Generation Win: Has Our Drive to Win Replaced Sportsmanship?

What do a hard shove in an NBA playoff game, a wayward ball in The Masters golf tournament, and a high school soccer match in Utah have in common?

Nike's new slogan sums it up: Winning Takes Care of Everything.

It's just mid-May and the month has already become a telling epoch in an increasingly volatile world of American sports. A hard shove put an NBA all-star on the hardwood, nearly starting a huge brawl during the nationally televised game. Tiger Woods rebounded from a cheating scandal in last month's Masters to win the Players Championship on Sunday. And a high school soccer referee died after being punched in the head by a young player.

Start with professional golf's favorite prodigal son, Tiger Woods. During this year's Masters Tournament, Tiger splashed a ball into a water hazard, resulting in a penalty stroke. The Professional Golf Association rules are clear. Splash one into the water, a player must drop his ball in a designated drop area or place it closest to the original shot. Tiger did neither, instead dropping where he'd have an easier approach, an illegal advantage.

That was a clear violation of the PGA's rulebook. In plain English, Woods cheated.

Today, his sins are forgiven -- washed clean by the baptism of fresh victory in the Player's Championship.

Compare Tiger's triumph, to the return of a lesser-known professional golfer: Michael Thompson.
On the 15th hole of the 2008 tournament, the very same hole as Tiger's offense, Thompson called a penalty on himself. While his putter was grounded his ball trembled. Maybe he touched the ball positioning for a putt. Maybe it was the wind. Though his playing partner tried to talk him out of it and the crowd gasped in disbelief, Thompson gigged himself a stroke.

Ask ten Americans to identify Michael Thompson, and you'll likely get ten shoulder shrugs as an answer.

That stark dichotomy is a fresh reminder that we have to be careful to value sportsmanship over victory, integrity over winning.

Fighting used to be a rare occasion in professional basketball. But Saturday's nasty incident, where LeBron James was shoved hard to the equally hard floor, was met with the same indifference as Thompson's integrity. An ugly thing, the new status quo.

Our tolerance for disgrace, and our obliviousness to honor has become appalling.

If winning is everything and cheating is nothing, then our values may have followed suit. Such a momentous sea change would not just change professional sports. It would change our kids and our communities as well.

A 2005 study on youth sport behavior found that approximately 10 percent of young athletes cheated during competitive play. The same study found that 13 percent admitted to deliberately trying to injure an opponent. 31 percent said they argued with an official, and 27 percent acted like a bad sport after a loss.

When we bequeath adulations and accolades to the Tigers rather than the Thompsons, we shouldn't be surprised when our kids follow suit.

In April, there was a bright spot. Washington Wizards center Jason Collins inked his name in the history books as the first professional basketball player to come out as openly gay. He was warmly received by his teammates and fans.

Collins reminds us that there are still a few bastions of decency left in professional sports. But has good sportsmanship become the exception rather than the standard? Can those brief moments of integrity wash away a hard winter's worth of blemishes?

The structured dynamic of sports is the most popular way for parents to expose their kids to competition. Competition helps children identify their talents, shows the value of hard work, and keeps them active. But without sportsmanship, integrity, and honor on the playing field, our nation's youth might be better served taking up chess.

Which brings us to Utah. Last week, a referee penalized a high school soccer player during a routine match. In response, the player viciously struck the ref in the head. Several days later, he died of his injuries.

Humility translates easily from the basketball court to the courtroom. Integrity moves just as fluently from the soccer pitch to the boardroom. But so does a willingness to cheat, or an openness to place personal gain above personal honor.

Is it fair to worry that a kid who routinely gets away with an illegal block in JV football might bring that ethos with him to Wall Street? Or the court room? Good sportsmanship is a language understood in every corner of our society.

The Thompsons and the Collins should give us hope. But they're islands of sportsmanship in a community that has become consumed with victory. If we don't preach and practice sportsmanship in concert with a desire to win, the consequences will not be limited to professional sporting.