There is a delicate balancing act between integrity and success when it comes to sports fans and their desire to align themselves with a sports winner. On the conservative side of the argument, it appears that some fans will tolerate very little from coaches/programs that lie, cheat, and break every rule of integrity in their quest to become a winner. In these instances, the fan base believes that winning should come a distant second to “doing it the right way,” implying that playing by the rules is paramount to a credible sports program. On the other side of this argument is the “win-at-all-costs” type of fan who could care less about playing by the rules as long as the team wins. Rules, ethics, and sportsmanship are merely words to these fans, as the only thing that is really important is winning.
The reality is most people actually fall in between these two polar opposites – meaning most fans would like to win and play by the rules, but if the rules need to be tweaked a little (or conveniently overlooked) it’s still OK if the team is winning. In some cases, sports fans feel the need to align themselves with a winner so much so that they will put on convenient blinders when their team/program gets in trouble. The most recent example of this behavior is at Arkansas where Head Football Coach Bobby Petrino is catching fire for his less-than-professional behavior involving an extramarital affair with a 25 year old office staffer. Conservative fans have already called for his resignation, while “win-at-all-cost” fans have minimized the incident as Petrino has proven to be a pretty good football coach on the field. In fact, there have already been rally’s in Arkansas to save Petrino’s job!
The big question I have is why is there such an incredible desire by some sports fans to be a part of a winning program, so much so that many will completely overlook, disregard, challenge facts, or even fool themselves into thinking “nothing happened” when many of these stories break? The urge is so strong to be aligned with a winner that these fans will not only tolerate, but even accept behaviors from their coach and athletic program that they would never tolerate or accept from a family member, friend, or employer. But when it comes to sports, we commonly hear things like “It was no big deal,” or “Look at what other programs do.” In some cases these fans even justify the crimes in their mind, pointing to the unjust system as the reason why it’s OK to break rules.
From a sport psychology vantage point, it makes perfect sense that we as people strive to be the best, and aligning ourselves with people and programs that exemplify excellence also makes sense. The problem, however, is when this urge to be the best contaminates our objective, logical, and fair thinking — sometimes so much that we lose our own sense of what’s right and wrong in our efforts to defend “the winner.” For example, take any one of the NCAA problems that have surfaced over just the past year alone. If you were a fan of one of these schools, there is a good chance you minimized (or even outright dismissed) the “crimes” that were reported. But how would you have reacted if the same thing happened at another school? Or how would you have reacted if the same crimes occurred at your rival school? Would you have reacted the same way? Honestly? Do you think the Arkansas fan base supporting Coach Petrino right now would think the same, no-problem-here way if these same circumstances happened at another rival SEC school? I don’t think so, and neither do you.
My point here is to not to push a high and mighty position of moral authority, but to challenge sports fans to think about the relationship they have between winning and doing it the right way. Where do you draw the line? If you happen to be from the “who cares” so long as we win camp, is this the same set of values you would want your kids to espouse? And if you are from the “win the right way” camp, have you set your standards so high that they are impossible to live by?
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