Head of School’s Notebook: Sport

February 17, 2023

It is funny how the very things that can bring out the best in us can also bring out the worst.

The most recent iteration of that lesson came amidst a flurry of CIF postseason competition. Our teams competed admirably, as they always do, winning and losing with grace and poise despite behaviors by opponents or opposing fans that were far from responsible. Racial slurs, various threats, and seething anger forced us to keep our boys soccer team isolated on the field last weekend as opposing players and fans were escorted off campus by local law enforcement. Not the sort of thing we see all that often at Cate.

Encounters with derision from contestants or spectators is not new, of course. Hostile behavior has become a staple of so much in life, including sport, and Cate is not immune to it. Our community – despite our best intentions – falls short periodically of the level of sportsmanship to which we aspire. In such moments, we redouble our efforts, remind ourselves what sport is all about, and seek to do and be better the next time around. Such is the life of schools.

“To love the game beyond the prize,” poet Henry Newbolt wrote years ago. That is one of many lessons we hope our students take from their time on this Mesa. But such insight can be hard won, and losing is the key to acquiring it.

As legendary UCLA basketball John Wooden notes, “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” Not simply the courage to compete, but to do so honorably and earnestly even if the competition chooses not to hold such standards. “Win or lose, play fair,” said Knute Rockne.

Candidly, we seem to struggle with such an approach these days, regardless of the level of the competition, the age of the competitors, or the character of the fans. I have seen the best from Cate athletes. I have watched them help an opponent up after a hard tackle, tell a referee they tipped a ball even when it meant losing an important point, take a knee rather than take advantage of an injury to an opposing player. We are capable of profound responsibility and propriety, even in the midst of competition.

But we can also rationalize behaviors that fly in the face of the sportsmanship we espouse. We mean to cheer for our friend but we find ourselves cheering against the opponent. We harass a referee because of an error or missed a call. We revel in an opposing player’s misfortune because it helps our team. We’re just doing our part, trying to get into their head or under their skin.

But to what end? Competition on the field of play is its own reward. That students at any school have that experience is an immense privilege. So why would anyone – particularly spectators – allow it to be commandeered or corrupted or diminished?

“You are what you do repeatedly,” says Shaquille O’Neal. All the more reason to make sportsmanship a habit.