I have a keen fascination with the territory between sportsmanship and gamesmanship in sports and other adversarial institutions. That is, between “the high road” of following both the letter and the spirit of the rules, on the one hand, and the “low road” of cheating within the rules, or of cheating when you think you won’t get caught, on the other. But there are so many fundamentally different examples of both good sportsmanship and (bad) gamesmanship, I’m not at all clear how we should categorize them.
I’ve sometimes thought I could find an example of just about every different kind of gamesmanship simply by cataloguing the exploits of Alex Rodriguez (a.k.a. A-Rod) of the New York Yankees. Maybe I’ll try to do just that this season, the next time he makes headlines for breaking yet another one of baseball’s unwritten rules.
Sometimes we see a plethora of examples of being a good or a bad sport in one single contest. One could not help but be impressed by the verbal jostling that went on for a full week before the second-round AFC playoff match between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots last week. Since most of this (a) was banter, and (b) went on off the field and before the game, it was mostly not even covered by the official rules of the NFL — though those rules certainly permit the Commissioner to punish players and coaches for off-field remarks and behavior. Nevertheless, most of the following remarks or actions received their fair share of “critical” and “normative” evaluation on ESPN and talk-radio throughout the week. Although the one significant on-field action, as far as I know, has received no attention whatsoever.
Even before kickoff, Greg Cote of the Miami Herald summarized most of the pre-game exchanges, and arrived at a reasonable evaluation:
Jets-Pats is such a delightful psychological study as one team boasts and bleats and brays because the other, better team is so obviously under its skin and in its head.
“This is about Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan,” brayed Ryan this week, ridiculously. “There’s no question it’s personal. It’s about him against myself, and that’s what it’s going to come down to. I recognize that he’s the best and all that. But I plan on being the best coach on Sunday.”
Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are the two men the Jets obsess about and make noise because they are the Pats’ great advantage.
Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie this week called Brady an expletive and said he hates him….
Best of all, the blather is one-sided.
To Cromartie’s expletive, Brady deadpanned, “I’ve been called worse.”
To Ryan’s me-versus-him bluster, Belichick noted, “I don’t think you’ll see either one of us out there making any blocks or tackles.”
Edge to the Jets for talking a good game.
Edge to the Pats for playing a good game.
Cote leaves out one further exchange. The one Patriot to break ranks was Wes Welker who, a few days before the game, gave an interview with an extraordinary number of references to feet and toes. The references sailed past several sports journalists at first, until it became obvious that he was poking fun at the Jet’s coach’s recently discovered “interest” in feet (or at least in his wife’s feet). Fair or foul? Witty or tasteless?
The No-Fun League was not amused: they issued a warning to all teams to tone down the trash talk after this. A Jets linebacker, Bart Scott was even less amused, and his riposte was surely the remark-of-the-week that most clearly crossed “the line,” however that line is defined. (Stuff one professional player just does not say, stuff the league ought not to tolerate — given it already won’t tolerate players wearing the wrong colored socks, etc.) Scot issued a fatwa of sorts: “Be very careful what you say about our coach. His [Welker's] days in a uniform will be numbered. Put it like that.”
You don’t hear that every day in the NFL.
It’s also not every day, or even every playoff day, that you see an NFL coach bench a star player for off-field trash-talking. But that’s what Bill Belichick did to Welker. Welker sat out the first offensive series for his disrespectful remarks — or for not following Belichick’s directive to ignore the Jets’ provocations. We’re not sure which. Two thumbs up for Belichick’s sense of sportsmanship here. (And I say that as a begrudging non-rational Belichick hater.)
But the most awesome demonstration of the virtues of good sportsmanship came on the field itself; and as I noted already, nobody, not even the announcers covering the game seemed to notice it. I didn’t even catch the names of all the players involved, but I ran back over the “tape” in slow motion on the DVR several times to get a good look.
Somewhere in the middle of the second half, with the Jets holding a narrow lead and with the Patriots driving toward a score, a Jets lineman dove and reached while being blocked to the ground, and got a secure hold of the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s left foot. He had Brady immobilized, though he wasn’t in a position to actually knock him down and end the play. Within a second or so another Jets lineman or linebacker closed in on Brady from another angle and was clearly going to flatten him. And given the angle Brady would have fallen, sideways with downed men already in the way, if the first lineman had continued holding his foot, Brady’s leg and knee would have been broken and torn to shreds.
But that first lineman, clearly understanding what would happen within a split second, released Brady’s foot. Brady was sacked, and got up slowly, and even with his left leg having been free, he looked to have sprained his knee. He limped a bit, and the drive soon ended.
But at least his career hadn’t ended.
This anonymous lineman exercised sportsmanship of the highest level: he would not have been blamed if Brady’s leg had been snapped. He could plausibly have claimed he couldn’t see what was happening. And moreover, if Brady had been forced out of the game at that point, the Jets would surely have won. (They did win, but it was by no means certain at that point.) But he was willing to risk his team’s success — after a week of over-the-top trash talk — for the sake of upholding a sacred unwritten rule in the NFL brotherhood of not intentionally and unnecessarily injuring a fellow player.
I salute you, oh anonymous Jets lineman, whoever you are. You deserved more praise.