16. What’s the point of sportsmanship?

Jose Bautista made news Wednesday. He clobbered a massive, 7th-inning home run that gave the Blue Jays the runs they would need to beat the Rangers and advance to the League Championship Series. The hit was totally clutch. When his team needed its star to play like a star, he delivered.

That’s not what made news though. What made news was his so-called “bat flip”. Rather than simply dropping his bat after crushing the home run, Bautista instead flipped it out of his hands in what amounts to a bit of showmanship. He basically celebrated his momentous hit before the etiquette of baseball suggests one should. While not one of the 50,000 people in the stadium had any question about whether Bautista had hit a home run, decorum suggests that Bautista’s immediate celebration amounts to grandstanding and “showing up” the pitcher. It’s questionable sportsmanship, at least that’s what baseball traditionalists would say.

It made me wonder about why sportsmanship is important at all. My immediate reaction was that it is, that sportsmanship is a critical part of sport. But I thought it would be fun to try to “prove” that premise. One attempt at a proof might go like this:

  • First, we assume that people play sports to win the competition. That is an athlete’s purpose when on the court, field or pitch. They should therefore do everything they can to win. Sportsmanship would only be important then if it helps people win. I think that’s probably a hard way to prove the importance of sportsmanship.

Let’s try another version of it.

  • This time we assume that people play sports to entertain their fans. Especially professional athletes. They should therefore do everything they can to create a compelling experience for spectators. Sportsmanship is then only important if it helps entertain fans. We can’t immediately rule this one out. Sportsmanship can be entertaining, in a Disney, feel good way. You watch to wrestlers hug at the end of a match, both completely exhausted from their battle. That’s entertaining. You watch Djokovic and Federer clasp hands at the end of a five setter. There’s entertainment value there. But there are plenty of instances where what most would consider poor sportsmanship is very entertaining. So we cannot really count this as a valid proof.

Ok. One more.

  • What if we assume the point of sports is to teach. Cheesy, yes. But the logic flows fairly smoothly from here. If the purpose of sport is to teach, then people playing sports should do whatever they can to make the experience instructive for themselves and for anyone watching. Sportsmanship is then important if it helps players make playing and watching sports a better teaching experience. I think we can probably buy into this one. At least I can.

Alas, it all boils down to what you think the purpose of sports is. That’s probably a debate for another time. But if you’re inclined to believe, like I am, that the teaching value of sport — of competing and watching how others compete — is at least part of its overall value proposition, then I think you can logically conclude that sportsmanship is important.

Note to reader: This is day 16 of 92 in my commitment to write for 30 minutes each day from October 1 through the end of 2015.