12/08/2013 09:04 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

The Idea of Sportsmanship: What Mandela Can Teach Us

Nelson Mandela, who brought together a country torn by years of racial strife and resentment, believed that sports had the power to change the world. His lofty vision of sports as means of unity contrasts with the ugly brawl that erupted during the second quarter of this year's Ohio State versus Michigan football game. Three players were ejected for throwing punches. One of them, Ohio State guard Marcus Hall, threw a tantrum as he left the field--throwing his helmet, kicking the bench, and then gave the Michigan fans both middle fingers before leaving the field. There was some speculation following the incident that Hall might be suspended for the Michigan State game, Ohio State's final hurdle before playing for the BCS national championship. After an investigation, the Big Ten issued a public reprimand to Hall for his obscene gesture and to the Ohio State coaching staff for failing properly escort Hall off the field. No suspensions were leveled--assuring that Ohio State will be at full strength for its final match up.

ESPN's Adam Rittenberg complained that the Big Ten was more concerned about promoting its marquee programs then standing up for sportsmanship:

The league had an opportunity to do more and show that behavior like Saturday's ... is unacceptable and has long-term consequences. Monday's wimpy response will be seen as an effort to protect the league's title game and one of its biggest brands in Ohio State.

Detroit Free Press's Jeff Seidel went further criticizing the Big Ten for "flipping off the idea of sportsmanship" for not suspending Hall.

I agree with Rittenberg and Seidel; the Big Ten should have responded more forcefully to this flagrant breach of sportsmanship. On the other hand, what would further penalties accomplish? Would they have deepened respect for sportsmanship among the Michigan and Ohio State players and college football programs more generally? Would they have led to soul-searching about the educational value of collegiate athletics in the first place? Educational psychologists know that punishments are the least effective way of teaching anything. Punishments do not inspire or lead to reflection.

At the very least, we should expect collegiate athletic programs to commit themselves to teaching and exemplifying the best sports have to offer. Three days ago Notre Dame's Play Like a Champion Today sports education program hosted a webinar led P. R. Smith, the founder of the Great Sportsmanship Program. Smith collects stories of sportsmanship, which he shares through his website and then challenges us all to add to list. He reminded webinar participants that that the media pays too much attention to breaches of sportsmanship rather than to the everyday miracles of kindness and generosity that are part of the very fabric of sports.

Nelson Mandela believed that sports can promote peace and human harmony by appealing to the wellsprings of respect and love in the human soul:

Sport .... has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.

College athletic programs would do well to engage their athletes in periodic reflection and discussion of the values of fairness, respect, and love itself that make sports so powerful and transformative.