There's a Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Empty House, which was made into a film by Granada, and starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. Brett is the only Holmes, of that I will ever be sure. In the story, the honourable Ronald Adair is shot by an expanding revolver bullet, and since the authorities do not know by whom or even how it was done, they have an inquest. The questioner at the inquest is examining a witness who knew Adair through school, etc. The questioner at one point asks whether Adair was, "A good sportsman, in fact?" And the witness answers, "Absolutely first-class sportsman. Straight as an arrow." That question and answer got me thinking: America loves sports, but do we really know what sports are all about, and do we know what sportsmanship is all about? I do not think we do.
As a further preface, I should like to quote C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, in Book 3, Chapter 5, where he says, "If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither." Emphasis added.
Why would Lewis put spoiling sport right up there with hatred? I would claim he does that because most instances of spoiling sport are simply thinly veneered examples of pride, which is most certainly the chief of all the sins.
So let us study this concept of sportsmanship and spoiling sport, and see if we can learn anything.
Dictionaries will only go so far here, but they are a start. Here is Miriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition:
sportsmanship n (1745) : conduct (as fairness, respect for one's opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport
So there we see several ideas involved with this concept. I think skill in whatever sport you are playing is also an element of the definition, but I should like to concentrate on the moral aspects. What does sportsmanship look like in practice?
Before the sport: respect for your opponent means practicing the skill yourself. You want to be a worthy opponent. As an example: I like chess. Gary Kasparov is one of the greatest players on the planet. At this point, I do not think it would be good sportsmanship to ask to play him. Why? Because it would be very difficult not to insult his abilities. To say that my poor skills are a match for his is chutzpah on quite a grand scale. Being a worthy opponent, while not impossible in the Kasparov example, is surely much easier when the skill levels are more even. So while I wouldn't say never play someone immensely better than you, be careful!
Contemplating playing the sport: consider it the greatest privilege to play someone better than you. That is where learning happens. Decide to play the best you can; doing any less is demeaning to your opponent. What if someone really good were to play you and let you win? Would you feel as though you had really accomplished something? Also involved is the idea of competitiveness. I say that it greatly depends on your reasons for competitiveness, as to whether it's a good thing or not. If you're just "into the game," then you're being a good sport. The goal is to win; let's have none of this modern nonsense of "making everyone feel good." Properly done, good sportsmanship knows how to handle losing. More on that later. If you're in it not so much to win as to make the other people lose, or not do as well as you, then you are committing the greatest sin of them all: pride.
Playing the sport: always have concern for the opponent's dignity. Play hard! And then help your opponent up if he falls. In Tae Kwan Do, this is more or less standard practice in sparring. At least, it should be. Fairness is important. I don't think any country has quite as well-developed a sense of fair play as do the English. It might be very well to study Marquis of Queensbury rules, for example, and other such examples of British fair play. I believe it was said of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that his sense of fair play was enough for him to be a referee in a boxing match, even though he never boxed.
What about winning and losing? A good winner is one who acknowledges the worthiness of his opponent. It is not what you see most of the time on TV, when a football player is asked to comment on the game after his team won: "Uuuuuh, wuuuhlll, we just, uhhh, played the best we could, and uuuuhhhh, everything came togethuuhh." That's like someone summarizing the War of Northern Aggression (as I prefer to call it) by saying that, "Problems arose." Good winners do not lord it over the loser, and parade around their accomplishments. It seems to me that usually, the winner is the first to extend the hand for the handshake. The loser should not hold it in anger that he lost, or bear a grudge against the winner. He should acknowledge the defeat. In sparring, there's one fellow named Calvin, who is not only the most accomplished martial artist I've ever seen, but is an impeccable sportsman. His ability to spar, even, allows him time to acknowledge any hits he receives by a quick pat on the hit area in real time. I wish I could do that. Alas, not yet.
One more idea I should like to bring forth, and that is the idea of kibitzing. By definition, this is someone who looks on and often offers unwanted advice or comments, especially at a card game. This is bad. The worst examples of this are Little League moms; apparently, this is such a common phenomenon that my mom has transformed those words into a byword, as in, "That woman has a Little League mom mentality." It's the tendency of the spectators to be bad sports. Cheering the team is one thing. Cursing the referee, and trying to make the game unfair to the visiting team (or other team) is quite another. At Virginia Tech football games, if the opposing team has the ball and it's third down, that is the definition of a "key play." All the Hokie fans get out their keychains, and yell and rattle their keychains in the hopes of getting an off-sides or something. I used to wonder why teams had so many off-sides; now I know. I view this is as bad sportsmanship on the part of the fans. I have also seen the Hokie fans' attitudes after losing a game. Silence.
So there's some of my thoughts regarding sportsmanship. I think lots of folks have seen violations of these principles. Probably the very worst violation I ever saw was a whole person: John Macinroe. He was quite the tennis player, but his sportsmanship was appalling. Do not be like him!
Let me close with another quote from Mere Christianity, this time about pride. It seems appropriate, considering that spoiling sport comes from pride. I quote from Book 3, Chapter 8. "We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity - as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble - delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off - getting rid of the false self, with all its 'Look at me' and 'Aren't I a good boy?' and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert."
And at the end, after you contemplate all this shtuff, you realize that you can't really do it, can you? Good sportsmanship is impossible, because its opposite, spoiling sport, comes from the great grandaddy of sins: pride. You are most definitely going to need God's grace on this one. Pray for it, and read your Bible, and go to church. Employ the usual means of grace.