The League

Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

American Gamesmanship


Without having any inside dope on the matter, I assume that Eric Mangini's little games with the weekly injury report at the end of last season reflect a more or less common practice in the NFL, and that a $125,000 fine can simply be the cost of doing business. It's the American way. How many companies routinely violate regulations, having calculated the likelihood that the fines or lawsuits that might result will be offset by the extra profits? How many individuals routinely cheat on their income taxes on roughly similar calculations?

As a sport, football is supposedly governed by a more binding or less ambiguous code. Elaborate rules govern everything that happens on the field and, to the extent possible, everything that might affect what happens -- like doctoring injury reports, or videotaping the other team's sideline. But in addition, we profess to believe in something called "sportsmanship," or at least we invoke it routinely, either to praise or to condemn athletes' behavior.

The fact is, Americans have always been ambivalent about sportsmanship. History is a useful here. Consider this: for a time in the nineteenth century, English rugby had a single rule against "ungentlemanly conduct." Try to imagine such a rule in American football, instead of our dozens of rules specifying exactly which parts of the opponent's body one can hit with which parts of one's own as well as every other aspect of the game on and off the field. American football evolved from English rugby by a process of constantly revising the old rules to prevent the ways that clever players or coaches had figured out to exploit them. Out of sheer necessity our rulebooks have grown as thick as New York phone books.

We do make a distinction between outright cheating, which we condemn (even if we do it ourselves), and something we can call "gamesmanship" (as opposed to "sportsmanship"), which we celebrate. Coaching "genius" often means figuring out a way to get around the existing rules.

No less a paragon of sporting virtue than Amos Alonzo Stagg, who viewed coaching football as a Christian ministry, described in his autobiography a fundamental difference between the British, who observe both the letter and the spirit of the rules, and Americans, who adhere to the letter only. This is what Stagg wrote: "Our prevailing viewpoint might be expressed something like this: Here are the rules made and provided for. They affect each side alike. If we are smart enough to detect a joker or loophole first, then we are entitled not only in law but in ethics to take advantage of it."

This has long been the American way in sports. And it means that coaches like Eric Mangini will do what they can to get around the rules without directly violating them. They're paid to be smarter than the guys they coach against, and if they're not, they get fired.

If not letting your opponent know that your quarterback has a torn biceps makes it harder for him to prepare for Sunday's game, you might steal an advantage that will help you win. You have to follow the letter of whatever rule is in place, but not the spirit. And if you sometimes don't quite follow the letter, you'll get your hands slapped. This is a familiar little dance, and it serves a useful function -- assuring the public that someone is looking after "the integrity of the game." Probably only casual gamblers hate it (the serious ones have their inside sources).

By Michael Oriard  |  September 18, 2009; 7:28 AM ET  | Category:  Brett Favre , Coaching , Medical , New York Jets , Roger Goodell Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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