The Best and Worst Sports, in Terms of Sportsmanship

Ed CohenCorrespondent IApril 15, 2009

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 25:  Andre Agassi of the USA congratulates Roger Federer of Switzerland after winning their match during day nine of the Australian Open Grand Slam at Melbourne Park January 25, 2005 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Fans argue incessantly over which is the best sport, but no ever gets into a shouting match over which has the best sportsmanship. Yeah, I know, that would be ironic.

Maybe this list will light the fire.

Two caveats:

· There are saints and sinners in every sport. This isn’t a tally of which have attracted the most saints.

· Sportsmanship is about manners, and manners generally can’t be legislated. So this isn’t a comparison of rule books to see which ones Emily Post would find most agreeable. This is simply a rating of the major sports based on how customary it is to see good sportsmanlike practiced at the sport’s highest level today. 

The Best                                              

4. Football

Good sportsmanship is not only witnessed in football, it’s legislated. You can be penalized for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” The NCAA has outlawed “excessive celebration.”

For a while the NFL penalized a team if its fans didn’t quiet down enough so the opposing offense could hear its quarterback’s signals. Not often, but sometimes, you’ll see a football player help an opponent up or tap his helmet or bottom as a compliment on a good tackle.

Opposing players pray together on the field before and after the game. Many shake hands afterward, and it’s virtually unheard of for the opposing coaches not to shake hands.

3. Boxing

Isn’t it strange how good sportsmanship prevails in two of the most violent sports imaginable? Mike Tyson’s earlobe-ectomy of Evander Holyfield was an aberration, to say the least. Boxing matches start with the fighters touching gloves; they’d shake hands if they could.

When a match goes the distance the fighters almost always fall into each other’s arms out of mutual respect. There may be plenty of posturing and taunting at weigh-ins, and Muhammad Ali made his fame acting comically contemptuous of his opponents.

But fighters earn the respect of their opponents when they climb through the ropes, and it shows.

2. Tennis

Tennis may be the only sport in which opponents actually help each other get ready for the match. They hit back and forth to warm up. They always shake hands afterward, sometimes jumping the net.

Before the advent of the Cyclops computerized replay devices, it was common for a player who knew his opponent had been victimized by a bad call from a linesman to volunteer to play a let (replay the point). John McEnroe’s behavior toward officials was disgraceful.

Thankfully, few players have followed his example.

1. Golf

Happy Gilmore is funny because it’s such a departure from reality. Courtesy and compassion pervade golf, especially at the recreational level. Mulligans. Conceding a putt. Being careful not to tread the green between your opponent’s ball and the cup. The winner’s ceremony at the Masters exemplifies golf’s spirit of sportsmanship.

Part of CBS’s montage of Masters memories shows Tiger Woods helping Phil Mickelson into a green jacket. Is there another sport where the dethroned champion personally hands the symbol of victory to his or her vanquisher? (I’m not counting the Miss American Pageant.)

And they do it wearing a smile. Being able to compete fiercely but then share in, and even contribute to, your opponent’s moment of joyful triumph is the epitome of good sportsmanship.


The Muddy Middle of the Road 


There are plenty of cheap shots in soccer, and it’s standard operating procedure to pretend to be hurt to draw a foul on an opponent. And don’t get me started on hooligans. But there are also occasional acts of good sportsmanship during play.

Sometimes when a player is injured the opposing team will intentionally kick the ball out of bounds to allow the hurt player to receive treatment. When play resumes the team of the injured player will throw the ball back to the team that kicked it out. A nice way to say thanks and play fair.


One of the great spectacles of sportsmanship comes during the Stanley Cup finals. After the deciding game of a series, all the players on both teams line up lengthwise along the ice and shake hands with every player on the opposing team.

That doesn’t excuse the cheap shots, the assaults with lumber, and the fact that in hockey, brawling is not just tolerated but celebrated.


Players and coaches shake hands before and after games. “Technical” fouls – one of the oddest euphemisms in sports – penalize boorish behavior, at least when it’s directed at the officials. But the sport lacks much in the way of good-sportsmanship traditions. And when it tries to invent them, the failures can be spectacular.

Recall the famous staged layup by Connecticut senior Nykesha Sales in 1998. Sales was two points away from breaking the school’s all-time scoring record when she ruptured her Achilles’ tendon in the second-last game of the season, ending her college career.

The Huskies coach then, as now, Geno Auriemma, conspired with Villanova’s coach to allow Sales to hobble onto the court and shoot an uncontested layup to get the record. Villanova was given a layup of its own to even the score.

This wasn’t good sportsmanship, it was consensual cheating, and for the dumbest possible reason—to manipulate statistics.

The worst


Surprised? Even before the steroids scandal, the so-called National Pastime was a model for bad behavior. At the end of the next World Series, count how many of the losing team’s players and coaches come out of the dugout to congratulate the victors. If tradition holds, the number will be zero.

Same as after every other major league game. Baseball may be the only sport where the ball is sometimes employed as a weapon (pitchers intentionally trying to bean batters.) Cowardly retaliation can go on for days.

To the utter boredom of spectators, stalling is practiced as a tactic of distraction on both offense (stepping out of the batter’s box) and defense (pitchers repeatedly lobbing the ball to first or walking around the mound).

Batters baldly cheat by obliterating the lines of the batter’s box. Some say the quote was taken out of context, but it’s a baseball manager, Leo Durocher, who has gone down in history for declaring, “Nice guys finish last.”

He might have added, “And sportsmanship is for the golf course.”


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