The Importance of Bike Polo Fair Play
I recently watched an episode of (I think) Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel just before heading off to polo. One of the topics discussed was the increasing amount of attacks on officiators by athletes, their parents, and spectators in general. There was really some faith-in-humanity destroying segments, including interviews with a family of a ref who was recently killed due to a head injury sustained by an angry athlete in Utah.
And I guess this is the way it is now: refs arriving early to games they are officiating in order to find escape routes , contacting the head of security for events and asking who they should run for if things go wrong—it’s the nature of sports in our country.
So how does this apply to you and I, polo players extraordinaire? To put it as simply as possible: our sport is young enough that we can avoid that trend.
When bike polo was first invented in Ireland, sportsmanship was very different than it is today. You played hard, but players were also expected to be knowledgeable about rules and recognize when they’d done something particularly against them. Officiators were respected and obeyed (and, to the defense of your great grandfather, there was still plenty of arguing and cursing, but the call on the field was obeyed as law—that’s why the officiator was there).
The reason for this is really pretty easy to grasp, too: you’re playing a game, and games have rules. If you break those rules, you’re ruining the entire basis of the game, and that’s just as lame as you can get. Take the call and move on.
Lots of sports are now so entirely focused on amazing achievement and not on sportsmanship – look at American football as your paradigm of the player becoming more important than the sport—and this has caused a fundamental shift in respecting officials and in listening to their enforcement of the rules.
One thing that is constantly called for in our sport is a more organized, widely available set of refs to officiate every NAH event—and I don’t disagree. However, I think we as the players of that sport also must make sportsmanship as integrated as possible in the game itself. We don’t have to look at rules as limiting, but rather enabling for great plays to be achieved and for the playing field to be more equal between teams. You might be a heartless brawler, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should win everything simply because the other team is scared you’re using a spraypainted-yellow-iron mallet.
Our rule set – as flexible and changing as it is – started as one single rule: don’t be a [jerk] (I honestly don’t know if I can swear on Urban Velo, but you know what that rule actually says). Within that simple little rule is the entire foundation for sportsmanship. It wasn’t a specific binding law, it was an understanding through polo that there were situations where a player could manipulate the game in such a way that made them dangerous to other players (while benefitting themselves). Before the larger rule set, players themselves made on-the-court decisions if a particular event was fair or violated that first rule of polo. It worked because we agreed to have it work.
I’m not suggesting that sportsmanship can be instilled by just removing all of the other rules we have now and going back to one, but I am suggesting it’s important to keep that ground rule in your mind—to instill it in new players and remind veteran players to keep the first rule as a basis for actions in heated tourneys. We’re fortunate that we don’t need to deal with players who attack refs (there’s always the possibility that it will happen, and that will be a fun day of shouting at my computer screen as I write incomplete sentences about the end of our sport). I think it’s important that we continue to keep a level head about sportsmanship and accept calls as they come – learn what the rules are – and keep ourselves vigilant against making ourselves more important than the game we are playing.