By Jennifer Richardson
With almost breathless anticipation, the student-sports world received word recently that many sports will resume after a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Special protocols will govern the practicing and playing, social distancing and safety measures will be required, and numbers of spectators will be significantly reduced–but we are back in business. For those of us who enjoy athletics, the unison sigh of pent-up relief is audible across the state.
During this unique moment in our shared history, let me encourage you to brush up on more than the admirable goal of protecting our collective health. While under these limiting and complex procedures, those of us fortunate enough to resume the role of spectator should know we are not the only ones watching.
I am a fan. I appreciate several sports, but basketball is my hands down favorite. All ages of players are great to watch, but high school is the most fun for me. The whole experience is cool. Getting a preview of the performance during the warm ups, the spectators being so close to the action on the court, the thrill of an entire crowd rising to their feet in support of their players, the crushing sound of a gym full of school spirit as fans cheer their team to victory; the pre-COVID memories are exciting.
I also remember the first time I saw a spectator become belligerent with an official. The gentleman was unhappy with the way a referee handled an important moment in the game, and he was vocal about it.
He soon lost his temper and his conduct attracted the attention of administrators who asked him to calm down. He refused, and was eventually invited to leave the gym, which he did, but not before adding some expletives to the exchange.
I was young, and I was very startled that a grown person would behave in that manner. Fast forward a few decades and disrespectful spectator behavior has become so common that no one is surprised by it anymore.
I have had the privilege of watching many hours of school-based sports in the last few decades, and I have observed the decline of sportsmanship and fan behavior with some sadness.
To be sure there are many bright spots. I have seen entire football teams take a knee out of respect for an injured player, and opposing players help each other back up after a fall. And I appreciate the coaches who shake hands with the opposing coaches after a tough loss. It is always refreshing to see athletics handled with the class and dignity it deserves.
But we also see too many examples on the other side of the spectrum; screaming at the officials, yelling profanity or rudeness, and disrespectful behavior toward coaches, players, and fans. I have even seen a spectator try to start a fight with a member of the other team.
We use the phrase student-athlete because the participants are students first. Keeping this in perspective helps fans to respect the idea that sports programs exist to give students opportunities. When we truly comprehend this, we as spectators do not detract from these opportunities by making the contest about us and our opinions.
We want our athletes to be gracious whether they win or lose because life is all about how you handle what comes to you.
We promote sportsmanship and respectful behavior because we want the players to understand the fellowship and mutual respect between all players who give their best to an endeavor, no matter the colors they wear.
We ask our athletes to play fair and accept authority, and we want them to demonstrate enough courage and resilience to get back up and play hard even when they disagree. In a couple of words, we ask our athletes to exhibit self-control for the good of the team. How can we ask this of them if we do not ask it of ourselves as we watch their efforts?
We can feel the intensity, the excitement, and enjoy the good old fashioned rivalries, and still project a genuine respect for the sport by demonstrating behavior that models what we ask of the athletes.
Great athletes who also demonstrate great sportsmanship did not learn how to conduct themselves from reading rulebooks. They were taught the values and virtues that make sports great by the example of others. When we are spectators we are not just there to root for a win and catch the final score. The minute we walk through the doors we become a living example for someone to follow. I can confidently say, many young eyes are watching the watchers.
In the words of the great Knute Rockne, One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it.
Whether you are lucky enough to receive a coveted spectator seat during this complicated re-entry to athletics, or you simply enjoy the miraculous technology of live-streaming– be a fan, cheer on your team, and enjoy the excitement of the return of sports. But also remember the ideals behind the love of the game, and that someone is always learning from what we say and do.