In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Germany's Luz Long, one of the world's best broad jumpers, was looking forward to competing against the great U.S. track and field star, Jesse Owens, the world-record holder.
Owens, however, foot-faulted on his first two qualifying jumps and, down to one last chance to qualify, was in danger of missing the competition.
Seeing Owens pacing in agitation, Long suggested that Owens make a mark several inches before the takeoff board to avoid fouling again. It worked, Owens qualified by a centimeter, then kept right on going, beating out Long for the gold medal.
This story illustrates the most noble dimension of a concept called sportsmanship, which some argue is a relic of a time gone by.
Inherent in the idea of sportsmanship is the love of competition. As John Naber, the multiple gold-medal Olympic swimmer, says, "A true sportsman wants to compete against his best opponent on his best day." Without that, winning just doesn't mean as much.
Yet, could you imagine a modern American athlete doing what Long did? And if he did, would he be viewed as a hero or a jerk? If he were your son, would you be proud or appalled?
These are proper questions to ponder today, "National Sportsmanship Day," a day set aside to think about and celebrate the intrinsic value of sports as a source of inspiration and example of character.
When the admirable qualities of honor, fair play and respect are reflected in sports, we are uplifted and inspired. Conversely, when sports programs showcase the barbaric qualities of bullies and braggarts and are pervaded by cheating, our society is demeaned.
According to the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance, a collaboration of major professional and amateur sports organizations, there is "a worrisome decline in sportsmanship and ethical conduct in sports, a deterioration that permeates sports competition from the youth leagues to the professional leagues."
When we consider the shocking conduct of parents and other adults involved in youth sports, it's clear that this breakdown "extends beyond the courts and fields--it involves athletes, their families, coaches, officials, fans, institutional administrators, corporate sponsors, the media and the public at large."
Surely, the growing incivility of society is a factor, but most people recognize that sports can be a cause and effect in the decline of sportsmanship.
Much of the problem stems from confusion as to what is "part of the game." The trend is to ignore rules and traditions of a sport in favor of anything that provides an advantage. Without thinking of the implications, many good people have bought into gamesmanship, the antithesis of sportsmanship.
Sportsmanship is about the honorable pursuit of victory. Gamesmanship is just about victory, and winning by fooling the referee is just as good as winning by outperforming a competitor.
As some would say, "It's only cheating if you get caught."
In fact, that's exactly what U.S. women's soccer goalie Briana Scurry said two years ago when her team won the World Cup after she had blocked a penalty kick by deliberately jumping off the line too early. As she'd hoped, the ref didn't make the call.
Getting away with whatever you can is a crucial tenet of gamesmanship. So it's OK to fake fouls to disqualify opponents, or injuries to get another timeout. In college football, coaches once bought gloves the color of opponents' uniforms to conceal holding, until the NCAA banned the practice. Many coaches encourage athletes to get away with as much grabbing, pulling and holding as they can. I've had lots of sessions with elite athletes and their high school counterparts and it's almost impossible to find something they wouldn't do if they thought it would work.
Last year, I was questioning a highly respected WNBA player about cheating before a large audience. She told of a time a teammate had been fouled but, because the ref wasn't very vigilant, she had gone to the free-throw line instead.
"Was that cheating?" she asked. She was thunderstruck when the audience overwhelmingly said it was.
"Every coach I ever had taught me to do that," she said. After thinking about it, she agreed it had been cheating and apologized. In sports, a lot of good people are doing bad things because they don't know any better.
But how can we tell what is really part of the game, what is a fair versus an unfair advantage?
It's easy. Just look at the rules that define the game and determine what skills the game was created to emphasize. Some favor brute strength, others speed or quickness, others stress accuracy or endurance.
In considering any unquestionable tactic, all you have to do is ask whether it demonstrates a skill the game was designed to measure. Isn't it clear that if the groundskeeper is one of your most valuable players, this isn't pure sport anymore?