One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Sportsmanship

 

Fair play has always been a concern of mine. I’m not necessarily a fan of the underdog, but I do cheer the opportunities that make the underdog great. Maybe because my name is Dave and I don’t like guys named Goliath, but I like to think that no matter how uneven the terrain both sides still have a chance to win.

Growing up I saw most nature shows as wildly unfair. Every Saturday I sat in front of the TV, a frustrated witness as a jackrabbit did its best to elude a coyote. The rabbit only had one option – TO FLEE! It could not negotiate. It could not file a protest. Its only hope was how fleet it could be.

I was baffled why the cameraman did not throw down his equipment and come to the aid of the furry little creature. (Probably something to do with his union contract.) It seemed so wrong to be a casual observer to such a gruesome demise.

Now that I have a better understanding of the rules of natural selection I still have a question: When creating the cycles of life and death, predator and prey, did Mother Nature ever figure in firearms?

Before he had guns Man was stuck in the middle of the pack. With sticks and stones he could get tough with turkeys, but the sight of a mountain lion usually sent him scurrying for cover.

Firearms changed all that. Once the first shot rang out Man became a full-time predator. And if Man was no longer considered prey, he no longer feared. And if he no longer feared, he no longer respected. And if he no longer respected, he no longer had to be a good sport. Instead, he could swill cold beer from the back of a moving pickup and shoot at coyotes.

I do not have a problem with hunting as a practice, only by definition. In order for something to be sporting there must be a sense of fair play. What’s fair about bushwhacking a mallard from a duck blind? If a timberwolf misses a deer, it goes hungry. If a hunter misses a deer, he or she can still go out for dinner.

About the only sport between Man and beast that is on a level playing field is bull riding. For if a cowboy can hold on for eight seconds without displacing a kidney, he wins. But if a bull can buck the cowboy into the grandstand, it wins. And the bull isn’t carted off to McDonalds. It is prized and honored. For when the next cowboy looks down on its broad shoulders there is fear. And with fear comes respect.

If a hunter wants the level of sportsmanship found in bull riding, the stakes must be raised, and it would involve more than losing thermal underwear. So I submit Seven Rules to help level the playing field.

 

1. If a hunter misses a duck, the duck is given the opportunity to fly back and become a family pet.

2. If a moose spots the hunter first, the hunter must surrender all beer and go home.

3. If a hunter cannot mortally wound a bear within two shots, the hunter must start trading punches with his or her opponent.

4. Any hunter that uses a motorized vehicle to kill his or her opponent must walk home.

5. For every snare or trap placed in the wild two shall be set in bowling alleys and sports bars.

6. Tuesday shall be a day of rest for all hunters must stay home and spend time with their significant other (Labrador).

7. For Flashback Friday all hunters must leave behind their high capacity assault rifles and enter the wilderness with sticks, sling shots and rudimentary bow and arrows. (The mountain lion will be waiting.)

 

I’ve never hunted so I don’t understand the allure of pulling a gun on an unarmed animal. I do understand the competition of sports. And when it comes to the swing of a racket and kick of the ball, I think sportsmanship is as important on the field as it is in the forest. The problem with most sports, though, is the actors cannot be relied upon to implement a sense of fair play. (Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Marian Jones and the Russian Government at the Sochi Winter Olympics.) In fact, when it comes to professional sports, most athletes will pick a side (their side) and will be loathed to provide an accurate account of the game. That’s why they need a cop on the beat.

I often wonder what kind a childhood trauma causes a person to become a referee. Does he or she not receive enough criticism at home? Is there an inherent need be second guessed? For no matter how well the referee calls the game, half the players will think he or she did a lousy job.

I once played a soccer match where I had to guard an opposing forward. He was a nice guy and talkative fellow. He told me he refereed soccer and hockey games on the side. And between our skirmishes he let me in on a few secrets on how to ref a game.

The most important rule was to keep the game moving. He told me a referee can only catch a glimpse of a game, and if a he or she makes a call, it will probably be the wrong one.

“What if you make the wrong call and you know it,” I asked him while taking out his legs with a slide tackle.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied, tripping me from behind and stepping on my back.

He told me the ref’s call must be set in stone; not because it is the right call, but it is the call for the moment. To stop and gather all the witnesses would kill the flow of the game.

I fear with the advances in technology most sporting events are in danger of becoming courtroom dramas. Just look at your typical football game. It is comprised of four fifteen minute quarters. That comes to sixty minutes. But the average length of an NFL game runs longer than a Verdi Opera. In fact, we now spend more time looking at replays of the game than the actual game. And if a play is controversial, we get to spend the next ten minutes watching it over and over and over and over….

The other day I was watching an NBA game when a busted play caused the basketball to bounce out of bounds. But who touched it last? The refs had no idea. So they consulted instant replay. But even with high resolution and multiple camera angles it was impossible to gather whether the basketball grazed a player’s uniform. So everybody stood around and debated.

It reminded me of a time at a roller derby match. A massive collision caused the referees to gather in the middle of the rink to figure out what happened. The problem was they were never going to figure it out. Roller derby is as fathomable as being inside a cyclone. I had been to ten matches at that point and I still could not tell what constituted a foul. In fact, I thought the whole purpose of roller derby was to shove your opponent into the nearest popcorn stand. So why were the referees huddled in the middle of the rink, holding court, just moments from picking jury members from the crowd?

Referees should never be seen as judges trying to implement the law, but traffic cops looking to clean up a car wreck. The refs in most soccer matches act this way. They don’t have eyes in the back of their head. They probably have no idea what happened down the field. But they understand that they must keep the most egregious in check while keeping the clock ticking. So they will listen the players plead their case. They will nod like they understand. They will place the ball for a direct kick. They will push back the offending players back. And they will keep the game moving.

It has to be this way. You don’t want a referee to dither. You don’t want William Shakespeare’s Hamlet wearing a zebra outfit.

Imagine if the Prince of Confusion had to referee a basketball game. At first the game would move along without interruption for Hamlet would only silently observe. But when a point guard stumbles and the other team yells for a travel, he would raise doubt.

 

Travel, you say?
But for how long and how far?
Who am I to decide another man’s journey?
Let the travel go forth.

 

After a while, the players would notice how disengaged the Danish Prince would be to the affairs of the court. And they would start to dispense their own justice by trading fouls. A push here, a shove there, soon a friendly game would turn into a barroom brawl. But even with a need for royal intervention, the prince would still hold back.

 

What is fair? What is foul?
To sleep so close, the wolf and sheep.
Do my eyes betray?
Can my mind conceive?

 

Sensing the game getting out of hand, the coaches would try to call a time out to settle their players. But it would only create more questions for the one holding the whistle.

 

And what is time played out?
Does it give reprieve?
Does it not remain?
Time out you say.
Nay, let time be.

 

Yes, let time be. Don’t let a memory of a NFL game be a coach staring up at a big screen TV while tossing a red sock to protest a call. Do not let the review last longer than the time it takes to get a stadium beer. And never let a referee inhibit a roller girl’s desire to shove her opponent into a popcorn stand.

Like life, sports are inherently unfair. But they are unfair to all participants. Being a good sport is having the good sense to keep playing instead of looking for a zebra to state your case.

One night I was biking home after a long day at work. Since the sun had set, I was left in complete darkness. Even though I was still in the city, I was on a path that ran along an active railway line. And since I did not have a headlight, I used what little light that emanated from the distant Minneapolis skyline.

Even though I could hardly see, I still felt a peaceful calm. For with no sun came no traffic. And with no traffic came no cyclists. And if I was the only cyclist on the path, perhaps I could become part of the night. And if I felt that way, while biking along at 20 mph, perhaps I deserved to bike into ditch.

It may have been quiet, but I was on high alert. Every one of my senses was probing the darkness to gather anything besides an empty void. And it was in the middle of this dearth of information that I saw a flickering shadow along the railroad tracks.

Fear gripped me for I had no idea what it was. It moved too quickly for a jogger, but it was too quiet for a man-made machine. Was it a ghost, a figment of my overly caffeinated mind? Was I Ichabod Crane soon to meet the Headless Horseman? Is this how people are abducted by aliens: off to the corner store; never to return?

I tried to pedal faster but it wasn’t enough. The flickering shadow quickly covered the terrain and gained on me. It didn’t matter how quickly I went. The shadow soon passed on my left and leapt into the night.

The peaceful night returned.

I stopped pedaling and gasped for the cool night air. I looked into the starless sky, the downtown buildings slowly approaching. I coasted for as long as I could until I slammed my brakes.

The flickering shadow that disappeared into the night now lay in front of me. But it was no longer an aberration. It was a deer.

It was stunning to see this animal so deep in the city. It was only a mile from seeing a lousy Timberwolves basketball game. It could have gone to the Smiling Moose for a beer. But why? Why did it wander so close?

Then it hit me. The deer was a sporting one and wanted to compete with its fellow Man the only way it knew how – in a race.

I brought my bike to a complete stop and surrendered the path. It was my first encounter with the Wild Kingdom and I completely lost. Never did I think a race with a deer was in the realm of possibility. But here it was: the deer, victorious, lungs heaving, nostrils flaring, eyes wide to all that was beyond my grasp. It briefly acknowledged my presence before leaping back into the night.

It was a fair race. My only wish – a rematch. But this time it would have to be during the day after I had a cup of coffee. I would need to stretch. My tires would need optimal pressure. A slight wind from the west would be nice.

Would it be sporting to ask for a head start?

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