SMG: Relentlessly Competitive and the Sports Ethic

From Mina Kimes’ profile of Jalen Ramsey on a few weeks ago.

He was also relentlessly competitive. “He’s the biggest sore loser,” says Jamal, a firefighter. “If you’d beat him at a game, he’d kick you out of his room.” Whenever Jalen was losing at Monopoly, he says, he would jumble up the paper money and insist that it was impossible to tell who was winning. Jamal laughs. “I’m surprised he had friends.”

You see paragraphs like this in so many sports feature stories, it is almost a trope. The athlete who is so competitive that he (or she, but let’s face it, in these stories it is almost always a he) refuses to lose at anything ever. (Note, this is not a criticism of Kimes or her story, this just happens to be the most recent one I’ve seen). It’s a characterization that cuts across racial lines. You read it about Aaron Rodgers. You read it about Michael Jordan, who is so famously competitive like this that it is a key component of the Jordan mythology.

But the more I read descriptions like this, the more one thing strikes me.

This is a horrible personality trait.

Seriously. Read Kimes’ description of Ramsey. Sore loser. Kick you out of the room if he lost a game. “Surprised he had friends.”

We’ve all met that person (or, in lower moments, been that person) who has been the sore loser at a game light. They’re not popular people. They’re not people whom you want in your life. We mock these people.

Except when they’re athletes. Then, we celebrate them.

This is a classic example of The Sport Ethic, which is the series of traits and characteristics that sports sociologists Jay Coakley and Robert Coakley have found are accepted by elite athletes and coaches. One of the key elements of The Sport Ethic is the desire to win. “Athletes are expected to relentlessly seek to improve and achieve perfection. Winning symbolizes improvement and establishes distinction,” they wrote in 2009. Adherance to The Sport Ethic leads to what they call deviant overconformity, where they adhere so closely to these ideas that they can damage their health or well being.

One of the ideas I’ve studied throughout my career is the notion that sports media perpetuate The Sport Ethic through coverage (and, primarily, through the reliance on players and coaches as sources). This is the case here. The idea that being so competitive that you can’t stand to lose any game ever is a clear example of deviant overconformity. It is not healthy behavior.

But in sports, we don’t criticize it. We celebrate it.

And by doing that, we perpetuate it as desired behavior. Even when it isn’t.