Growing up I played a lot of soccer. As my Dad likes to recount, he used to show up to my games before I really played competitively, in a youth league where we were still learning, mostly just sitting in the grass. Call it one of those silly things that parents do or cognitive and identity development; I felt that my years growing up playing soccer helped me to become the sportsman that I am today; someone who believes in honesty and sportsmanship, regardless of which way the point goes.
Fast forward two decades and Brazil is playing in their 2014 World Cup opener against Croatia. Fredrerico Chaves Guedes, one of Brazil’s forwards, is lightly bumped on the shoulder near the top of the penalty area. Fred, as Mr. Guedes is known, flings himself to the ground while swinging his arms around and screaming for a foul. The fans howl, the referee calls a penalty. The penalty shot is good, and Brazil used the point to beat Croatia. Not only has Croatia been cheated, but we — the people of the world — have been cheated, too.
There is an emerging discussion on sportsmanship in how the U.S. soccer team plays. Some say that this theatrical effort is now the norm, and that the U.S. players should participate, especially on the international state — after all, that’s how the other teams play. Others call it cheating, plain and simple. I’m inclined to call it the latter. After all, growing up, while playing on the soccer fields of the YMCA and at my school, we were always taught that honor was the expectation, not an idealistic concept. When people got hurt, we kneeled down where we were and waited for their injury to be resolved. We certainly didn’t sneak along to put ourselves into a better position for when play resumed.
This same discussion is often held on the recreation yard of FCI Petersburg — the medium-security federal prison where I am incarcerated. I play in both a soccer league and in an Ultimate Frisbee league. The soccer league is fairly honorable, with only a little complaining about being bumped. There are no presentations of twisting, turning, falling, flailing, and screaming at the slightest provocation — as appears to be the norm at the World Cup.
The Ultimate Frisbee games, on the other hand, sadly do not hold the same honorable status quo. During Frisbee games players can be seen to push, take a few extra steps into the end zone, foul, or hold off on calling a foul until after they see if their next pass was completed or not. It’s sad, and very unnerving for those of us who like to think of our actions on the field as being a component of who we are: either honorable or dishonorable men.
As Americans, honor is important to us. Integrity is an ideal to live by. And sportsmanship is what it’s all about when playing sports. It’s about holding oneself to a higher standard, putting in the effort to help the man next to you, and winning or losing gracefully and in a manner that you can hold your head up high regardless of the result. The same should be true of the U.S. soccer team, regardless of at the World Cup with TV cameras and reporters present or at a YMCA soccer field on a Saturday afternoon with mothers and fathers in attendance.
As the Thursday game came to a close between U.S. and Germany, one of the U.S. players was hurt. He fell, but an injury timeout was not called by the referee. The German soccer team did the honorable thing: they kicked the ball out of bounds to enable help to come to the injured player. And once the U.S. team was ready to play, they didn’t take the opportunity to attack Germany’s goal — even though they were down by a goal and running the risk of not advancing — they inbounded the ball to Germany’s goalie, giving them possession and allowing us to keep our honor, as they had theirs by refusing to continue playing when one of our players was down. That’s the way that soccer — and life, for that matter — should be played, not some type of performance aimed at gaining an illicit upper hand against a component.
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