approach

The concept of sportsmanship has a rich and nuanced tradition in philosophy. But in our experience, that body of knowledge is largely inaccessible to most coaches and players. To reclaim the central importance of ethics in competition, we need to get beyond preaching sportsmanship. While there will be individual competitors for whom the idea of sportsmanship remains important and viable, those same people are not usually the ones who flagrantly break the rules, denigrate officials, or accost opponents. Advocating sportsmanship to them is like preaching to the choir. For many others, sportsmanship merely places a thin veneer of polite civility over a process that they believe to be neither polite nor civil. Their ears are likely closed to sportsmanship appeals.

What is the alternative? If we are not satisfied with superficiality, as talk of sportsmanship tends to be, then we need to delve deeper. Dealing with the problems of competition by promoting sportsmanship is like putting manure on tree limbs to remedy poor soil. …