Gamesmanship vs. Sportsmanship, the Ethics of Sports


From a very early age, I was always playing sports. At the age of four was when I first joined t-ball, after that I played travel sports once I turned eight, varsity baseball and football in high school, and have been playing pick-up games and beer league softball since I’ve been done. Along this nearly twenty years of playing sports, I picked up on A LOT of different things along the way. Many of things I picked up on were the ethics of sports, but in order to understand these ethics, you need to understand the differences between sportsmanship and gamesmanship.

Gamesmanship, to be put very simply, follows the Vince Lombardi quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” to a whole new level. When people are considered “Gamers” in sports, it means they are dedicated to win and are willing to do whatever it takes to do so. Whether that’s faking a foul, inflicting pain on an opponent, or even using performance-enhancing drugs; its bending or possibly breaking the rules in order to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent.

Sportsmanship is very different in terms of sports ethics. Sportsmanship requires honest play and trust between competitors. The goal is to still win the competition, but to respect the rules of that competition and all those who partake in it. It’s that honor that you receive when you achieve victory by giving it your best effort. It’s about playing the game with fairness and integrity, and by doing so, earning the respect of other competitors and the rest of the sports world.

Sportsmanship

Sportsmanship
“Commitment and respect to the game.”

Gamesmanship

Gamesmanship
“It’s only cheating if you get caught.”

So, how can one know the difference between improper gamesmanship tactics and legitimate techniques and strategies that qualify under the sportsmanship model? There are two major factors that usually define the difference between the two: safety and the integrity of the game. With safety, many rules are designed to prevent conduct that creates unnecessary risks of injury. Keeping in mind the recreational/fun foundation to sports, techniques that inflict pain or endanger athletes violate the fundamental premise of athletic competition. Thus, throwing at a batter for any reason, physical intimidation, intentional injuring, tripping and similar tactics often justified as “part of the game” introduce unacceptably dangerous elements into the game. With the integrity of the game, every sport has developed, over the years, with rule refinements and changes. The rules not only establish standards of fair play, they actually define the game. When traditions begin to develop that corrupt the game, such as chop blocking or spear tackling in football, flagrant fouls or hand checking in basketball, the matter is generally addressed by additional rules or instructions to officials to enforce existing rules more vigorously. In the end, ethics is a major part of the wide world of sports, it’s which side you believe is correct that defines you as a player.

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9 thoughts on “Gamesmanship vs. Sportsmanship, the Ethics of Sports

  1. I like how you use a picture of Derek Jeter for sportsmanship, as he is the face of everything that is good about professional athletes. Even in the biggest media outlet in the world, Jeter has managed to stay out of negative publicity for over 15 years, but still has been the center of some ethical controversy. In 2010, Jeter pretended to get hit by a pitch on a close inside fastball against the Tampa Bay Rays, but regardless of his grimacing reaction, video replay clearly showed that the ball never touched him but rather hit his bat. He sold it convincingly and was awarded first base in a one run game in the 7th inning by the umpire, to which he responded later in post-game interviews: “He told me to go to first base. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to first, you know?” Even after admitting that the ball didn’t hit him in the same interview, Jeter said, “It’s part of the game. My job is to get on base.”

    This situation perfectly illustrates what you were talking about regarding the criteria of safety and integrity when evaluating an ethical debate. In this case, Jeter did no physical harm to anyone, and certainly did not damage the overall integrity of Major League Baseball. It wasn’t the first time a player tried to fake being hit be a close pitch, and it certainly won’t be the last. Fortunately, umpires and video replay typically catch this fake attempt right away, but if it ever gets too out of hand, maybe the MLB would have to put in a new rule or fines like the NBA did for “flopping.”

  2. What of the 2007 Patriots? For a while throughout their season they would be up big in the fourth quarter, to the point where it’d be absolutely impossible for the other team to win, and still throw the long ball. Is it ethical or good sportsmanship to run the score up on your opponent?

    • This is something that I faced during my soccer days. Sometimes in tournaments we would score 5 or 6 goals in the first half of the game against other teams. During half time our coach would give us “rules” or “tasks” that we had to complete before we could shoot. For instance, we would have to complete 15 passes in a row, or something similar to that. I think that when teams run up the score too much it is just plain rude. There is absolutely no reason to do that. The point of the game isn’t to make the other team to feel bad about themselves.

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  5. Great comparison between the two. I would also add good spirit as a third pillar to the safety and the integrity of the game – gamesmanship may invoke using bad spirit, disrespect and/or profanity to intentionally lower opponent’s chances of winning.

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