Imagine this scenario: One team donning white and blue jerseys. The other in crimson red. It’s toward the end of the game, and a victory is within reach for both teams. There’s a scramble for the ball; it’s unclear who touched it last. The referee, wrongly, gives possession to the white team.
You may think I’m referring to a scenario from Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball championship game between Duke and Wisconsin. But I’m talking about this commercial by The Foundation for a Better Life that promotes sportsmanship.
In Monday’s championship game, the Badgers desperately needed every call to go their way and for their shots to fall in order to close in on Duke’s five-point lead with a little under two minutes to play. It was at that point that Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig and Duke’s Justise Winslow got tangled up going for a rebound. Propelled by the players’ jostling, the ball went out of bounds. The ref called it Duke possession, but the call was not made in full confidence. The refs reconvened to talk about it. But it was pretty clear for viewers at home what the call should have been. After all, Winslow’s finger bent back. The ball changed directions.
Now imagine this: During the time that the referees huddled around screens to review the play, Justise Winslow starts reciting the script from the aforementioned commercial.
Justise Winslow: I touched it. (Dramatic pause; cue the violins) I touched the ball before it went out, Coach K.
Tyus Jones: C’mon Justise. The ref did not call that.
Jahlil Okafor: You gotta be kiddin’ me, Justise!
Grayson Allen: It’s the championship game!
Tyus Jones: Talk to him, Coach.
Justise Winslow: I touched it. It’s their ball.
Coach K: (Looks around at his players) Don’t foul ‘em when they inbound. Team on 3. 1-2-3.
All players: Team!
Jahlil Okafor: Nice going, Justise.
Justise Winslow: Sorry, Coach.
Coack K: Justise. Justise! Good call.
So maybe the call was inconsequential. Even if Wisconsin did get the ball back, it was still a two-possession game. Maybe the Badgers would have lost anyway. Outrage over the botched call is not the reason I’m writing this post. The reason is because I think it’s interesting that all the stories in the media about this call is about how the refs blew it, not on the player who knew the ball should have gone to Wisconsin. Would it have been too much to ask of him to ‘fess up because it was the right thing to do? Yes, I understand that it’s not Winslow’s job to make the calls, but we expect athletes in other sports to play by an honor system. We expect golfers to call penalties on themselves. Tennis players are trusted to make their own calls, too. Why don’t basketball players have to abide by the same code of honesty?
But, it’s hard to blame Winslow. The championship game is something the Blue Devils worked all year to get to, and it’s understandable that the players would do anything to ensure victory, even if that means to cheat.
And unfortunately, here’s the thing I can imagine if that call had led to a Wisconsin comeback and subsequent victory: Blue Devil nation being pissed off to the point of riot, millions of people who had penciled Duke in as the champion cursing Winslow and his honesty, and hate tweets toward him exploding in the Twitterverse.
Ask anybody and you would struggle to find someone who didn’t say that honesty, honor and sportsmanship are things that sports teach. Society likes to think this is what makes playing sports so valuable — sports goes beyond the field or court or stadium. Sports is a metaphor for life, and we learn so many life lessons by playing sports. But what Monday’s championship game shows is all of that is fine and good until something big is on the line. And when the stakes are that high, it seems the thing to do is look the other way.