“After I hit a home run I ran the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases.”
New York Yankees great and Hall of Fame member Mickey Mantle
I recently wrote a column about the new Major League Baseball ad promoting the message “let the kids play,” with pointed concerns relating to the risk of throwing 100+ years of gamesmanship out the window in exchange for cheap bat flips, stare downs, and chest thumps (supposedly what kids want to do these days). Mickey Mantle’s quote above is the antithesis of the current MLB mantra, and instead prompts us to think about gamesmanship, respect for your opponent, and playing the game the right way. Times change, of course, but should the general idea of sportsmanship hang in the balance with today’s new generation of athletes?
Do we need more chest thumps, or humility?
Baseball is not the only sport pushing a new way of playing the game, as the NFL has dramatically loosened their reins as well over the years. Watch an old NFL game and you will see plenty of big hits and great plays, but rarely any on-field celebrations or self adulation. In fact, NFL players used to behave a lot like Mickey Mantle — make a big hit, dust off, and prepare for the next play. Today, however, it seems like even the last guys who jump in the tackle take time after the play to thump their chests and call attention to themselves. Is this what fans want? Is this what we want our kids to model?
Critics will argue that the increase in on-field enthusiasm and showboating not only helps drive fan excitement, but also keeps the players on the field pumped up. Acknowledging that argument, it should also be noted that countless great football players of the past seemed to play at a high level without all the histrionics — and fans still packed stadiums, too. In fact, arguably the greatest running back to play in the NFL, Barry Sanders, was known for simply handing the football off to a referee after scoring a touchdown — he famously said “act like you’ve been there before.” Very classy, Barry.
Taunting, intimidation, and respecting the opponent
There is a fine line in sports when it comes to getting a competitive, “mental” advantage. There are also trade-offs when it comes to how an athlete conducts him- or herself on the field. For example, while taunting might seem, on the surface, to be a good intimidation technique, taunting can also lead to unsportsmanlike penalties, ejections, and even a disruption in the athlete’s rhythm as he or she tries to remain focused while letting all their emotions show. When I think about Mickey Mantle running the bases with his head down after hitting one of his 536 career home runs, I don’t get the feeling pitchers were less afraid of facing him because he showed them respect. It seems that solid, hard working players who play the game the right way command respect simply from their commitment to the game, not because they are the loudest, most showy players on the field.
While it’s understandable that sports leagues like the NFL and MLB want to do everything they can to keep a big audience, I’m not sure encouraging taunting and showboating are the best way to go — especially when those same actions often lead to a deterioration of healthy sportsmanship. Showing up an opponent doesn’t make you a better athlete, nor does it improve your chances for a college scholarship or professional sports opportunity. Respecting your opponent, on the other hand, does bring out the best in healthy competition and serves as great role modeling for kids.