A Lakers Lesson: Is Sportsmanship a Requirement for Professional Athletes?

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The Los Angeles Lakers have won the second-most championships in NBA history. This week, they may have shown the worst sportsmanship in NBA history. The Dallas Mavericks were up 3-0 in their Western Conference best-of-seven semi-final series and leading Game 4 by 30 points. Lakers Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum were both pissed and ejected from the season-ending game for flagrant fouls. Rather than rely on their star power and prestige, the team behaved like petulant teens. Some of the players simply gave up before the 86-122 loss.

If this was the last game for Lakers coach Phil Jackson (which by all accounts it was), he went out on a down note despite his post-game comments that "it's been a wonderful run." While the Lakers were the favorites to advance to the finals in the West, their season ended with the second-widest margin of defeat in Lakers playoff history and in Jackson's storied playoff career that includes 11 NBA titles. The team was swept for only the sixth time in franchise history.

The Lakers are notorious for erratic seasons. They may have won the last two NBA championships but not before stressing out fans with on and off-court antics that affected their play. They're known for slacking off against lesser teams and in more competitive games only stepping up the game in the fourth quarter. But with all the Laker's success (and attitude) I don't remember an opponent ever planting an elbow in a player's ribs out of frustration or jealousy (okay maybe it's happened before but not with the same ill-will that Bynum exhibited). Truth be told, if the Lakers had somehow triumphed, it would have sent the wrong message to young fans. The take-away may have been it's not necessary to contest every game until the final buzzer and bad behaviour is acceptable when the outcome is a W. Thankfully, that's not what happened.

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If you're trying to teach good sportsmanship to your kids, I hope they didn't watch this game. It's okay to be elated when you win and disappointed when you lose. But the Lakers allowed the season's pent-up emotions — including expectations, recent losses, teammate scuffles and anxiety over losing their coach — to interfere with their timing and focus. And when that happens, it's not okay to resort to cheap shots because your opponent's best happens to be better than your best on a particular day. Sportsmanship is not a selective activity. Champions behave like champions with and without the trophy; on and off the court.

The recent Lakers situation does beg the question: Where do athletes fall on the continuum between celebrity, entertainer and role model? A couple years ago, I wrote a post about this very subject. Are athletes held to different (perhaps unrealistic) standards than actors and entertainers? While money and the media creates exposure for the athletes, they are often put on a pedestal without wanting the position. Bynum wasn't immediately apologetic for trying to level J.J. Barea during a drive and throwing a forearm shiver to the Dallas guard but he later expressed remorse in a too little, too late statement. Odom, who recently won the Sixth Man award, was also guilty of losing his composure during the final quarter and demonstrating less than stellar sportsmanship.

Athletes who are truly role models transcend the sport and reach beyond championships. Muhummad Ali and Andre Agassi are two great examples of athletes who are good role models. They stay with us years after their sports careers are over and use their celebrity for the greater good. In the case of Agassi, he started out as a bad boy, and not a very good role model, but grew into the role as he matured and now raises millions of dollars for education and other causes.

How about athletes like Charles Barkley, Michael Vick, and Michael Phelps? Does Phelp's lapse of judgment (remember the bong photo?) for which he sincerely apologized, adversely affect his image? Should one negative picture be magnified far more than the many, many positive images?

Barkley has always relished his image as a rebel and even made a Nike ad saying “I’m not a role model.” When arrested for DUI, he took responsibility for his actions and seemed to accept his responsibility as a role model. Vick, on the other hand, has never shown remorse for his actions (he was convicted of illegal dog fighting) and though he never claimed to be a role model, his public image may be irreparably damaged even though he is back on top professionally.

Pro athletes may not always be role models, but when it comes to sportsmanship, exhibiting that quality seems non-negotiable. So Lakers - remember that you win some and you lose some. And the lesson we learn in sports when we're young is that how you lose is just as important as how you win. Good sportsmanship showcases respect, fair play, and civility in sports. When pros don't adhere to the same rules we expect of all athletes, it's a real shame. And when the Lakers let-down, they break the hearts of an entire city of basketball fans.

Image Credit: Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/ZumaPress.com

@jschonb

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