One of the most alarming features of competitive sports for children is the prevalence of parents on the sidelines who urge their children to win at all costs, and berate them without mercy if they "fail". With this preparation it is not surprising if foul play and unsporting behaviour are common at higher levels. Roughness verging on thuggery is not particularly surprising in body contact games, though even there it can be controlled by strict and well-policed rules, backed up by public opinion against violence. More alarming is the decline of standards in sports such as cricket and tennis which traditionally maintained high levels of decorum. Television, and the endless replay of "sensational" incidents, ensures that the outbursts and tantrums of leading players are broadcast around the world. Youngsters promptly emulate some of the worst aspects of their heroes' behaviour.
Much has been made of a statement attributed to the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi, "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing". This has been widely interpreted as a "win at all costs" attitude but in fact Lombardi was talking about the game that the sportsman plays with himself, that is, the endless process of working to improve, develop and perfect the player's performance. Similarly, Lombardi perpetuated the maxim "The team that won't be beaten can't be beaten". Again he referred to the mental attitude of the players; the team that won't be beaten may end the game with less points on the scoreboard, but if they keep doing their best to the end then psychologically and morally they are not losers.
Of course, this is a restatement of the original spirit of the Olympic Games, that it is taking part that matters, not winning. Much could be said about erosion of this spirit in the modern Olympics. It is also the spirit of the old poem:
For when that one Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He'll mark not that you won or lost.
But how you played the game.
The state of foul play in sport is uneven, with some sports going downhill and others improving. Rugby League is a game especially prone to mayhem due to the fact that it is a body contact sport and to score one must literally crash through the enemy line. Not long ago, many of the forwards were professionally employed on week days as pugilists and standover men. This situation has changed in the last twenty years for various reasons.
There is more emphasis on speed and fitness, so that teams cannot afford the luxury of thugs unless they can keep up with the play. Trial by video ensures that virtually everyone in NSW is subjected to slow-motion replays of crippling fouls on star players, where previously only people at the ground (and not all of them) would have noticed such events. The NSW League has made spasmodic efforts to clamp down on violence and this has clearly had some effect. Jack Gibson imported the Vince Lombardi attitude from the US and deliberate foul play has been practically eliminated from teams coached by Gibson and his imitators. This is most noticeable at Parramatta where Gibson and two of his protégés have coached since 1976. The Lombardi approach pays off in pragmatic terms; under his guidance from 1959 to 1968 the Green Bay Packers took out seven championships. Similarly, Parramatta since 1976 has been the most successful club at all grades by a fair margin (1987 being an exception).
Fair play can be encouraged by appropriate rules of the game, backed up by strong referees to police the rules and appropriate penalties for transgressors. Tendencies to indulge in foul play can also be inhibited by community rejection of such tactics.
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