Sportsmanship? We talkin’ ’bout sportsmanship? On Harrison and Ryan
Over the weekend, the embers of America’s self-righteous disapprobation for Kentucky basketball, tempered briefly by their newly found love-affair with victorious Wisconsin, burst anew into joyful flames of fresh indignation by a couple of post-game incidents. First, a few Kentucky players forgot to shake hands with their opponents after their semi-final loss. But then, and far more thrillingly, Kentucky’s sophomore guard Andrew Harrison unwittingly muttered “Fuck that n***a” under his breath into a hot mic when his teammate was asked a question about Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the national college player of the year. A couple of days later, the current incarnation of nostalgic amateur sports fantasy, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, was interviewed after his team lost to Duke for the title. Ryan complained that officiating was unfair to Wisconsin and later referred indirectly to Duke and Kentucky as “rent-a-player” schools. When I heard Bo last night, I wondered rhetorically what fans who’d lambasted Harrison would say about Bo. One of my followers quickly complained “totally different. how can you compare?” I actually agree, though not for the reasons he might have imagined and since I compare for a living, I’ll bite.
The first thing you need is a basis for comparison, a common frame of reference. In this case, that’s furnished by the context: the post-game interview, more specifically, the post-game comments of individuals who have just lost a game. So, taking the question “how can you compare” at face value, the answer is that we can compare the two sets of remarks because they were both uttered by the losers in the moments after defeat. But I doubt that the question was meant in that sense. I don’t think he doubted that the situations were comparable, I think he believed that Harrison’s remarks were inexcusable and Ryan’s were not.
In that case, ironically, the question was itself an example of exactly the kind of response that my original tweet was anticipating, namely that Andrew Harrison’s remark was a more egregious violation of norms of sportsmanship (graciousness in defeat) than Bo Ryan’s comments. Harrison’s comment, we know, prompted almost immediate and intense censure that ranged from patronizing criticism of his immaturity to moralizing objections to the word “fuck” to howling complaints that it was racist, that if Kaminsky had said the same thing of a black player he’d have been skewered and probably suspended and that the same thing should happen to Harrison. After Bo Ryan blamed the official for robbing Wisconsin of the victory they deserved, CBS’s studio announcer concluded, “Bo Ryan, gracious in defeat.” Without irony. I don’t want to overstate this: a number of people criticized Ryan for his comments, but the criticisms were far more muted in tone than those leveled at Harrison. Is that because what Harrison said was, in fact, a more serious violation of sportsmanship codes?
Obviously, codes of sportsmanship, like any other moral codes, are subjective and situational, so we can each only judge this from ourselves. To pretend that they are universal or that there is some objective, rational standard is at best an honest mistake and at worst disingenuously self-serving. So I’m only speaking for myself in saying that I don’t think so. In fact, if I had to measure the two sets of comments, I’d say that Ryan’s showed worse judgment, were more ungracious and disrespectful and deserve more criticism than Harrison’s. Why?
Of course, both individuals were disappointed and frustrated in defeat. That’s understandable. And neither individual took responsibility for their roles in their respective defeats, which is what I suppose most believers in norms of sportsmanship were expecting. But Harrison, though is mic was on, was actually not making a public statement but rather a private comment. In fact, he was talking to himself. Ryan was responding publicly to a question with remarks that he later reiterated. Harrison is an adolescent, Ryan an adult and Harrison, by comparison with Ryan, who has been coaching for forty years, has far less experience appearing before the press. It’s hard to know just what Harrison had in mind with his comment. But it’s not hard to imagine, if you’ve been around basketball players, that among things the comment tacitly, and in a vernacular unfamiliar to most white Americans, expressed respect for an opponent who had bested him (here’s the counter-argument, by the way, judge it for yourself). Basically, Harrison implicitly and privately attributed Kentucky’s defeat and his own bad feelings to, well, Frank Kaminsky. Was it provocative? I suppose so, if you’ve never been around a basketball court where such language is absolutely commonplace. Ryan’s comments were free of what some would consider offensive language, but, on the other hand attributed Wisconsin’s defeat (and his frustration) to unfair officiating and to a recruiting model of which he morally disapproves. Finally, Harrison apologized. Ryan, to my knowledge, has, as of this writing, not apologized. If and when he does, that would temper my own judgment of the comments.
But let me be clear: I have no problem with Bo Ryan’s comments, and I had no problem with Andrew Harrison’s remarks. I actually don’t need my athletic celebrities to measure their speech, not by my standards and not by those of anyone else. I need them to do what they do (play or coach) excellently and, if possible, in a way that is aesthetically or dramatically interesting to me.
My problem is that if there is a double standard here it is not that Frank Kaminsky or other white people aren’t “allowed” to call black people n***as (after all, that’s exactly and obviously as it should be). The objectionable double-standard is that which tears Andrew Harrison (young, black, and an athlete) a new one for what was essentially an off-hand private comment inadvertently made public and later retracted while politely correcting Bo Ryan (older, white, and a coach) for what appear to be considered and firmly held opinions. Andrew Harrison may not be an adult yet. Bo Ryan may have temporarily forgotten how to behave like one. But maybe we, who are not, after all, in the emotional thick of the competitive context, can do something more mature and reasoned with our feelings.