Economics of Sportsmanship

Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski blasted LeBron James for his behavior after the Magic series and his “explanation” of it the next day:

I’m a winner, King James proclaimed. So, there you go. That’s his reason for rushing out of the conference finals without so much as a nod to Dwight Howard(notes) and the Orlando Magic. That’s his reason for marching to the bus and letting the Cleveland Cavaliers’ spare parts take care of his responsibilities in the interview room.

Funny, but James stayed on the court to make sure the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks paid respect to him. As it turns out, there’s one thing allowed to happen at the end of a playoff series: Everyone bows down and kisses the King’s ring. Only, LeBron doesn’t have a ring. He’s never won a game in the NBA Finals. So, yes, maybe they just have to kiss his feet.

It’s not being a poor sport or anything like that,” James said. No, nothing like that. Yes, James cares so much that it isn’t possible to be gracious and humbled. You know me, he told the reporters in Cleveland on Sunday. I’m a competitor. “If somebody beats you up, you’re not going to congratulate them,” James said. “It doesn’t make sense for me to go over and shake somebody’s hand.” Here’s the question: Who has the guts to tell him that he sounds like an immature, self-absorbed brat? Here’s the problem for the Cavaliers and James: No one.

As a fan, I mainly agree with Wojnarowski and find James’ rationalization even more of a turn-off than his initial actions.

As an economist I’m intrigued by the widespread nature of sportsmanship standards. The exact threshold for good and bad sportsmanship differs across individuals and tends to be influenced by a variety of variables including the specific sport along with fan age, urban/rural, income, nationality, or ethnicity. Despite nuances across individuals, sportsmanship seems to be part of wider moral/ethical standards. Leagues codify some standards, assessing penalties for “unsportsmanlike” behavior such as fighting, excessive griping to the referee, or taunting of opponents. Many of the sportsmanship standards, however, exist outside of league rules. For example, trotting around the basis at a decent clip after a home run or shaking hands after games or series (in league rules in many youth leagues but not in pro leagues).

What useful purposes might such sportsmanship standards encourage? Sports competition at the most basic level requires cooperation between competitors (“Co-Opetition” to use the term coined in the Brandenburger-Nalebuff book) or “I’ll take my ball and go home.” Leagues sportsmanship rules and practices may help promote build some degree of goodwill and limit some destructive conflicts.

Why do fans care? It is harder to come up with a narrow, utilitarian explanation for fans. Here, it seems that a desire for “fair play” and “good sportsmanship” is connected to deep-seated moral/ethical outlooks — the promotion of broad “civic virtues” such as as fairness, self-restraint, humility, awareness of others …

Whatever the basis, a lot of fans are turned off by the chest-thumping, big celebrations of minor accomplishments, and petulance. Sports leagues indulge bad behavior at their own risk. I’m personally acquainted with many sports fans who no longer watch a particular pro league because of “unsportsmanlike” displays. Why do league reps (like David Stern in James’ case) or some in the media defend bad displays of sportsmanship and even seem to encourage some of it as adding flavor to the games? The simplest explanations is that they view their wagon as closely hitched to the player or want to continue to have “access.”

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Author: Brian Goff

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