Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sherman Identity: Why Sportsmanship Matters

As a father, it's my job to set an example for my kids on how to behave. I take that responsibility seriously. But I am not the only example they have. We watch TV in our home. We listen to music. And yes, we watch sports. I have already begun to indoctrinate my kids into liking my teams (no thanks to other family members who have brought the White Sox in though). When we watch games, be they baseball, football or the Olympics, I talk with them about the rules, and how the participants are observing them. Why it's important to play by the rules, and the sportsmanship involved in each game.

We do the same thing in youth sports, try to balance sportsmanship with winning. We teach our children to win graciously, shaking hands with the opposing team on the t-ball field, congratulating the winning players when we lose and paying our respect to the losing team when we come out on top. Everyone wants to win, but sport translates to real-life, and taking every win and loss as an opportunity to better ourselves is an integral part of adulthood, and teaching that attitude is a big focus of every parents job.

And so, I wish people would stop defending Richard Sherman's actions at the end of this Sunday's game. He said after the fact "don't judge a person's character by what they do between the lines," but that is where he has an impact on the largest number of people. That is where it matters the most. He then says not to talk trash about him as a player because he's the best on the field. Well, actions speak louder than words, and his actions (and to be fair, many pro athletes, lest you think I am ganging up on one man without recognizing a larger trend in sports) to end the game spoke volumes. It spoke about where his values lie, the respect he has for other people, the type of man he is in the moment, when it counts.

I was left to explain to my kids what his actions meant, and to teach them another lesson about sportsmanship, and basic decency. The sporting world has been full of players who earn your respect and admiration and those that don't. Some players are great on the field, but do and say all the wrong things off. Others have moderate talent, but are great people when it comes to their community, teammates, opponents, family. Sports through history has had both type of player, but the best, the ones that I want my kids to see are the ones who win both categories. Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Drew Brees, Pat Tillman, LaDainian Tomlinson, Mariano Rivera, Ernie Banks, Phil Mickelson, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays. Men who show how to do both, and men I want to see more of on TV on Sunday. I'll take them over a selfish, classless, showboating, talented clown like Sherman.

It might be cliche', but there really is something to acting like you've been there before. I teach it to my kids, but not everyone will do the same. And that, is why I cringe at the scene played out in the zero-hour of the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Show respect for the institution that has made you a household name. Show respect for the other men who are playing at the level you are. Show respect for yourself in the moment, so you don't have to defend yourself and rely on others to do the same for you after the fact.

This is not to say that there is no room for trash-talking in sports. I love a player who trash-talks, and this is part of what we teach kids in youth sports as well. Defensive Ends should talk across the line of scrimmage before a snap. Catchers should take jabs at an opposing batter's mother when he stands at the plate. This is a part of the game, and a well landed verbal punch is every bit as satisfying as it sounds. But, when it is time to play the game, shut your mouth and play the game.

On Sunday night, Sherman knew they won the game. Crabtree knew they had lost. Everything leading up to the game was fair play, and every dance and celebration Sherman wanted to do after was well earned. When a player crosses the line to taunting in victory with a derisive "good game" followed by innocently looking to the refs for a penalty when the opponent responds in turn is when it crosses the line. It is not just adrenaline coming through, as Sherman would have you believe, but a glimpse into his character.

I'm not asking Sherman to be saintly and hand the ball off to the ref immediately after locking down a trip to the Super Bowl, I don't think even Walter Payton could have been that reserved, but I do want to see more class in victory. But for a few inches, the game could have gone the other way. As always, we need to remember that you won't win every game. You won't win every situation in life. When you are fortunate enough to win, be humble in your victory, because one day you will lose, and when you do, that humility will go a long way.

Like it or not, professional athletes are role models for kids across the nation, and we do a disservice to all those kids when we brush off Sherman's antics in their victory. Ask my daughter who her favorite athlete is, and she'll proudly say it is former Notre Dame and current Oklahoma City Thunder WNBA star, Skylar Diggins. Do I have a problem with it? Not at all, because she has shown great character in everything she has done on the court and off. And that is what I want my kids to take from sports.

So, Mr. Sherman, take some notes. It's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you.

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