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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When does Gamesmanship Cross the Line?

Gamesmanship: the art or practice of winning games by questionable expedients without actually violating the rules. 2 : the use of ethically dubious methods to gain an objective.

- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

As competitors
, we play games to win. We fight and strain for every point with the goal of winning. But no game is worth the loss of one's integrity. This is especially true in pickleball, where one of the biggest draws is the friendly competition and camaraderie of playing with people we enjoy.
Most of us have no financial gains from winning. The gain is purely emotional and strokes our egos. We differ from professional athletes whose careers and livings are based on winning. In those cases, some forms of gamesmanship seem to be acceptable. Baseball teams water their infields to slow opposing teams with faster players. Football teams put opponents' sidelines in the sun and heat while keeping theirs in the shade.

But even professional teams can take gamesmanship too far. Football players fake injuries when their team is out of time-outs. Basketball players "flop" to fool the referee into calling fouls. These ploys are not violations of rules but become ethical questions among fans and sports organizations. The teams and players who regularly perform these acts become reviled.

I raise the issue because of a situation I faced at the Low Country Pickleball Classic recently. My female partner (Trudy) and I were playing in a semifinal game. We had finished second in our division and were facing the top team in the other division. The game was hard-fought and Trudy and I trailed by 1-3 points throughout. We made several line calls that our female opponent questioned, but the referee either confirmed our call or demurred by saying she didn't see it well enough to overrule our call. To the best of our knowledge, every call we made was correct. They were close calls but not really controversial.

Trudy was our second server and we were trailing 10-13. We won her first serve and then her second on yet another line call questioned by our female opponent. When all 4 players were set, the referee called the score (12-13-2) and Trudy served. At some point during the serve, our female opponent turned her back to he court and walked away rubbing her eyes/face. Her partner returned the serve and we hit an easy return back. He again returned the ball and we stopped play as the female opponent remained near the back fence with her back to us and the court. When ply stopped, she immediately claimed side-out and wanted the serve, stating that the rules allowed her to take a position anywhere on the court.

I knew that her rules interpretation was correct but loudly voiced that we were being courteous and stopped play due to perceived injury. It should be noted that several points during the match were delayed as she seemed to have a problem with contact lenses or something in her eye. She loudly repeated the rule. Trudy and conceded the side-out and prepared to receive the serve now trailing 12-13 (in a game to 15). I am not afraid to admit that I was a little angry at the act. But Trudy and I held them without a score and we then quickly scored the next 3 points to win 15-13 and go on to the gold medal match.

In hindsight, I believe that the opponent's ongoing concerns with her eyes were all faked to set up the big act at a crucial time in the game. The piece of information that clinched this thought was a discussion following the medal ceremony. The team we defeated for the gold medal and we had become quick friends as they beat us in division play. They told that the offending player had done the same thing in womens doubles 2 days earlier. Even when it was happening in our match, it was obvious that it was scripted ploy since her partner continued to play without hesitating a beat to check on her health. In my opinion, her gamesmanship, while within the rules, was unethical.

So, what lessons can I/we walk away with. First, don't stop play unless injury will occur as a result of further play. Trudy and I could have easily won a 2-on-1 matchup but conceded the point by stopping. Second, don't be like our opponent. Her reputation was made by those 2 days and will now precede her in future play. In this case, she may have won the point but still lost the game. The loss of integrity wasn't worth it.

Amateur pickleball, no matter the skill, isn't a place for unethical behavior. It is a sport that values its fair and friendly play. Gamemanship has no role in our great game.

As a side note, the ploy failed against Trudy and me because we were strong enough mentally to move forward. In fact, it solidified in my mind that they were already beat. They knew they could not not beat us straight up and needed to try something extraordinary to overcome their failings. At least, that's how I saw it then. It helped me overcome the anger.

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