Give Young Athletes a Fair Shake

When we eliminate postgame handshakes, we fail to teach the main lesson of sports
May 01, 1994

You may have read recently about the high school sports league in Southern California that eliminated the mandatory postgame handshake, reasoning that too often these handshakes touched off fistfights.

Nice game, Joey.

(Pow!) Out of my face, butt-munch.

When word spread that the mandatory handshake was out, the publicity was so negative that the principals of the schools in the Marmonte League voted last week to end the experiment, albeit reluctantly. "Where is it written that this is sportsmanship?" Jim Christianson, the league president and principal of Agoura High, asked a reporter from The New York Times. "[Critics] are confusing a contrived action as sportsmanship, making teams line up and watching them slap hands."

The point is, the handshake is a simple, traditional show of goodwill and respect, and respect for your opponent is an integral part of any definition of sportsmanship.

I have a particular interest in this subject, since my 10-year-old son played hockey in a Massachusetts league that banned postgame handshakes this season. The reason for the ban was the same as that in California: fear that this simple act of sportsmanship might lead to fisticuffs. Trash talking in the handshake line had reached an art form in my son's league, and some boys were spitting into their own hands before the congratulatory shake.

I asked my son, Nate, if he had ever had a problem. He said he had once been punched in the chest by an irate loser. I suspect it was no more than a jostle, but either way I have no problem with it. Kids make mistakes. If that punch served to open the door to a conversation with my son about sportsmanship, self-restraint, being a good loser and forbearance in the face of a jerk, so be it. But rather than dealing with such incidents on a case-by-case basis, league officials chucked the postgame ritual entirely—until, that is, parents and coaches raised a fuss, and midway through the season this handshake ban too was rescinded. "If we can't control our kids to the point where they can't shake hands, we should be doing something else," my son's coach, Gleason Gallagher, says. "We're missing the boat big-time."

But how many other leagues are throwing in the towel? In the in-your-face, whip-your-butt '90s, the postgame handshake is increasingly viewed as a quaint but irrelevant relic of a kinder, gentler time. Administrators like Christianson know all too well that reality bites in the trenches of America's high schools. If the kids don't want to shake hands, why force it? Why play with dynamite when you are responsible for the kids' safety? If even one youngster gets his head cracked in a postgame brawl, it is too steep a price to pay for something as "contrived" as a press of the flesh. It's folly to pretend these situations can be controlled by the coaches. So go the arguments against the handshakes.

As a parent who believes in the educational value of organized sports, I don't buy those arguments. If all my son learned from his coaches was how to shoot, dribble and catch, I wouldn't waste his or my time with any of it. Those skills are meaningless in adult society. My son is not going to be a pro athlete, much as he would like to be, and 99.9% of his teammates and opponents won't be, either. They will, however, have to learn to work together, to respect one another and to live by the laws of the land. They will have to learn to accept individual responsibility as well as individuals with whom they don't see eye to eye. Organized sports can help teach those things.

But not without a commitment from the organizers—the coaches, administrators and parents—to use the lessons of sport as a teaching vehicle. What is the lesson these young people learn from the elimination of the postgame handshake (particularly after a series of brawls)? That it is acceptable for frustration and anger to bubble out as violence? That we are not responsible for our actions in the heat of competition?

Far better to keep the handshake and, if necessary, eliminate the games. Sit everyone down for a few weeks—cancel the season, if need be—until the players, parents, coaches, administrators and fans get the message that sports are fundamentally unimportant except in the context of the values they teach.

I can't remember a single ugly incident during a postgame handshake when I played organized sports 20 years ago. No one I know can remember one, either. What I do remember is a firm and unswerving commitment to sportsmanship from every adult around me. To show up an opponent, or taunt him, was not tolerated. Hotdogging was reviled. Lipping off to the ref or the coach got you a quick seat on the bench. And handshakes and cheers after the games were important.

These were lessons that stayed with many of us for life. Somehow, though, we have lost the stomach, or the sense, to pass them along to the next generation. "Sportsmanship is not a difficult lesson for a child to learn," Dennis Sullivan, director of communications for Little League Baseball, told the Times. "But sometimes it's a difficult lesson for an adult to teach."