A Toss-up: A Sportsmanship Banner or an Even Playing Field?

by Thomas Farrell

As I drove home from a Kennebunk High School basketball game not long ago, I wondered why I didn’t feel good about the game when our players had played so well. The answer was obvious. Sportsmanship and ethics are lacking, and too many of us just don’t seem to care!

During this particular game, a few students from the opposing team were asked to leave the gym by our athletic director because of their foul language and constant belittling of the officials and our players. As they left, several parents from their community confronted our athletic director and argued they couldn’t understand why the students had to leave because this behavior was acceptable in their gym.

It is even more disturbing to know that our own students and athletes (who have won the league sportsmanship banner for the past three years) are beginning to question why they have to behave at games. They often comment that we never have a home-court or home-field advantage because “our opponents’ fans are allowed to get a lot more rowdy than we are.”

I must say that our efforts to prioritize character development and sportsmanship have caused many in our community to become frustrated with our school district’s perceived lack of focus on winning. They believe we spend more time and energy on promoting good sportsmanship than we do on winning. Placing sportsmanship as our top priority in school athletics is not an easy challenge. It becomes extremely difficult when many opponents seem to lack positive sportsmanship and model the “winning is everything” belief.

A Ubiquitous Issue
Having served as superintendent in Aspen, Colo., before returning to Maine a few years ago, I can assure you this is not just a Kennebunk or a Maine issue. More than a few schools appear to have lost sight of the value of sportsmanship and character development in interscholastic athletics. The question that lingers in my mind is, “What can we do to even the playing field while promoting good behavior?”

Unfortunately, I am embarrassed to say that I did practice the old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” while working in Colorado. I am thankful I was able to realize this was not a solution to our issues. It is now becoming critical that all school administrators join the “Sports Done Right” philosophy to encourage good sportsmanship.

The solution must begin with the school board and superintendent. Clear expectations must be conveyed verbally and in writing over and over again to the athletic director, coaches, athletes and fans. I feel good about how our athletic director, Marty Ryan, promotes good sportsmanship in Kennebunk. It is clear throughout our sports’ community as to what he — and our school district — expect.

Unfair Advantage
What is not clear in our community is what sportsmanship is acceptable away from our fields or gyms or is advantageous to winning. Do displays of poor sportsmanship by athletes, rowdy fan behavior or unruly coaches actually give a team an advantage? Does a lack of fair enforcement of rule infractions occur in other league schools? Unfortunately, for many of our fans, the answer is yes.

On more than one occasion I have witnessed fans heckle players or coaches in an intimidating way. In Colorado, for example, fans from one school threw M&Ms at our basketball players when they entered the gym and singled out one outstanding player to call a hateful name every time he touched the ball. This player had a very difficult game because of the unfair pressure placed on him by negative fans. It is easy for one to say that good athletes are able to block this noise out of their minds, but I question why this should ever be allowed in the first place.

When we confronted the administration of this high school after the game, they replied they didn’t know what the fans were yelling. The game officials stated it was not their responsibility. On other occasions after similar experiences, opposing administrators pleaded ignorance time and time again. When our fans observe this behavior, they begin to realize that it does give an unfair advantage to the opposing teams. When it does not stop, they want to join in on these negative behaviors to equal the playing field or court.

Multilateral Action
Although our school district does not compromise the practice of requiring good sportsmanship from our side of the field or court, local fans continue to criticize the athletic director. Unfortunately, they do not believe the sportsmanship banner compensates for this unfair advantage. Until all school administrators agree to enforce good sportsmanship, student athletes will not fully benefit from the true value of interscholastic athletics, and fans will never learn good sportsmanship.

Seeing unruly fans on television during college or professional games only adds to the belief that “anything goes” when it comes to fan behavior at interscholastic sports events. More and more of our society are losing sight of the priorities in sports, and the “winning is everything” attitude is taking over.

The time is way overdue for school leaders at all levels to make good sportsmanship and ethical behavior their No. 1 priority in high school sports. Our student athletes deserve nothing less.

Thomas Farrell is superintendent of Maine School District 71, 87 Fletcher St., Kennebunk, ME 04043. E-mail: