Growing up, I loved watching tennis.
At the time, the big rivalry was between John McEnroe and Björn Borg. Most everyone I knew rooted for McEnroe. After all, he was the American – to do otherwise would be unpatriotic.
While McEnroe was incredibly talented, the more I watched him, the more I realized I didn’t really like him. Sure, he was an amazing tennis player, but as a person… well, he seemed like a big jerk.
In nearly every match, he questioned the umpire over calls and lashed out against line judges. He was famous for throwing temper tantrums and smashing his racquet on the ground. The outbursts were often unwarranted, especially when his allegation over a play was proven wrong. While some found his behavior entertaining, others, like me, found it abhorrent.
That’s because tennis, like all sports, is built on longstanding traditions.
Respect for these traditions, and the expectations of everyone involved, is what makes sports universally loved. It isn’t some random free-for-all. It’s an institution, built on established rules – shared, inherent truths that have been honored and upheld for years; in some cases, centuries.
In sports, players know and follow the rules of the game. Impartial officials, such as umpires and referees, preside over the game and ensure players adhere to the rules. If they don’t, calls are made which are analyzed and cross-examined to confirm validity. This shows the game is played fairly with a stable framework of order and consistency.
Beyond following the rules, players are expected to conduct themselves appropriately. Good sportsmanship is the understanding and commitment to honest, ethical play, as well as courteous behavior. At its essence, it’s pursuing victory with integrity.
Competitive sports are emotional by nature, so when a player exhibits restraint and resilience, it’s a testament to their character. To play a game well is to value etiquette, decorum, and to some degree, obedience – even when, especially when, a player finds themselves in the losing position.
Being a good sport means accepting the results of a game graciously, no matter the outcome.
That’s why, even as a young kid, I knew what McEnroe was doing was wrong. It didn’t matter that he was one of the best players in the world. His lousy attitude was inexcusable. His talent and title meant nothing because I saw him for what he truly was: a bad sport.
Bad sportsmanship isn’t only relegated to athletics. Just take a look at what’s happening in U.S. politics. It’s now been over three weeks since Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 U.S. Election, but Trump still won’t concede. Worse, he continues to allege voter fraud despite no evidence of it.
While Trump is legally allowed to contest the results, reports show that his claims are unsubstantiated and his election lawsuits have mostly failed (his current win/loss tally is 1–39). As Ohio State election law professor Edward B. Foley stated, “You can’t go to court just because you don’t like the vote totals.”
Just as McEnroe disrupted the norms of the professional tennis world, Trump has upended politics and to some degree, reality itself. With this year’s election, he set a new precedent: that it’s okay to be a bad sport.
Since assuming the presidency, Trump’s unconventional habits have thrilled some and horrified others. It’s no surprise that when a public figure continually breaks the rules of a deep-rooted system, it shifts the paradigm. Sometimes change is good and necessary, but in certain cases, when radical confrontation and delusional ideology become mainstream, it’s extremely detrimental.
Our democracy, like the institution of sports, is something fundamentally bigger than ourselves.
It only works when everyone believes in its legitimacy and works to preserve it. So when basic tenets such as truth, decency, and justice begin to erode, we compromise its overall integrity. In other words, our democracy is at risk of irrevocable damage.
Putting up with childish antics from a tennis player is one thing. Having it come from the President of the United States is quite another. The disrespect that Trump has shown to the office, our electoral system, and the ideals of this country is no source of national pride for me. I feel only shame – and fear.
Imagine if a sports player or team claimed a game was rigged just because they lost. What if a coach promoted a conspiracy theory that sowed doubt on a game’s outcome, causing spectators to challenge the winner? What if bad sportsmanship not only became more accepted, but encouraged – even provoked?
It’s unfathomable. Yet that’s where we are with this year’s presidential election. Trump’s unfounded assertions and bogus lawsuits, enabled by corrupt and complicit members of his party, is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our nation’s history.
In sports, players, as well as coaches, officials, and fans, don’t rebuke the system. So why is this blatant attack on our democracy being condoned?
Here are the facts: Biden has received more than 80 million votes, breaking Obama’s record for most votes ever cast for a U.S. President. He beat Trump by more than 6 million votes, with an Electoral College win of 306 to Trump’s 232 – ironically the same electoral count that Trump beat Clinton in 2016, a result he considered a “landslide.” Officials state that the election is “the most secure in American history,” as endorsed by Trump’s own Election Security Director, Christopher Krebs (who Trump, unsurprisingly, has since fired.)
Furthermore, the six states where Trump contested his defeat certified their votes for Biden. Multiple, credible news sources have confirmed the results and all major media networks have verified Biden as the next President of the United States. With the exception of a few holdouts, namely Russia’s Vladimir Putin, world leaders have congratulated Biden on the win as well. In the elections our country has held, no modern presidential candidate has refused to concede.
Trump is undeniably a bad sport.
Among others, Trump’s first wife, Ivana, admitted that he doesn’t like losing. But guess what? No one likes to lose. No one goes into a game – or an election for that matter – hoping not to win (well, maybe Trump did back in 2016, but that’s a whole other story).
Losing generously requires maturity, self-control, and a genuine respect for, and reverence to, the process. Constantly opposing outcomes and making erroneous accusations when you lose is not how the game of sports – or politics – is played. Whether we’re fans or citizens, do we reject a system that’s been in place for hundreds of years, simply because one, ill-tempered narcissist claims it no longer works? Of course not.
Throughout his career, McEnroe’s unacceptable behavior led to numerous fines and suspensions, even earning him a reputation as the most hated tennis champion of all time. In short, his bad sportsmanship had consequences.
Conversely, Trump’s nonsensical theories aren’t resulting in the backlash they should – not because what he’s saying is true, but because his title as president conveniently exempts him from punishment. To use the office in this destructive way isn’t just embarrassing, it’s troubling, dangerous, and wrong.
It’s clear our country is more polarized than ever. Indeed, it often feels like we’re two bitter sports rivals facing off against one another. Unlike sports though, our separate “teams” are not engaged in friendly competition.
We’re living in a time when good sportsmanship is being replaced by a raw, indignant tribalism heralded by unethical, divisive leadership. Where actual, evidence-based truths are not just overlooked, but flat out denied. And those unwilling to accept reality are choosing to believe falsehood over fact. It’s a serious problem and it must change.
Sports should not be held to a higher standard than our democracy.
While McEnroe has gone on to become a successful sports commentator, when I see him, I rarely think of his amazing tennis career. Rather, I’m reminded of what a bad sport he always was. Whatever happens to Trump after the election, he too, will be remembered as a bad sport – specifically, the world’s worst loser.
From a young age, we teach children the importance of good sportsmanship. To pursue victory with integrity and accept failure with grace. That concept should apply to all of us – certainly to the President of the United States. And for us to function and thrive as a civilized country, we must ensure it applies, both in sports and politics.
Because long after the game is over, that’s what people, and history, will remember.