Sportsmanship in the Rough


LET US imagine that until this moment no one has ever thought of racing one yacht against another. Struck with a sudden inspiration, I say to my friend Topsill: ‘I’m fed up with work. Let’s take our two boats this afternoon and race them to the lighthouse and back.’

‘A bully idea!’ says he. ‘Why has no one ever thought of that before?’

We go down to our boats, make sail, cast off moorings, tack about a bit (I avoid the unpleasant connotations of the verb ‘jockey’), and start racing. Out we go and back we come, enjoying wind, water, and the relaxation from professional cares, each of us eager to get the best out of his boat. We finish, and agree that in yacht racing we have established a sport of the first order. It is spontaneous, and we cannot conceive of its being otherwise.

Quite incidentally I ask Topsill who won the race, and he replies: ‘Well, I got a lucky break just after the start and beat you to the lighthouse. But you caught that slant near Hoppers Bluff and beat me home by a few feet.’

‘Good!’say I. ‘A stand-off. And by the way, I ’m sorry I bumped you when I was overtaking. I did n’t mean it.'

‘Perfectly all right,’ replies my sporting friend. ‘It did n’t slow me down, and a brushful of varnish will repair the damage.’

Naturally we are elated with our new-found sport and tell our friends about it. Blivens joins us with his boat the next time we have an afternoon off, and reasonably observes that since there arc three boats racing it will be difficult to line us all up for an impromptu start. He asks us to establish a starting line, which we do, and at a wave of the hand we make for the line. Blivens crosses on the starboard tack, and since Topsill and I happen to be on the port tack we are forced about, Blivens gaining a lead which neither of us is able to make up. He arrives home and, instead of apologizing for heading us off, expresses delight in what he calls his victory. He points out that it is a universal rule that starboard tack has right of way and suggests that to avoid argument and recrimination we adopt that rule for our new sport of yacht racing. We adopt it.

Next time Dubbins joins us. He is something less than expert in handling his yacht, and runs into Blivens, ruining the latter’s chance of a second victory. Blivens protests that in the event of a repetition of such careless seamanship (he will not call it intentional) Dubbins should be disqualified from the race. We see the justice of his contention and formulate a rule governing fouling.

Little by little the new sport of yacht racing gains such popularity that not three or four, but a dozen yachts come out for an afternoon’s contest. On one occasion Blivens, who seems to have a mania for winning, brings for crew a local fisherman whose knowledge of tidal eddies and air currents is phenomenal. Blivens wins again, while Dubbins, who has smarted under what he considered unjust discrimination, protests the mingling of professionals with amateurs. ‘After all,’ says Dubbins, asking the question that will one day become immortal, ‘is this sport or is it business?’

To protect ourselves against unfair competition we organize a club and confine our racing to Corinthians — that is to say, to lovers of the sport. At this stage, protests against this and that infraction of the spirit of the sport begin to pile up, and we not only appoint a committee on protests, but formulate a complete set of ironclad rules. A cup is offered in competition, — a handsome trophy symbolizing sportsmanship, — and no one notices the sardonic jest of the goldsmith in portraying the spirit of victory clinging to and hobbling the knees of sportsmanship. The cup, solid gold with a melting value of five hundred dollars, achieves such importance that Blivens sells his old boat and builds a new one with which to win it. He succeeds, and the club has to formulate rules governing the measurements of boats which may compete for subsequent trophies. Blivens then hires a clever naval architect to design him still another boat, well within the rules, but faster than all existing craft. And so the contest rages.


It may now be pertinent to ask at what stage in the development of yacht racing Topsill dropped out and went back to single-handed cruising. And how did I forfeit my amateur standing by writing for pecuniary gain articles critical of the sport? And at what point did the spirit of true sport leave the corpse?

If sportsmanship — the genuine amateur spirit — is a virtue which all do not share in equal degree, it is evident that rules must be framed to bolster up the ideal and protect the sportsman from his inferiors. It is this process of standardization which smothers all spontaneity. Topsill and I are no longer privileged to accord each other the common courtesies. If he crosses my bow when I have the right of way, I must ram him. We find, too, that our harbor is preëmpted for the benefit of the majority whenever they want to race. If we barge into a scheduled event, we feel as de trap as a lone golfer with a foursome coming up behind him.

In a democracy we learn, of course, that the rights of the majority are paramount, but I am not convinced that democracy is compatible with sportsmanship. A given sport attracts, first, those people who are animated by the spirit of the amateur; they are the aristocracy. Next it attracts Tom, Dick, and Harry, who represent the democracy. Of these three inseparables one will surely have a genius for organization, and he and his carbon copies will constitute themselves the autocracy, the arbiters. After that the aristocrats withdraw to go fishing and the democrats become pawns in the game.

To paint the perils of organization let me cite the history of a club which was formed some years back for the promotion of a certain sport. We may as well call it horseshoe pitching, since that was not the sport in question. A few hardy souls who had pitched horseshoes in all weathers came informally together, drew up a haphazard constitution, informed a few others that they had been elected to membership, and launched the club. I was thus elected. Because T admired those I knew among the charter members, and the high principles of horseshoe pitching for which they stood, I was proud to join. The club progressed in a leisurely way, everyone who could attending periodic meetings for the conviviality to be found there and voting ‘aye’ in a perfunctory manner on all resolutions pertaining to horseshoe pitching and the revision of our constitution. During this middle period, perhaps, too many men were admitted to membership merely because they owned horseshoes and without adequate scrutiny of their pitching prowess. Nevertheless, the club jogged comfortably along.

Insensibly those who were attracted by organization assumed control, and the club underwent a mutation. One candidate for membership was rejected because he was interested in rolling horseshoes instead of pitching them. All applicants were required to describe carefully their past experience and list all other qualifications for eligibility. Later the word ‘gentleman’ slipped into the constitutional clause, so that now we may not propose a friend unless he is a gentleman as well as an amateur. However, we waited until recently for the club to attain thorough organization. Then it was that a new questionnaire was propounded in which the aspirant was obliged to name his college, his parents, his country-club affiliations, and his favorite brand of perfume. I am not quite sure of the perfume, but I am sure that the original banding together of hard-bitten horseshoe pitchers has faded from the picture and we have now become a social organization, of which there are already far too many.

This short and predominantly truthful history is typical of how organizers and standardizers defeat the original purpose of those sportsmen who are first attracted to one another by a common love of their sport. Little by little all spontaneity vanishes, and it becomes increasingly difficult to restrict the sport to the participation of sportsmen. The man who concentrates his entire effort upon winning may rank as a superb technician, but he lacks both spontaneity and the sporting spirit.

Look, for example, at golf. This royal and ancient game consists fundamentally in driving a ball over a varied terrain and walking around after it, the object being to exercise, while holing the ball a number of times in the fewest possible strokes. This is simple and direct, and, with bogey as an imaginary opponent, the game may be enjoyably played by one man. But a subdivision of the very first rule of the official regulations states: ‘A single player has no standing, and shall always give way to a match of any kind.’ Behind that rule we can hear such a man as my imaginary friend Blivens, the enemy of spontaneity, protesting: ‘Here’s somebody who plays golf just for the fun of whacking the ball, not even bothering to find an opponent. He must n’t be allowed to block the course when a formal match comes along. Toss him aside.’

Rule II: ‘A match begins by each side playing a ball from the first teeing ground.’ Nothing could be more logical, yet note the official interpretation which accompanies it: ‘In stroke competition if a competitor play his first stroke from outside the limits of the teeing ground, he shall count that stroke, tee a ball, and play his second stroke from within these limits. The penalty for a breach of this rule shall be disqualification.’ I can conceive of a lazy golfer playing his first stroke from outside the limits of the teeing ground, — say, from the clubhouse verandah, — but if the game is designed for sportsmen, I can imagine no reason for threatening disqualification after the violation has been pointed out.

Rule IV, 2: ‘A player is entitled at any time during the play of a hole to ascertain from his opponent the number of strokes the latter has played; if the opponent give wrong information as to the number of strokes he has played, he shall lose the hole unless he correct his mistake before the player has played another stroke.’ It is charitably assumed by the lawmakers that incorrect information can only be given by mistake; but behind this euphemism we discern the intention to guard against willful misinformation which might render the player either apprehensive or overconfident. I have reason to suspect that Blivens, the opponent, has been found guilty of setting up mental hazards to better his chance of winning.

Although a majority of the rules of golf have doubtless arisen out of the effort to develop a procedure which will be equitable to all players, many besides those quoted can only have been dictated by unsportsmanlike behavior. No less than twenty-seven of the thirtysix rules carry penalties for infraction. By the enactment of these regulations and a strict enforcement of the penalties, the game is such that one may play against all comers without detriment to one’s chance of success. It seems almost too much trouble.


When spontaneity gives way to organization, the fun of a game tends to be crowded out by the will to win. In fact, it is this will to win at any cost that gives rise to so many rules. Behind each regulation one can see the plain intent to set certain limits upon the price of victory, yet even the most rigid code seems impotent to check an unbridled urge to win. In citing the following unsavory examples, I have no intent to besmirch the reputation of yacht racing, which is as clean a sport as any. Disillusioned devotees of other sports tell me that similar instances can be found on every hand.

The Star class of small racing yachts was organized some years ago to promote an interest in racing among men and boys who could not alford a large outlay of money for the sport. As originally intended, a Star could be built, rigged, and canvased for less than five hundred dollars. To keep down the cost in a certain section of the class the price of a replacement suit: of sails is fixed and must not be exceeded. What happens? Some contestants who put winning above other considerations have their sails made by an ordinary sailmaker and then taken to an expensive and superlative sailmaker to be altered. When altered, the sails are, to all intents and purposes, the product of the master sailmaker, though they still bear the stenciled name of the ordinary maker who provides the sails for the less affluent members of the class. I have heard it argued that this is not conclusive evidence that the w ill to win prostitutes sportsmanship; as first cut, the sails did fit like bags, and it is true that nothing in the rules limits the cost or extent of alterations. Still, what about the man who cannot afford expensive alterations — the man for whom this class of yachts was organized?

In one-design class racing there are rules governing the length of time a boat may remain out of water for any one period during the season. The object is to make certain that all will absorb moisture equally and none remain lighter than the others through protracted periods of drying out. The uninitiated may be surprised at the necessity for such a technicality, but he may be sure that there was ‘dirty work at the crossroads’ before the rule was formulated. There is still dirty work, despite the rule. While an honest sportsman will take his turn at a boat yard, hauling out one day, painting and polishing, and launching within twenty-four hours (if that is the time limit), the clever sport will arrange to haul out Saturday and launch Monday — thereby gaining an extra twenty-four hours for evaporation. If the yard happens to be one which remains closed on Saturday as well as Sunday, so much the cleverer — he hauls out Friday and, despite his pious wish to abide by the rules, his boat is obliged by conditions beyond his control to dry out for seventy-two hours.

There is even the classic example of an ardent racing man who provided himself with a private set of hauling ways and kept his boat out of water twenty-three hours of every day, floating her for one hour daily. The rule stipulated that his boat should not be out of water at any one time for more than twenty-four hours. He scrupulously observed the rule, kept his boat from becoming water-logged, and enjoyed an eminently successful racing record.

Although organization, with its multiplicity of rules, is a major ill of sportsmanship, it. is difficult to escape it as long as the public longs for stereotyped sport. While amateur tennis was amateurish in the dictionary sense of ‘feeble, crude,’ the public left it alone. When the game succumbed to organization, admiring crowds flocked to the courts. In tennis, more than in any other sport, the rules emphasize the cleavage between amateur and professional. Amateurs cannot, play in formal competition against such superlative professionals as Tilden and Kozeluh without jettisoning their amateur status. Tilden, before he became a professional, was permitted to write about tennis except when he was a competitor. Distinctions without differences, mountains out of molehills. When a man devotes more time to a sport than he does to his business or his education he is a professional. And that, is entirely apart from the weighty point of whether his expenses are paid as he journeys from one tournament to another.

A recent report of the amateur rule committee of the Tennis Association cited the case of an unnamed ‘amateur’ who in nine months participated in twenty-two tournaments. He crisscrossed the country from Toronto to Nassau and from New York to the West Coast, and, to quote the report, ‘In practically every tournament (except the National Singles) he received free board and lodging, and in many cases his traveling expenses were paid.’ At the conclusion of this tour he embarked on a two-month round of tournaments in South America. Doubtless the new president of the Association had this in mind when he said: —

During the past few years there has been a growing resentment against the abuse of the practice of paying players’ traveling and living expenses at tournaments. The practice has had the approval of this association and hardly needs defense. But even casual observers have commented upon its abuse, and I am clearly of the opinion that we must bring this home to the clubs and players, through the media available to the national association and the sectional associations, to dissuade them from paying such expenses except in cases which are deemed truly meritorious under all the circumstances.

Would it be truly meritorious if I, as a crack horseshoe pitcher, were given traveling expenses to go to Hawaii in the tourist season to attract the turnstile-tilting public to a tournament? I should dearly love to receive the money, but I should appropriate ten cents of it to check my amateur status in the parcel room of the Grand Central Station before going west. And I’d tear up the parcel check. If the manager of the tournament slipped a bonus into my horseshoe satchel when I was n’t looking, I should n’t begrudge the ten cents.


This question of ethics in sports is a very delicate matter. Indeed, different sports exhibit such widely varying ethics that even a philosopher would find it impossible, by examining their separate rules and practices, to set up a universal law defining the point at which fair play ceases and foul play begins. Look, for example, at this rule in golf: ‘On the day of the competition, before starting, no competitor shall play on, or on to, any of the putting greens, nor shall be intentionally play at any hole of the stipulated round which is within his reach, under penalty of disqualification.’ The punishment is rigorous, but everyone will agree that, the intent is excellent. The rule is framed to prevent a player from gaining even an accidental prior advantage over his competitor.

There is no similar rule in tennis. Some years ago a player went carefully over an exhibition court on the eve of an important match, feeling it out with his hands for irregularities. In the match he played whenever he could to make the ball strike the soft spots and won by the narrow margin that his foreknowledge of the court had given him. The sportsman who related this incident to me confessed that at the time it occurred he considered it good generalship, although he is now inclined to deem it sharp practice. Whatever one may think of it as a sporting proposition, it was clearly within the rules; the opponent had the same opportunity to acquaint himself with the court, though it did not occur to him to do so.

In yacht racing a competitor is not only privileged to feel out the course before a match, but would be considered lacking in those very qualities of seamanship which racing fosters if he did not do so. We find, then, this strange anomaly: what is interdicted in golf and is thought questionable in tennis is encouraged in yachting. And this is not to imply that the ethics of yachting arc less exacting than those of other sports.

Another comparison, not so neatly trimmed, but more dramatic, may be worth citing. In championship tennis it has become the fashion among certain ‘top-liners’ to ‘throw’ a point following one that has been wrongly decided in their favor. This practice is contrary to the rules and must jar the susceptibilities of linesmen who have mistakenly but honestly decided the disputed point, but it is considered sporting by the players and makes a great appeal to the gallery. You can hear the murmur of admiration: ’What a good sport Blank is! He knew he should n’t have been given that point, so he purposely lammed the next ball into the net. Cheers!’

Without passing judgment on this practice, just try to imagine a parallel case on the gridiron. Blink, an excellent sportsman, learns that the opposing team has been penalized a certain number of yards for being offside. In consternation he recalls that he was himself offside at the opening of the play. He brings his lapse to the attention of the referee and requests that his own team be penalized a like amount. Do his team mates go into a huddle and emerge to give Blink three rousing cheers for his sportsmanship? They are more likely to order him to the infirmary to have his head examined, for he has cost the team the precious inches which may spell defeat.

This brings us to a fault that is inherent in almost every group game and indeed any other that is too highly organized — the element of divided loyalties. When a man has only himself to consider he will concede a doubtful point without hesitation, as is done a thousand times daily on tennis courts all over the world. But let a man feel that he is playing not for himself but for the honor of his club, or his Alma Mater, or his country, and the issue ceases to be clear-cut. Left to myself, let us say, and recognizing defeat as almost inevitable, I would rather play to my limit and end the contest. But if I have the unblemished record of my club to consider, shall I rush like a maddened bull on to the sword of my executioner? Is n’t it my duty (and where duty lies, can I waver?) to slow up the game a little, stall between changes of court, or otherwise reënergize myself so that I may make a successful bid for victory? If I know that my opponent is adversely affected by noise, is n’t it good generalship for me to play to the gallery, even giving him a debatable point in exchange for a roar of applause? In such fashion does divided loyalty support the will to win, while the essence of sportsmanship is forced into the background.

Sportsmanship also suffers — and frequently, one suspects — in group games whenever the excellence of one player makes him dangerous to the opposing team. He is singled out as the object of attack and, by fair means or foul, is eliminated from play. Again, animosity between individuals on two teams may convert a sporting contest into a pitched battle. On such occasions football simply adapts itself to the ethics of another sport — pugilism — and incandescent loyalty to each team’s colors tarnishes the spirit of fair play.

A friend who entertains and observes the most exalted ideals of sportsmanship has provided me with an interesting side light into his earlier precepts. As a young man he played hockey on his varsity team, and in a certain game against their traditional rival he and his team mates found themselves rushed almost off their skates. To gain a necessary breathing spell and avoid crushing defeat a diversion was necessary. In this moment of need my friend had an inspiration. All winter he had played on a tried and trusted pair of skates. From one of them two sets of screws were missing at the toe. The skate was Held inseparably by copper rivets, but the toe of the shoe could be flopped up from the skate, creating the impression that the two were about to part company. In the extremity in which the team found itself my friend showed his foot to the referee and asked time out for repairs. He told no lie, letting the loose toe of his shoe lie for itself. He was granted the postponement and went to the locker room, where he found a roll of surgeon’s tape which he bound firmly around the skate and shoe. When, after several minutes’ respite, he returned and exhibited the repair to the referee, he and his team mates were sufficiently rested to go on with the play. The result of the game is of no importance to the story, but my friend tells me that he cannot think of his offense against sportsmanship without blushing. At the time he was praised by his fellows and by all of his college companions who learned of his foxy strategy. He had struck a blow for his Alma Mater.

Another friend who has refereed water polo for a quarter of a century, and speaks of it affectionately as ‘a good, clean game,’ tells me that he lectures each team before the opening of play. He informs the mermen that the game will be played according to the rules and that there will be no dirty work above water or below. Instead of resenting his imputation of their sportsmanship, the players take his lecture with a grin. With the same grin they feel him out, and if his eyes are quick they play a clean game. Criticism of water polo, says my friend, should be directed against the referee; if he does not know his job, the game will be dirty. I gather that something else rests with the referee — namely, the sportsmanship of the players. Yet, as individuals, they are doubtless actuated by the highest sporting spirit.

Even in the game of bridge one can observe the virus of divided loyalty. The rules require that dummy shall say nothing if he observes his partner playing from the wrong hand. A sportsman, inadvertently playing from the wrong hand (and the wish is often father to the involuntary selection of a card), would want his partner to correct him and spare him the embarrassment of being reprimanded by the opposing side. But if the situation is reversed and the sportsman happens to be dummy, he will soon discover that he is required to be dumb. Supported by the etiquette of the game, he must force himself to acquiesce in what seems to him a breach of sportsmanship. I do not charge that this rule is designed to foster cheating; I refer to it merely as an instance showing how duty to a team mate may sap the sporting spirit.


What can we do about all this? In post-collegiate contests, which are as highly organized in their way as professional baseball, we can stop quibbling and call a spade a spade. It will improve the standards of amateurism if we regard as professional all sports and athletics which draw the public in large numbers past the box-office window. This will involve mental readjustment and a rebalancing of the implications of amateur and professional, but we have precedent to help us in establishing the new values. Does the public pay good money to watch amateur theatricals when the proficiency of the professional stage is at its disposal? Do people flock to hear amateur orchestras when professional musicians assemble before the batons of Koussevitzky or Toscanini? Do we think any the less of these professionals because they are good?

Let the amateur Thespians and musicians play for the love of their art. So let us swim or run or play tennis or football, and let us call ourselves amateurs because we love our sport and strive, sportsmanlike, to excel in it. But when our excellence puts us among the first twenty or thirty and it becomes worth the while of Organization to exploit us before the public, then let us call ourselves professionals and be proud of our new designation.

Examples have been cited to show that it is a common weakness to subordinate fair play to the pursuit of victory. Those who do so are the worst offenders against sportsmanship, even if, happily, they are not the most numerous. Their number might, perhaps, diminish if we could come to a clearer understanding of what sportsmanship is. In this the dictionary cannot help us, but everyone will probably agree that it is a rare combination of such attributes as gentleness, generosity, spontaneity, and dogged determination. These qualities, which act as a check upon a too intense partisanship, can doubtless be fostered through education — the kind of education which looks to an enhancement of the individual ideal.

As for those offenses which spring from the complicated, rule-cluttering tendency of our master organizers, there seems little prospect of improvement. We Americans are famous for our organizing genius and often we seem to indulge our natural bent for the sheer joy we get out of it. I can offer no panacea to cure us of the habit. Some men are born that way and others achieve the aptitude through the force of circumstances. I have knowm excellent sportsmen to develop unsuspected signs of genius in this direction when, in recognition of their sporting principles, they have been elevated to membership on some committee or elected to hold office in their club. Unless one is well aware of the dangers, an excess of zeal may be easily diverted away from the promotion of sport for its own sake to the perfection of an organization which, like a political party, exists for only one purpose — to win victories.

Turn, for example, to American Lawn Tennis and read the address of the new president, who was recently elected to head the Tennis Association. I am not acquainted with the gentleman and for all I know he may be one of the finest sportsmen in America, but it is amusing to notice some of the things he felt called upon to say when he was elevated to office. ‘Our great task,’ he proclaimed, ‘is,first, to extend and increase the interest in the game throughout this broad land of ours, and, second, to improve the conditions under which it is played and the standards of play.’ Is n’t it significant that he ranked politics first and the inculcation of sportsmanship last in his conception of the programme confronting the new administration? Is this not what one would naturally expect from the organization which, in 1929, recalled Tilden from limbo and then bounced him out again after the national emergency had passed ?

The new president went on to say: ‘When we enter Davis Cup and Wightman Cup events our object should be to win the cup, and, within reason, we should do everything necessary to accomplish that result.’ The italics are, of course, mine. The quotation continues: ‘We cannot be the guardians of our players. We should not unduly tempt them or urge them to take part, but the decisions must be left to them and their natural guardians. Nor should the educational value of our foreign trips to our younger players be overlooked.’ Thus speaks the voice of Organization.

I am not an organization man myself, but one can never tell what may happen. If I am ever elected to the presidency of my horseshoe-pitching society, I shall probably make a speech somewhat as follows: ‘Gentlemen and charter members, the monumental task confronting us is to extend national interest in horseshoe pitching so widely that we shall be on the front pages of the newspapers every day. We must have stadiums for the comfortable accommodation of spectators and adequate means for collecting the admissions as they pass in. . . . When we contest for the Golden Horseshoe Cup, our sole object will be to WIN THE CUP. To this end we shall do everything in our power — and I don’t mean within reason. Our players must give up their businesses to train for the tournament. They must practise night and day until they are so far superior to professional horseshoe pitchers that the term “amateur” shall cease to be a reproach. We cannot be the guardians of our players, for we are not an eleemosynary institution; it therefore devolves upon them to find angels who will pay their expenses and make it financially worth their while to compete for the cup. The educational value of our foreign trips will probably be overlooked in the scramble for fame and riches. . . . Finally, we must not let sportsmanship within our society die a natural death. We must resolutely extirpate it. Gentlemen, I thank you. Charter members, your resignations will be accepted.’