Sunday Opinion: Good Sportsmanship

Though there were no computers then from which to print and pocket an outline of acceptable human behavior, I none the less grew up with a check list.  I am quite sure I had reluctantly memorized every page by the time I was five.  From God’s heart to my Mom’s lips; this vivid metaphor stopped me in my tracks from committing any number of rude, thoughtless, and unkind acts.  This is not to say I was not exactly like any other kid-that is to say, not very grown up.  That gawky 6th grade girl from St Clair Shores named Sharon Barber-who blew by me in the final round of the county spelling bee-she infuriated me.  I of course thought I should have had a generous handicap, given that I was a mere 4th grader. Lacking a leg up endorsed by the committee, I already had a baby faced chip on my shoulder that would make any adult laugh.  I think “so not fair” were the only three words I knew how to string together.    I distinctly remember her spelling her word incorrectly under her breath, before she blared forth with the correct spelling.  The second place awarded to me was the equivalent of utter failure.  I had no sooner thrown my trophy to the ground when my Mom scooped it up, and planted it firmly in my hands.  She stepped back, sure in her expectation that I would do the right thing.  In spite of my fury at such an injustice, I shook the girl’s hand, and congratulated her heartily on her win. This in spite of the fact that I really wanted to knock her to the ground, and pummel her.  My checklist went with me wherever I went.  Those occasions when I was so foolish not to consult and adhere to that list-there she would be.  She had the ability to materialize out of no where.  My Mom was beautiful.  She had thick wavy hair, gorgeous eyebrows, and wore red lipstick every day.  She was a scientist many respected.  I knew her in a way much different than this. She was the guardian of the gate. I knew she would never turn loose of me until I could be trusted to let good sportsmanship be my guide.

Good sportsmanship applies to much more than a pickup basketball game.  Games are games, but those principles by which people live a life are a serious business.  50 years later I am still pulling out that checklist.  The top ten, dating back to 1955:  Be a good sport (acknowledge those who do well).   Do no harm (be nice to your brother).  Tell the truth (even if the truth could get you in a lot of trouble).  Mind your manners (acknowledge the efforts of others-never forget to say thank you).  Respect others (every person comes entitled to respect, standard issue).   Reward excellence (even though it might not be your own); extend a hand to those in need (this includes that 6th grade girl who won the contest, but had not one friend in the world).  Don’t cheat, lie, hate, or steal (the annotated version of the ten commandments).  Be slow to blame, and quick to welcome. All of this in addition to brushing my teeth, doing my homework, and looking both ways before I crossed the street.  I was busy, but she was busier. 

My Mom’s list of do’s and don’t’s had 4 times the ones listed above, butI will spare you the rest.  She may not have been an award winning Mom,  but she was a Mom who took her job seriously.  She had a big list ready for me the second I attained consciousness. We would go over it as many times as it took until I got it.  As a consequence, I know how to win graciously, loose even more graciously.  Would I win any awards for consistently playing by her book-probably not.  But at least I give it serious thought before I stray.   

A serious point of view is not all bad.  I am not at all casual about a job that is not done right, or a wrong that needs redressing.  A job I did in 2002, which I recently visited, has problems; I feel compelled to try to sort out the trouble. Other things thrown my way really don’t belong to me-letting that go is good sportsmanship.  Few issues are solely about right and wrong, or good and bad.  Most everything depends on all the parties having similar lists from which they conduct themselves.    

This being said, I am anything but a good sport about the garden.  I have had many disappointments-just as every other gardener has.  Nature could not be further removed from any idea that I have about fair play.  Nature cooks my plants, blasts them with thunderstorms, coats them with ice, knocks them to the ground, chews them up and spits them out like so much compost.  The worst of it-it’s not even personal; you might as well compost your exasperation as well as your poorly performing or dead plants.  Growing a great garden requires the chess player’s ability to think ahead ten moves.  It requires the brute force of a tackle, the strong arms of a basketball player, the strategic skills of a golfer and the persistence of a long distance runner.  Should you possess all of the above, I still doubt there is any gold medal in your future.  Sooner or later nature will pitch the rule book out the window, and overrule all of your efforts.  The rows of white cosmos I have faithfully watered and deadheaded all summer have turned white overnight from mildew.  I am anything but a good sport about the fact that all of them are going down too early-in spite of my care.  I watered for four hours yesterday.  Just as I finished, the sky let loose of at least an inch of rain; how completely and utterly irritating. I eventually let go of all the unwarranted and unfair insults regularly sent my way via the garden, and keep gardening.  But I do reserve the right to be a not so good sport about it.


  1. Very interesting perspective on life and life’s little challenges. You mother sounds like she was a very smart woman.

  2. The garden is not a sports field. It is a private domain while it is being designed and tended. There is no need for good sportsmanship here. That admirable character trait is expected by those that visit and admire.

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