Sportsmanship and Dancing

In October 2008, Naples High School in Florida defeated a rival 91-0 in an American football game. In case you’re unsure, that’s a lot of points to score in a game and it’s indicative of an extremely lopsided competition. Two years earlier, in a high school girl’s basketball game, Epiphanny Prince scored 113 points by herself (in a 137-32 victory). A 2009 high school girl’s basketball game ended 100-0.

These and similar incidents sparked a lot of debate in the US (fueled mainly by ESPN’s need to have sports “news” 24/7) around “running up the score.” There was outrage that Naples High didn’t do more to curb the drubbing, despite having removed most or all of their starters early in the first quarter. The 100-0 game led to a coach getting fired. The winning coach, that is. He was dismissed for refusing to apologize for such an on-court beatdown despite having been ordered to apologize by his employer.

Cut to April 29, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. Jose Ramon Sandoval, manager of Rayo Vallecano, is speaking at a press conference after his side’s 0-7 home loss to FC Barcelona. He is speaking about Thiago Alcantara and Dani Alves, two Barça players who danced together in celebration after Thiago scored off a Dani Alves cross to make the score 0-5, “In your own house, they whip it out and piss on your face.”

Really? Epiphanny Prince was made to feel bad for accomplishing something no one had ever accomplished before. She was told she was unsportsmanlike for breaking a record. She was so much better than everyone else that she should have felt ashamed of herself for showing it. I’m going to assume, from her performances since then, that she did not take that feeling to heart, but was able to brush it aside. Good. She should have.

“Why didn’t they dance when Torres scored in the Camp Nou?” Sandoval intoned, patheticness dripping from his every pore. Maybe, Jose Ramon, for the same reason that Torres didn’t celebrate his—oh, wait, he did celebrate it. And no one said a damned thing because, well, no one should have said anything. It was something to celebrate, as was Thiago’s goal: two friends, two (mostly) countrymen, putting together a nice move, finishing it off, and going to celebrate. Did I mention that they’re professional athletes who are paid to score as many goals as possible? Did I mention that they danced amongst themselves, didn’t flash obscene gestures at anyone, and were happily celebrating? Not even one of those inflammatory celebrations like Ibra or Mario Balotelli do, but rather a grin-faced romp for a few seconds with some teammates.

But the point is that they did it with a 5 goal margin, isn’t it? That they were rubbing Rayo’s face in it. Except, what’s the difference between dancing when you’re up 1 and dancing when you’re up 5? Are you really rubbing someone’s face in it when you’re simply superior? Should Thiago and Alves have apologized instead of celebrated? Should they have said “Oh, we’re sorry, we won’t do it again”? No, of course not. At 0-1 it’s okay to celebrate, to dance, to make merry by the corner flag. But at 0-5 it’s not? Should FCB have passed the ball around the back for an hour after it was 0-3? Would that have been more sportsmanlike?

Rob McGill, a coach whose Christian Heritage team defeated West Ridge Academy 108-3 in 2011, has it right: “It was very insulting when teams slowed the ball down and just passed it around. That’s why I’d rather have a team play me straight up, and that’s why I played them straight up. Because I didn’t want to taunt them, I didn’t want to embarrass them, I didn’t want them to think we could do whatever we want.” The piece I pulled that from opines immediately after the quote: “McGill clearly believes this ideology given that some of Christian Heritage’s other recent victories have been by margins of 61, 56, and 54.” Playing better basketball than other teams is, of course, the whole point of, you know, playing basketball. That goes for all sports. If a team wins 108-3, it should probably never play that opponent again and one of the two should also attempt to find a league that is more appropriate for them to play in. But that is not because it was wrong to score 108 points on a team that could only muster 3. It is because continuing to play against such weak (or difficult) opposition is good for no one.

People are embarrassed by scorelines that aren’t in their favor because they have pride. That’s understandable. It was embarrassing for cules to lose 4-0 in the Champions League final to AC Milan, but Milan celebrated their 3rd and 4th goals with as much vigor as their 1st and 2nd. It was embarrassing for me to lose in a recent co-ed indoor league 18-5. Should the other team have refused to score? Refused to congratulate each other on their achievements? Absolutely not.

There is a difference, certainly, between purposefully showboating, purposefully embarrassing your opponent when they’re already down, and scoring because you can. There’s a difference between a layup and passing the ball off the backboard for a monster dunk by the trailing player. There’s a difference between finishing a move and nutmegging as many opponents as possible on your way to goal. Doing those things to a beaten opponent makes you a dick. But even so, it’s not wrong, it’s just, if you don’t want to be a dick, don’t do it. Going back to my co-ed league, it was 17-5 with 30 seconds left to play. The ball ricocheted off a player and bounced to one of their forwards, who was hanging out up front with our last defender. He controlled the ball, rainbowed our defender, and scored.

That makes him a dick. Next time we play them, that guy will get “accidentally” kicked in the knee a couple of times. So it goes. 18-5 is fine. If they could have scored 30, they should have scored 30. If they could have scored 30 goals doing rainbows and other fancy tricks to make us look dumb, they should have felt free. Yes, they would have been clobbered a couple of times in the attempt, but that’s our pride talking. I’d gladly rainbow that guy and make him look like an ass, if I could.

I refuse to accept the idea of “running up the score” in professional sports. I refuse to accept the idea that goals shouldn’t celebrated in happy manners. End zone celebrations in the NFL are awesome. Running to a corner flag and dancing with your teammates is fun. Not that I know firsthand, of course, because I’m never allowed in the dancing circles, but it looks fun. I also refuse to accept that there is an obligation to make your opponents feel anything at all. There are leagues where running up the score is not allowed (my hometown’s adult league allowed you to score 2 goals and then you couldn’t cross midfield) and there are leagues that are purely for kickarounds. But those rules are understood and if you sign up to play in a competitive league whose goal is for each team to try and win, how can you complain if someone is excited that they just accomplished that?

If feeling good about yourself is what drives a lot of players to do better–and that seems like the case a lot of the time–it only makes sense to also realize that not scoring, not doing your job, is going to make you worse the next time out. If Thiago doesn’t celebrate that goal, if he just shrugs and jogs back to his own half, and then Rayo scores 5 and ties it up, who gets the sharpened end of a hot poker for a pacifier from the fans? Thiago, that’s who. As unlikely as that is, weirder things have happened and you wouldn’t like it if it did.

Sportsmanship is not failing to celebrate. It’s treating your opponents like human beings you are competing with. Like Coach McGill said, when you start to pity people is when you start to be unsportsmanlike. Naples High wasn’t wrong. Christian Heritage wasn’t wrong. Epiphanny Prince wasn’t wrong. American Somoa probably still feels like crap from that 31-0 loss to Australia, but I kind of hope that Archie Thompson celebrated his 13th goal as heartily as he did his 1st. And I hope Thiago does a fancy shimmy next time he finds the net.