Let your play do the talking.
Those are simple words, but among the best any coach ever has given me.
Yet, these days, sports have become more about talking rather than just playing the game. More and more, I have witnessed sports evolve into a me-first extravaganza, instead of a team-first concept, which it should be — unequivocally.
This evolution has become very apparent in my years of playing and covering various athletics.
So, where did this “decline” begin?
I have thought about this for some time and the point when I really started noticing this sports selfishness was in the late 1990s. Sure, there were plenty of examples in years prior, but in my generation, this is the beginning of the end.
That’s when I really started noticing pro athletes who seemed more interested in chest-pounding and thuggery than merely playing the game.
Surely, the Internet and media explosion of the time provided more wall-to-wall sports coverage, which made athletes more aware of their impact on society. And, as contracts grew and more dollars went flying, it only made things worse until they really got out of hand.
Two examples that come to mind are Deion Sanders and Allen Iverson. Both were tremendous players, but weren’t exactly charming with their antics.
I am all for an athlete taking pride in his or her skills or playing hard, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t celebrate a touchdown, a goal or a nice pass, sweet save or play with some flair. When it comes to acting tough or showing up other people – that’s the sort of crap I despise. Those boundaries have been blown away in recent years.
Like a domino effect, it wasn’t long before the look-at-me attitude really took off in college sports.
Unfortunately, it’s been at the high school level, too, for quite a while. Across the board, the way some of these young athletes act today is absurd and quite startling, actually. They have no respect for themselves or the sports they play. Not even a hint of that would have been tolerated by some of my coaches.
And, when I coached, I didn’t — and wouldn’t — put up with it.
But, times have changed and definitely not for the better.
So, where is this all going and why do I sound like the people I scoffed at when I was younger? (Now, I look back and say, “Wow, they were right.”)
Well, this decline in sporting behavior reached its boiling point with me last week and resulted in my first-career ejection — from any sporting event.
Not only has it spoiled pro, college and amateur sports, but this chest-pounding attitude really infiltrated recreational sports, too.
I play in several recreational sports leagues and probably the worst one I have ever encountered is a co-ed soccer league in suburban Pittsburgh. Yeah, that’s right — guys and gals. And, let me tell you, there are plenty of “me-firsters” among all races and genders.
It was especially bad last week and I snapped on one play early in a game.
Following a play in which I, as the goalkeeper, punched a loose ball out of the air and away from a group of players, an opposing female forward collided with me and fell to the ground. In the process, she screamed “He punched me in the head.”
That was pretty much impossible because she was quite a few inches shorter and the ball was high in the air when, with my arm already extended, I jumped to meet it.
Regardless, no foul was called on the play — and rightfully so.
However, another opposing forward — who acted like he was The Man all night — pushed me in “retaliation” for apparently punching his teammate (I guess?), who clearly took a dive to try to draw a penalty. So, I shoved back and started to walk back to the goal. He shouted vulgar insults at me three different times before I turned around and unleashed one of my own at him.
That drew a whistle and the ref threw me out of the game specifically for what I said. I asked if he had heard the three previous slurs directed to me and he claimed did not. How convenient. While that call was ridiculous and bogus, I’ll leave that for another column.
While sitting on the bench, I realized my outburst was more than just about retaliation toward some yapping clown. Years of seeing this disrespectful sporting behavior finally caught up to me and stared me in the face at that moment and I merely vented my frustration.
One teammate was able to fill in for me at goalkeeper and my team ended up winning in the final seconds. So, there was some sweet justice there, even though the fool who swore at me ran his mouth and played dirty the rest of the game without a word spoken to him by the crack officiating crew.
I am really disappointed with the direction behavior has gone within the sporting world, which is a reflection on today’s society, ultimately.
So, getting tossed from that game reminded me to shut my mouth, just play the game and the rest will take care of itself.
It’d be wonderful if everyone else followed that advice.
(Joe Sager is a sports correspondent at The News. He also has a small role in the new film, “She’s Out of My League,” which was filmed in Pittsburgh.)