In a perfect world, sportsmanship would be an automatic attainment, something that would come to everyone naturally and without hesitation. However, that is not always the case. So when a state association has to begin or tweak a sportsmanship program, it can be hard to know where to start. There are always things that need to be accomplished, but if the group in question has no input in how to go about accomplishing those goals, not a lot will get done.
About 10 years ago, when the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association (MPSSAA) wanted to revamp its sportsmanship program, administrators went right to their key constituents – the student-athletes. Andy Warner, MPSSAA executive director, said it all began at the NFHS National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC), where the students actually flipped the script and outlined the expectations they had for others when it came to sportsmanship.
“We utilized two of our delegations that we took to the NSLC to help us develop a sportsmanship program,” Warner said. “Going through the NSLC and our own state leadership conference, we got a student perspective of what they would like to see in a sportsmanship program – something that can identify the different roles of sportsmanship, whether you’re a parent, a spectator, a coach or a school administration official.”
The students at the conference then helped the MPSSAA create “Respect the Game” books and brochures that the association could provide to its membership. Those materials, which are available on the MPSSAA website, include features for student-athletes such as “What I Wish My Parents Knew About Me Participating in High School Athletics,” “What We Learn from Participating” and a student-athlete code of conduct, as
well as public-address announcements, a game administration checklist and the results of a survey taken on the status of sportsmanship in Maryland.
“Anytime you can create a conversation regarding sportsmanship, it’s a benefit,” Warner said. “Our sportsmanship program has created the benefit of discussion. It’s a fighting battle out there because
there are a lot of influences from various degrees that challenge sportsmanship.
“I think, from that standpoint, we continue to have the discussion, we continue to focus on the benefits of strong sportsmanship and we continue the focus on participation and what student-athletes are learning from participation.” When it came time to give the new sportsmanship program a name, Warner said the MPSSAA looked to one of its fellow associations for inspiration.
“‘Respect the Game’ is actually a term that was coined by the Ohio association,” Warner said. “Graciously, Dan Ross and the people in Ohio allowed us to use that phrase as well.
“That was a phrase that really inspired our previous executive director, Ned Sparks, and he thought that we could build around it. It’s something that has taken off very well in the state of Maryland.”
Warner said another reason it has taken off so well is that the basic idea of respect is an easy one for the students to relate to and display. It is also an easy concept for administrators to distinguish in action.
“That idea of respecting the game, respecting your opponents, respecting everybody is a positive from this,” Warner said. “It’s some language that is a reminder when it’s read in public-address announcements, when you see it on the banners and in the programs and all the printed material that we have.
“You see sportsmanship by just standing back and watching it a lot of times. If you stand back and watch our events unfold, you can see those positive changes that have happened from it.”
From the beginning, Warner said, the most special part of the program has always been about who designed it and keeps it going.
“It’s for students, built by students,” Warner said. “It’s a development of working with our young people and them having a say in the sportsmanship program.
“I think that voice of our students is the strongest part of this program.”
Juli Doshan is a former staff member in the NFHS Publications and Communications Department and now lives in Washington, D.C.