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'Poor Sports' Need Good Medicine


Many of us interested in sports look around us and decry the declining civility and respect evident in athletics today. Others see examples of bad behavior as isolated, the only trend being the increased attention paid by the media. There will always be both camps, but I exist in the former.

We all witness examples of poor sports or appalling conduct: temper tantrums, trash talk, players trying to hurt opponents, a hockey dad beating another to death, and—my nominee for the Olympic Hall of Shame—last year's US 4 * 100 relay team shattering the world record in postrace spectacle-making. In January, after Baltimore Ravens lineman Tony Siragusa was fined $10,000 for a body slam that dislocated Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon's shoulder in the AFC championship game, Siragusa said, "If it's going to cost me 20 grand and I'm going to the Super Bowl, I'll pay it."

Many of my colleagues avoid watching at least certain sports because of this decline in sportsmanship. One of our editorial board members, an influential leader in health and fitness, said, "I scarcely glance at the sports pages and virtually never watch on television. One of the primary reasons for my lack of interest is the corruption, violence, and lack of sportsmanship widely extant today."

Given that we are all human, few of us have the confidence to promise that our behavior would be consistently better if we were the athletes. This isn't about judgmentalism. It's about sports, a cultural and entertainment phenomenon that aids and abets inappropriate behavior for financial gain (witness NBC's support of the sex and violence in the new XFL) and influences millions of young people. Health and sports are two very different worlds that coexist despite near-diametric sets of values. As sports medicine practitioners, we might believe the two of them mesh, but that is wishful thinking. Medicine is about short-term and long-term health. Sports is about winning, entertaining, and making money. Of course we know that, but it's important to return to that fundamental difference to keep changes in sports in context.

Those of us who live in the world of sports medicine, in that crucible between the worlds of health and sport, must guard against complacency toward incremental erosion in sports values. Changes, including a decline in sportsmanship, can occur so gradually that one day when we awake to the passing of time, we cry, "Enough!" Have we now reached that point?

It would be foolish to judge all athletes, and I don't want to bring back the days of leather helmets and peach-basket hoops. On the other hand, the XFL has nothing to do with health or even with the values most of us attribute to sports. Most certainly, someone with great skill and judgment needs to care for the athletes (see, "XFL Raises Unique Sports Medicine Issues," page 13) and act as health advocate in that environment.

We who practice sports medicine need to know where we stand in a culture that permits the erosion of athletics. Sports, in its purest form, imbues qualities that we hold dear: physical, social, and psychological health. And examples of good sportsmanship abound. In fact, when asked for input for this column, members of our editorial board replied with more good examples than bad, including the hockey handshake after games, graciousness in Olympic defeat, and coaches putting principle above winning.

Sports casts its shadow over sports medicine. We have a responsibility to our patients and to our profession to monitor trends, identify when behaviors cross the line, point out poor role models for children, and act as a beacon of light from beneath that shadow.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD