Competitive sports are a lot different than they used to be.
It used to be that competitive athletes held a certain amount of respect for one another at all times, even when facing off on the field, rink or court.
The competition was fierce on the playing surface, and trash talking was still a common thing, but there used to be a line that players would not cross in their trash talking. And at the end of the game, they’d leave it all on the field.
These days, though, I have begun to notice a sharp decline in the level of sportsmanship that is shown during these competitions.
As a hockey referee, I tend to notice when a player goes out of his or her way to give the opposing goaltender a tap on the pads to acknowledge a good save, or when the captains from one team skate across the ice to shake to an opposing coach’s hand during warm up. These gestures, while small, can set the tone for an entire game.
They can mean the difference between a friendly competition or an all-out grudge match.
But these gestures are becoming much less common at every level of sport.
Instead, I hear more and more players insulting each other on the ice. Worse, comments that used to sound like meaningless banter designed to get into an opponent’s head have seemingly morphed into serious insults intended to hurt rather than hinder.
Just this past weekend, the NHL received a report of bullying on the ice.
According to Sportsnet.ca, during a regular season matchup between the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night, Alexandre Burrows of the Canucks allegedly made some insulting personal comments towards Jordan Tootoo of the Devils while the two players were in the penalty bench.
Tootoo, the first Inuit player to ever crack an NHL roster, has a history of substance abuse. He entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program in December of 2010. His brother Terence, who played in the minor leagues, committed suicide in 2002 after he was arrested for drunk driving.
While the details of the conversation between the two players are not yet known, Tootoo told Sportsnet that the remarks were, “Classless and unacceptable in this day and age.”
Burrows was not available to comment on the allegation, but conversations like this one simply should not be happening at any level of sport.
And the problems don’t end on the ice. With the dawn of social media, some professional players have started calling each other out publicly on platforms like Twitter and facebook with comments and trash talk about what happened during a game, and these comments generally prompt a response from the target of the Tweet. While the comments are typically more verbal sparring than anything else, the potential exists for them to explode into all-out Twitter wars.
Now, I’m not saying that this kind of bullying is the norm at any level of sport, but it does exist and, unfortunately, it is gaining momentum.
Even the post-game handshake in minor hockey, a tradition that is meant to reinforce the idea of good sportsmanship, has been affected.
I’ve seen players in minor hockey speed through the handshake without actually shaking a single hand after a game because of a perceived slight committed by the opposing team. I’ve seen coaches in novice hockey deliberately avoid shaking the had of a 13-year-old referee because they missed a call or made a call that the coach didn’t agree with.
Rivalry in sport is a good thing. A good, healthy rivalry can bring out the very best in both teams. But a careful balance must be struck to ensure that those good, healthy rivalries don’t escalate into full-blown animosity, and it’s up to the players, coaches, parents and officials to ensure that balance is kept.