Sportsmanship: Staying in the Game

Sportsmanship: Staying in the Game

A snapshot from my childhood: I was probably 10 or 11 years old and I was bicycle riding to the comic book store with my big brother Joe. Joe bought me a special edition comic book; not the kind held together by a fold and two staples, this was a glossy full color graphic novel. The guy behind the counter was the quintessential comic book guy straight out of The Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop. I let him know that I was there for the special edition comic book, which was the sole motivation for the 15 mile trek across frenzied Long Island boulevards and along irregular sidewalks that were clearly not meant for bicycles. The comic book guy didn’t just sell us the dumb comic book; that would have been too easy. First, he asked us if we were “members.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Members of what? What kind of elitist comic-nerd club was he referring to? Where could I sign up? I confessed that we were not members. I thought he was going to throw us out. Instead, he informed us that this special edition treasure was only for members but if we really really wanted it, he was prepared to make an exception. I promised him that I really really wanted it and he graciously sold my brother the book for about eight bucks.

I carefully placed the straps of the plastic bag holding my special edition comic book through the handlebars of my bike. I felt that I had just been showered with divine blessing; I was cosmically complete! That is, until my front tire hit a bump. The plastic bag released its contents along the sidewalk of Northern Boulevard and my back tire ran right over some superhero’s face. The cover was mauled and to me, the whole thing was just ruined. I was furious. I picked up the mangled special edition and tore it in half. Let that be a lesson to you World! If you give me a present, don’t mess with it! I will accept nothing less!!

In that snapshot, I played out the role of a sore loser. I did not like the conditions of the game, so I quit. It is the same thing that drives toddlers to overturn board games and it’s the same thing that that red-faced kid in gym class was making such a big fuss about. “I don’t like the way this game is going so I will quit!”

Enter sportsmanship. In this sense, sportsmanship is the ability to recognize which game you are in and to man up (or woman up) to the struggle. No athlete has ever risen to greatness by calling foul. A great athlete will not let his or her vision of how the game “should be” interfere with his or her engagement in it. Perhaps I should have played more sports as a child. If I had, I might have responded differently on the sidewalk of Northern Boulevard.

I think the lesson of sportsmanship applies to every arena of life. We all encounter moments of injury, illness, insult, defeat, setback, let downs, frustrations, etc. etc. During these moments, do we call foul? Do we disengage by becoming pouty, self-righteous, indignant, passive-aggressive, violent, avoidant, or demonstrate some other favorite quitting behavior?

As a child I used to fantasize that an adult version of me would show up at trying moments to offer counsel and guidance. Fortunate for my mental health, that never happened! But if it did, if I could share the lesson of sportsmanship with the 10 year old Jonathan, the story might play out differently.

The front tire bumps, the bag slips, and the comic book is defaced. Crap! My comic book is ruined! I really really wanted that thing. I’m very upset.

That’s it. No platitude about silver lining necessary. This version of the story is different because in it, I ride home upset but still carrying the tire-stained gift. In this retelling, the imperfect special edition comic book would sit on my desk in my office where it would serve as a humble reminder of my brother’s generosity and the wisdom of sportsmanship.