Community Essay : Now Is the Time to Be a Good Sport : National Sportsmanship Day encourages administrators, coaches, student athletes, parents and fans to discuss fair play.

<i> Russ Gough, a professor of ethics at Pepperdine University, is a 1994 Sports Ethics Fellow with the University of Rhode Island's Institute for International Sport. The institute's "how-to" kit for Sportsmanship Day is available at (401) 792-2375. </i>

If the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan shows anything, it is that athletes who compete with a win-at-all-costs attitude may be skating on thin ice.

While enjoying the wintry grandeur of the Olympic games and pondering the questions around Tonya Harding’s participation, we can observe National Sportsmanship Day on Tuesday by helping student athletes keep competition in perspective.

Is winning everything? Does sportsmanship matter? Should athletes be role models? Is “sports ethics” a contradiction? Is an athlete’s or coach’s behavior necessarily “right” even though they do not violate rules?

Since 1991, more than 6,000 schools nationwide, elementary to university, have benefited from addressing these questions. According to Olympians Florence Griffith Joyner (running) and Tom McMillen (basketball), co-chairs of President Clinton’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, “Sports should teach us honesty, integrity and humility, as well as develop a sense of fair play and excellence.”


Excellence. The ancient Greeks used a very similar word, arete, to describe the original Olympic athletes. Arete not only meant excellence in skill but excellence in character. “Sportsmanship” is the modern term we use to describe playing fairly, respecting the opponent, being considerate in victory and defeat.

Sportsmanship should be cultivated in young people if they are to keep athletic competition in perspective. “Playing fairly” and “being a good winner/loser” are worthwhile ideals because they show us where numbers on scoreboards end and where life-enriching qualities of character begin. With these themes in mind, here are a few things we can do to promote the ideals of National Sportsmanship Day:

* Suggest to school and community sports leaders that a general code of conduct be developed to guide fans, student athletes and coaches at sporting events. The code should be visible: Consider printing it on game programs and gym posters or around playing fields.

* School administrators, teachers and community athletics organizers can remind student athletes, parents and fans through mottoes, meetings, posters and other means that winning is not everything and that losing does not make one “a loser.” Publicly praise teams that demonstrate sportsmanship in defeat.


* Encourage student athletes to be the same on or off the field. This doesn’t mean they can’t play to win, but it does mean they can’t let their competitive spirit get the best of them.

* Parents and teachers should encourage athletes to ask, “Is this action right or wrong?” just as much as they ask, “Is this action against the rules?” Tonya Harding did not break a law by failing to report the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, but she still did not do the “right” thing--contacting police immediately.

* If your school has a skillful coach with integrity and ethical character, give him or her your support no matter the team’s win/loss record. When it comes to the educational development of student athletes, winning percentages mean as little as the paper on which they are recorded.

* Develop year-round programs to help students prepare for the ethically confusing world of today’s sports. One example is the Student Athletes Future Empowerment (SAFE) program at First A.M.E. Church in L.A. SAFE conducts “preventive maintenance” seminars to help athletes prepare for the often unsportsmanlike business of college recruiting.


We must teach students that they are all role models. Just because they may never become famous athletes does not mean their words, actions and values do not influence others. The question is never, “Should I be a role model?” but is always, “What kind of role model should I be?”