A Triple Crown hopeful’s owner complains about his horse’s loss in the Belmont Stakes, saying the winner’s team took “the coward’s way out” by skipping the first two races. An NHL hockey player taunts an opponent after his team exits the playoffs, violating tradition. A pollster to a prominent Republican congressman blames the candidate’s stunning losson the “liberal media.”
This year is already shaping up to be a vintage one for sour grapes. A festival of fine whines and full-throated airing of grievances. A tsunami of sore losers and their pouting, ego-bruised surrogates.
Collectively, these public displays of pique raise the question of whether gracelessness in defeat is becoming more prevalent than ever — the new normal when things go badly and the brass ring slips away — or merely more noticeable. Is it the product of our 24/7, multiplatform news culture and YouTube/Twitterverse, where every rant and hissy fit can instantly go viral?
“It does seem to be getting worse,” says psychologist Frank Sileo, executive director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement in Ridgewood, N.J., and author of several children’s books, including “Sally Sore Loser: A Story About Winning and Losing.”
Modeling good sportsmanship, he notes, whether the person in the spotlight is an athlete, politician, entertainer, or some other prominent figure, has an outsized impact on young people. For parents, conversely, public whining and finger-pointing can become teachable moments in how not to behave.
“Our culture is all about winning, and no one likes to lose,” a mindset amplified by a reality-TV ethos “where treating people badly is glorified and competitors are trashed,” Sileo says. But failure is part of life, too, he maintains. When unhappy losers vent their frustrations, the general public gets desensitized to the complaining, or somehow thinks it’s acceptable.
Even a local hero like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick can come off as a disgruntled loser in the heat of the moment, as he did this year after his team’s defeat by the Denver Broncos in the NFL playoffs. Commenting on a block by ex-Patriot Wes Welker that injured cornerback Aqib Talib, Belichick called it a “deliberate play” to sideline his player and one of the worst plays he’d ever seen. Many called it something else: pettiness on Belichick’s part.
When blowback happens, as it often does, reactions have varied from contrition to defiance.
Some, like California Chrome owner Steve Coburn, have sensed the need for damage control and quickly apologized.
The sports world routinely offers the most dramatic examples, or seems to. And with the World Cup underway in Brazil, expect a losing team or two to cry foul over flopping opponents, inept refs, and other agents of their outrageous misfortune.
Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist Richard Ginsburg, co-director of MGH’s PACES Institute of Sports Psychology, points to the pervasive influence of ESPN and how, at the professional level, sports have become “more Hollywood, more about the individual” than in generations past.
Yet youth sports have also developed what he calls “a dark side,” one eroding the character and social development of many players along with their parents, and coaches.
“The explosive responses to winning and losing have always been there,” says Ginsburg. “But how often did we see it with such immediacy? In the heat of the moment, competitive people don’t always find it easy to control what they think and feel. We’ve all probably done this. But when it happens in pro sports, you get it on YouTube.”
In the political arena, Eric Cantor, the defeated Republican House leader, has largely taken the high road following his loss to Tea Party favorite David Brat. But his pollster John McLaughlin has not, blaming the loss in part on Democratic meddling.
No one has compiled a sore losers’ hall of fame. But if one existed, its ranks might include Richard Nixon, who, after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, bitterly said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” (It wasn’t.);
Perhaps mindful of his place in history, not to mention his political future, Cantor has said he will not run as a write-in candidate in the general election. In 44 states, Virginia included, so-called “sore-loser” laws prohibit a candidate who lost in his party’s primary from running as an independent. By taking the high road, he may be paving his way to another shot at elective office.
Closer to home, North Attleborough boy’s track and field coach Derek Herber made national news recently when he discovered a scoring error that had allowed his team to win a Division 2 Eastern Mass. championship. Herber reported the mistake, costing his team the title (his boys finished third) while earning him high marks for honesty and sportsmanship: in short, the opposite of being a sore loser.
“Most coaches are also teachers,” said Herber later. “You’re teaching other things in sports. You’re not teaching just wins and losses. You’re teaching about athletics being a tool of education.”
Meanwhile, Boston sports teams have brought home multiple championships in recent years. When they fail and diss their opponents, do they risk being labelled sore losers?
“Less as sore losers, I think, than as arrogant,” says Bill Littlefield, host of National Public Radio’s “Only a Game.” Long before YouTube came along, he notes, Celtics coach Red Auerbach rankled opponents and their fans by lighting up a victory cigar before the game was over. Not the best example of sportsmanship, he suggests, just Red being Red.
As for Coburn’s ill-conceived rant after a lost Triple Crown, says Littlefield, “To his credit, his apology sounds sincere. He realized that what he said was not only unfair but really stupid.”
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