Producing better citizens

Sportsmanship never goes out of fashion.

The notion of athletics teaching sportsmanship is old fashioned and quaint to some, but it is important to remember that high school sports in the United States exist for two reasons – for the participants to have fun and for the students to be taught lifelong skills.

The United States is one of the few, if not the only country in the world, that has high school athletics.

Robert F. Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said it well: The purpose of high school sports is to produce better citizens for our country.

The larger quest is not to win a scholarship or to win games or any of the other artificial measures of athletic success.

The purpose of high school athletics is to teach things like sportsmanship, self sacrifice, teamwork, discipline and learning how to handle success and failure.

Few athletes will remember the score of each game, but most will remember the friendships and the shared experiences that are a part of athletic competition.

Good sportsmanship is an elusive quest. The N.C. High School Athletic Association recognizes its desire to have its players and coaches display good sportsmanship is akin to pursuing the impossible dream.

“I wish you could concentrate on sportsmanship for a year, put it in a jar and place it on a shelf and think you had taken care of it,” said Charlie Adams, executive director of the NCHAA.

“It doesn't work that way.”

Last year was not a good one for sportsmanship in high school sports in North Carolina.

Record numbers of players were ejected for fighting or unsportsmanlike conduct. Parents lied about where they lived to move their children and enhance their athletic participation. Coaches abetted players and parents in cheating on eligibility.

The vast majority of coaches and athletes abided by the rules. Most players were not ejected. Most coaches not only obeyed the letter of the rules, but also their intent.

But the importance of sportsmanship at the high school level is hard to exaggerate.

Eric Liddell, the Scottish sprinter who refused to run in the 100 meters in the 1924 Olympics because the event was held on Sunday, said sportsmanship is the heart of athletic competition.

Liddell gained international fame in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” but his story didn't end with unexpected gold in the 400 meters in the Paris Games.

He was the son of missionaries to China and soon after the Olympics left Scotland for China.

He died on Feb. 21, 1945 of a brain tumor in an internment camp in Weihsien, China, which is miles from Beijing, site of the 2008 Games.

In one of his last sermons, he spoke of a steeplechase race in which the leader hit a barrier and toppled it over. The runner in second could have run through the gap and gained valuable time on the leader, but swerved quickly to another still-standing barrier and hurdled it.

Liddell remembered the crowd at the event erupting in cheers. Years later, Liddell had no idea who the athlete was, but he remembered the action.

“Sport is wonderful,” Liddell said, according to David McCasland, his biographer.

“The most wonderful part of it is not the almost superhuman achievements but the spirit in which it is done. Take away that spirit and it is done.”

And without sportsmanship, high school athletics is done.