Not long ago I attended a college play that I really enjoyed. Between acts I noticed the stage-manager setting the stage for the next act. I went to the front and told him how much I enjoyed the earlier act. He did not respond. A day later I received an email of apology from him. In it he said that in doing stage management he wanted to model professional conduct for his students, and that meant putting his full attention to setting the stage, not chatting with the audience.

Would that our professional football players have such a code of conduct.

A good player performs athletic activities well. He has mastered the practices of a sport over time, matching great talent with hard work. When we watch athletic activities carried out with excellence, we delight in them and the athletes that perform them. Some of them are so good they become “immortal” in our human memories. We have a number of immortal quarterbacks playing now. Moreover, when they perform in a competitive context, another thrill is added to the spectacle. Not only are athletes summoned to their highest performance, but we get involved in the competition, hoping for our favorite athlete or team to win.

From ancient times it has been recognized that there is a certain integrity to the role of athlete, just as there is to that of a coach. We expect players to play well, coaches to coach well. In recent times, however, the integrity of these roles has been violated by athletes taking on identities extraneous to the main task of competing. This violation irritates me, and perhaps many other folks. Let me be more concrete.

We now have athletes taking on the role of referee. After making a first down, receivers beat the referee to the punch by signaling the first down. Further, they take on the role of chums with the referee, patting him on the behind or back. (If I were a referee I would hiss at the first player that patted me, “Next time you do that it’s a penalty!”)

Athletes take on the role of entertainer, too. They celebrate! They prance into the endzone, do a dance after a touchdown, invent little celebrative rituals, sprint from the scene of their tackle, do a war dance after a sack, pray ostentatiously, spike the ball—all of which call attention to themselves. I estimate that half the still shots and videos we see in the media are now of such antics.

Players and even coaches now commonly take on the role of cheerleader, summoning the crowd to make noise at crucial times. Besides the dubious sportsmanship of the practice, it seems that their primary roles should demand full concentration on playing or coaching, not cheerleading. Let us—led by real cheerleaders—decide when to cheer.

Many players become their own therapists, too. They maintain that they have to “let it all hang out” in order to perform well. Screams, grunts, flamboyant gestures, shouts of triumph, and outbursts of anger are all justified by players as therapeutically necessary venting. But that requires us to say that in the old days of complete suppression of emotions, players suffered for their stoicism, instead of adhering to it voluntarily because they believed it was fitting and proper. Perhaps they also assumed that, after they had made a good tackle or sack, knocked down a pass, or scored, they should behave as if they’d done it before. After all, the play’s the thing, not the self-expression.

Most outrageously, players have taken on the role of fans by giving themselves honor. They pound their chests, hold up their fists in triumph, flex their biceps, invite cheers for themselves, stand victoriously over their prone opponent, and shout that they are the greatest. (Mohammed Ali was one of the pioneers of self-congratulation, for which I’ve never quite forgiven him. Neither was he gracious to his opponents. Joe Frazier, a genuine sportsman, never gloated or clowned.) What is really the role of the fans—the offering of plaudits—has been taken over by the players themselves.

Engrafted into this accretion of extraneous roles is poor sportsmanship. Each of the antics described above has the effect of calling attention to the self at the expense of teammates and opponents. Teammates, because every excellent individual deed on the gridiron is dependent upon teammates doing their job. Opponents, because such antics “lord it over them” in a public way, leading to violent retaliation if the perpetrator is not careful. All these things make it less and less appealing to watch professional and college football. I mention college football because college players are catching the disease from the professionals, an odd reversal. One would think that grown men in a dangerous sport would have more dignity and maturity.

But there is good news. For the moment, offensive linemen have not been able to find a way to celebrate. Quarterbacks are for the most part pretty professional. Many other players refrain from exhibitionism. And other professional sports seem to have held the line. Golf and baseball have not succumbed to the most irritating of these role confusions. Tennis has finally gotten over MacEnroe and Connors. College sports are getting their acts together by more stringent rules. Maybe the NFL will restore some dignity to the game. Maybe players will just play well again. We can all hope.

Robert Benne, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus, Research Associate, and Founder of the Robert Benne Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia. See his previous posthere.

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