Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bruce Maiman: In sports or in life, have we forgotten how to be graceful in both victory and defeat?

The story turns our heads because it’s so hard to believe, yet turns our stomach because it reminds us of what we have become.

Earlier this month, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association directed high schools to “not participate in organized post-game handshake lines/ceremonies,” due to too many fights and physical conflicts – more than two dozen in the past three years in Kentucky, according to the association. Too many players unable to keep more than one hand to themselves.

After an immediate backlash, the association softened its language: Schools can engage in the post-game tradition but risk a $1,000 fine if a post-game fight breaks out.

In the same week, a middle school in Long Island, N.Y., banned balls at recess and is now supervising games like tag in order to keep kids safe. “We want to make sure our children have fun but are also protected,” the district superintendent told CNN.

So the answer is no ball at recess?

“It’s absolutely incredible what we see as solutions to the problems in our society,” said Roc Murray, longtime Rocklin High School baseball coach and a California Coaches Association baseball coach of the year in 2010. “People take the easy route and would rather say ‘no’ than figure out how to make it ‘yes.’”

Every area coach and sports rep I spoke with agreed: These are bad fixes for the wrong problem.

“Not having the post-game handshake, we lose a terrific teachable moment for our kids, spectators, parents and communities,” said Bill Herenda, KFBK’s morning sports anchor and Sacramento executive director for the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit organization that stresses the positive, character-building experience youth sports provides.

“The symbolism of the post-game handshake demonstrates in a very public way that at the end of the day sportsmanship prevails,” Herenda said.

After every home game at Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove, the women’s varsity volleyball team does its “sportsmanship celebration.” All visiting coaches know the ritual: Mustang players grab a player from the opposing team and lead them in an on-the-court dance. Former coach Scott Ellison started the tradition, continued today by first-year coach Tony Nguyen.

“It gets players to bond,” Nguyen said. “Win, lose or draw, we keep the dance so that everyone’s heads are always picked up.”

Since the tradition began in 2007, only one coach has prohibited his team from participating.

Maybe it’s a win-at-all-costs attitude, because winners get the jobs – or scholarships at colleges and later the pros – or they get more money for the high schools. Or both. Maybe coaches and parents get so wrapped up in their roles that the team’s performance becomes their identity. Did they forget it’s about the kids, not them? Maybe we’ve forgotten how to be graceful in both victory and defeat, how to react favorably when encountering unfavorable experiences or situations – in sports or life.

It’s what we mean when we say, “Be a good sport.”

We’ve got an entire body of elected officials showing what happens when you’ve forgotten that lesson.

“The decision not to shake hands after a game is far more about the adults than the kids,” Murray said. “The adults are unwilling to deal with the pain that comes from teaching kids the right path. They’ve decided to make it easy on themselves, so that the games can continue for the adults’ enjoyment.”

It all trickles down. High school programs too often emulate the environment of collegiate athletics, which behaves more like a business. Professional franchises are billion-dollar corporations. Even Little League has spawned a cottage industry of club teams and private lessons.

“There’s a lot more pressure associated with high school sports,” said Dan Carmazzi, athletic director and assistant football coach at Christian Brothers High School. “It sometimes creates expectations for what sports can offer that sports may not necessarily offer.” For Carmazzi, sports are about “the chance to compete, to develop sportsmanship, friendships and the concept of teamwork.”

“It’s not a training ground for a college scholarship or a professional contract,” Murray adds. “It's a tool to help young players grow into responsible adults.”

Last year, when a brawl broke out toward the end of a football contest between McClatchy and Kennedy high schools, games were forfeited, players suspended, and both teams subsequently participated together in a community service event. Good.

The solution to Kentucky’s problem is simple: Keep the handshake. Teach its meaning. Immediately kick out anyone who misbehaves. Tell parents to be accountable when they complain in defense of their little snowflake. If coaches can’t instill ethics and good sportsmanship, fire them. Or maybe ... Kentucky, or wherever, should ban all sports until coaches, teachers, parents and players learn the true purpose of competition, whose Latin root means, as Herenda noted, “to strive together.”

The handshake is the whole point.