A lesson in sportsmanship

Published 9:15 pm Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It’s easy to ignore good news in favor of bad news.

In sports, from the pros on down, the rare-but-shocking fight, ejection or argument draws all types of notice. Meanwhile, plain, honest, good sportsmanship gets overlooked because it’s expected.

I’m not referring to the brilliant or heart-wrenching moments of sport. There certainly have been some big moments of sportsmanship. Think of the father of Derek Redmond helping his injured son limp the last 100 meters to the finish line in the 1992 Olympics. Or this from college softball a few years ago: Central Washington players carried a Western Oregon player around the bases after she hit a homer, then injured her knee, even as the Western Oregon runs helped end Central Washington’s season.

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Now those are fine examples of true sportsmanship. No less important to the concept, however, is the example shown on Friday by the Western Branch and Nansemond River high school football teams.

It’s not really accurate to call this high school matchup a rivalry, at least not before last Friday. Western Branch had beaten the Warriors every season since the Suffolk team moved to Group AAA and the Southeastern District in 1996. On Friday, the Bruins were 30 seconds away from continuing the streak.

Both schools thought they had made dramatic, heroic, game-winning plays on multiple occasions during the final five minutes. But the Warriors got the last touchdown and won the game, for a desperately needed boost to their postseason hopes. The defeat reduced Western Branch’s slim playoff chances down to none.

Change the outcome of just one play, however, and it would instead have been a critical Bruin victory and crushing Warrior loss.

The Bruins and Warriors are neighbors in many ways. Lots of kids, when they were younger, played with and against one another in Pop Warner, Little League and so on, sometimes seeing more of one another than their own intra-city rivals. On Friday, there was ample opportunity for the players on both teams to be tempted to allow negative emotions to take control.

There were multiple reasons for Western Branch’s players to be dejected or worse. But at least for the time they spent together for postgame handshakes at midfield, both teams recognized what an excellent game they’d just fought over.

The Warriors were thrilled to win, but tempered their emotion for a couple minutes with a sense of knowing how hard their opponents had played.

Contrast that with the ugly scene involving two NFL head coaches a couple of Sundays ago.

On Friday, there were genuine handshakes, fist bumps, taps on the helmets and hugs. Was some of it a little forced or tough to grin and bear? Maybe, but it didn’t look like it. What the players showed might not have been extraordinary sportsmanship, but it was certainly good sportsmanship. And good sportsmanship makes the games worth watching.