A Point of View: Good sport, bad sport

Richard Sherman Image copyright Getty Images

With the Super Bowl taking place this weekend, Adam Gopnik says that despite his own worse instincts as a fan, sportsmanship is a quality worth sticking up for.

Here in the US, this weekend, we are about to celebrate the Super Bowl - the American championship of American football, which of course everyone in the US refers to as the world championship of all football. It will be held, very unusually, in New York - well, in what many in the US are referring to as New York. Actually it will be held in New Jersey, land of the Sopranos and marshes and traffic jams.

But what most people have been talking of in the run-up to the game is not sports but sportsmanship, and particularly the case of Richard Sherman, the fine defender for the Seattle Seahawks. At the end of the last round of play-offs, in a post-game interview, Richard Sherman taunted and mocked a wide receiver he had bested on the final big play, announcing: "Well, I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me!" - implying that Crabtree earlier had. Fox Sports, showing the game, couldn't have cut away from him quicker if he had begun to deliver a thoughtful talk on the superiority of socialised medicine.

What was odd was not the immediate ugliness - what the tabloids would call a tsunami of tweets denouncing Sherman, who is African-American, often in nasty terms, for poor sportsmanship. It was that the push-back in his favour was quickly louder and more indignant. Sherman was being victimised, the consensus seemed to suggest. What was wrong with someone glorifying their own achievements? Sherman's freedom from constraint was more inspiring than the constraints had ever been. And because Richard Sherman, is, on the whole, an admirable character - a poor kid who did well at a good school and writes an entertaining column on sports every week - the push-back had credibility.

I will confess that my stomach clenched a little as I watched him - and then, over the next few days, my mind revolved as I saw the considerable truth in what was being said in his defence. And what is a true moral quandary but exactly the moment when the stomach says "Ugh!" and the judgment says "Well…"

As I say, the indignant defence of Sherman scores many points. Is it not the height of genteel hypocrisy to demand that someone who is paid above all to compete, suddenly pretend not to be competitive when the cameras go on, in order to conform to a 19th Century English gentlemen's notion of sportsmanship? Indeed, isn't what we call sportsmanship just the manners of a long-dead colonising time, imposed on classes and clans who don't want them, and shouldn't be forced to conform to them?

Image copyright Getty Images

The notion of ostentatious fair play, like its twin, amateurism, which we'll pretend to celebrate very soon in the Olympics, was after all designed to exclude working-class people in Britain and ethnic people in UK. False modesty is a rich man's privilege. Only when it doesn't really matter if you win or lose, can you, in the most literal sense, afford to be a good sport about it. Is sportsmanship not just another word for "be like us"?

I throw any stone in this dispute, I should add instantly, from a pure glass house. I am the model of a sore loser, and a bad sport. When I am watching my home team, the Montreal Canadiens, play ice hockey, I exult in the agony of the opposing goalkeeper when the Montreal team scores. A middle-aged provider of sapient on-air editorials, I have been banished three times from the despised Boston Bruins chat boards for trolling Bruins fans. Such is the adrenaline of the contest. Fans type trash on their keyboards. Why shouldn't the real athletes talk trash on the field?

Sport, it's been said, is what men have instead of emotions - but maybe a better way of saying it is that sports are the emotions men have. The purpose of sports is to remind us that it is possible to have aggressive emotions that end - robust and violent competition that doesn't end in death. We can try to eliminate our passion for competition every day by detaching ourselves from those passions, and that is why you will see me every day sitting cross-legged for 20 minutes, thinking kind thoughts about the Boston Bruins, or trying to.

Or we can try - and this seems to work much better for more people - acting out the aggression in neatly-controlled ways that leave us in the end with something other than blood. Sport is the best kind of mimic warfare that we have. And in mimic warfare we limit our victories instead of exploiting them to the max. We exult enough to please our fellows and not enough to insult our enemies, because we know that they are our enemies only for today.

So the true value of the intricate code of sportsmanship is that it is a way of keeping a sense of proportion on our love of stylised violence. It's significant, I think, that sportsmanship seems to vary inversely with the violence of the game. Rugby, which to the non-initiate looks like a mass mugging interrupted by panting, is the most sporting of all games, as anyone who has seen a post-match rugby party knows. Ice hockey, my sport, is the only one where fighting is actually permitted. But it is also the only one where both teams always line up at the end to shake hands.

Image copyright Getty Images

If one goes deeper into the historical roots of sportsmanship - all those sonorous 19th Century poems and inspiring maxims and public school exhortations - one may find them absurd, but not uninspiring. There are many ridiculous aspects to the Victorian worldview, its puritanism and its hypocrisies. But there is one good and shining thing about it - its faith in resilience. "That men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things," as Tennyson said. The point of being a good sport is not simply to show a stoical front. It is that there is always another game, and with it another chance of victory, or defeat, tomorrow. Do not exult too much today and do not anguish too much tonight, for the season starts - well, these days, the season starts immediately, but anyway the new season starts soon enough.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Invictus dramatised the Springboks' 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph

We have all rightly been moved by the story of Nelson Mandela 's love, in prison, of the Victorian WE Henley's poem Invictus: "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." It made a fitting title for Clint Eastwood's film about Mandela uniting post-apartheid South Africa as the Springboks became champions in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was surely no accident that Mandela's inspiration rose from that seemingly remote Victorian age. Victorians are really good on resilience, because they needed to have it. Henley had lost his leg to tuberculosis of the bone, and then lost a child to another form of the disease. He was revered by his time, not for his stoicism but for his resilience of heart and mind.

Sportsmanship is just a way of nodding to the long cycle of the seasons. No state in life, neither winner's podium nor even prison, is ever permanent. People point to Muhammad Ali today as an athlete who taunted his foes and was persecuted unfairly - but we need only look at Ali today to find a different kind of pathos in those taunts.

Sportsmanship is triumph's salute to time. It is this day's anxious glance towards the coming week. We will not always be the winner. In fact, next week, we may be the loser, and it is best to recognize that truth today - before that truth is on top of us tomorrow.

On YouTube these days, along with so many clips of taunting and exulting and athletes making the choke sign, there is a lovely video showing 10 minutes of moments of pure sportsmanship - penalties wrongly rewarded, and then deliberately missed, wrestlers stopping in mid choke-hold to assist an opponent, bitter old foes embracing at the end of the game. It has a quarter of a million views. May it have a few more soon. Richard Sherman may shine this weekend or he may well be unmanned by Peyton Manning - that happens, too. He needs - we need - an attitude for all occasions.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook