The "Spirit of the Game"
(an Abecedarian guest blog for DeepFun.com
Without the spirit of the game,
what would the game be?
—Nevin H. Gibson,
The Encyclopedia of Golf
Arabian folklore tells of a wish-granting genie imprisoned in an oil lamp or bottle. Might players innocently conjure such a spirit in a game of spin-the-bottle? Indeed, every game has a motivating force at the heart of it -- its own sort of soul. Whatever we might call it -- essence, atmosphere, intention, or ethos -- it's that special spark that distinguishes the game from all others. Like a genie of folklore, the Spirit of the Game grants good sports a wish -- the ultimate wish. (We'll get to that in a moment.)
The Spirit of the Game is not necessarily spelled out in the rules. Indeed, "There are situations in which adherence to the so-called letter of the rules can be taken to violate the spirit of the game." The Spirit of the Game is a distillation of the intent
of the rules. It has been called "a self-regulating set of norms without which some games would degenerate into anarchy." It is a frame of mind, not a commandment carved in stone. It's a point of view, a sense of humor, a strength of character. Novelist Richard Le Gallienne summed it up perfectly: "To be whimsical, therefore, in pursuit of a whim, fanciful in the chase of a fancy, is surely but to maintain the spirit of the game."
Because it is typically undefined, the Spirit of the Game can be abused. Unsportsmanlike conduct (like taunting and intimidation) is one indication of abuse; bringing the game into disrepute is another. When honored across the board, the Spirit of the Game turns opponents into equals. Most importantly, it engenders fun. While camaraderie is jolly and competition is stimulating, "the real spirit of the game is all about having fun."
Though each game has its own unique Spirit, there are some universal characteristics. The Spirit of the Game is:
• self-possessed, yet unselfish
• either easygoing or animated
Ultimately, the Spirit of the Game "is the only thing in the game which is lasting."
Corporate trainer Julius E. Eitington makes an interesting observation: when players become caught up in the Spirit of the Game, they "become themselves." What is one's true self, but that of a player on the grand game board of life? Edward Clark Marsh once described being enlivened by the Spirit of the Game: "If it was not for a moment real life, it at least made you wish it were."
Other signs that the Spirit of the Game is present include:
• both sides wish each other good luck
• both sides cheer one another (winning or losing is secondary; the game itself is a victory for all )
• everyone plays fair (no cheating, no bending of the rules)
• players celebrate the game's tradition, safeguard its precedent, and carry on its legacy
• players supervise themselves. Game scientist Andrew Thornton notes that "There is no agreed upon definition of the Spirit of the Game, but there is a pervasive sense that one should play by it. The Spirit of the Game is the Police" inside each player's head.
But we've neglected the quintessential sign that the Spirit of the Game is present. And that's when the ultimate wish is granted: the firing shot that sets play into motion. When the game is afoot, all else is inconsequential!
Fun Facts about the Spirit of the Game:
• In Ultimate Frisbee, where there are no referees and no penalties, the Spirit of the Game is the underlying philosophy. "The Ultimate player will always praise and support successful actions on both teams. It is a normal thing to introduce yourself to the opponent at the beginning of every point and to wish him a good game. And after the game both teams stand in a circle talking about the game and singing a song for the opponent team. So it is a lot more than just a short handshake after a game."
• The Spirit of the Game comes into play "before the game has even begun."
• "Soccer is unique among sports in that the official's job is first and foremost to maintain the spirit of the game as well as the safety of all concerned; this concern outweighs all other laws of the game."
• The Spirit of the Game of soccer has been traced back to the early to mid nineteenth century, when the game developed from its folk roots into its modern form.
• The Spirit of the Game of curling "demands good sportsmanship, kindly feeling, and honourable conduct."
• The Fighting Spirit of the Game of American football is persistently aggressive in nature: "Throughout the history of football, the violent spirit of the game has endured, even as other elements of the game have changed."
• The Spirit of the Game of lacrosse "is a feeling of honor and dignity."
• The Spirit of the Game reminds players that not everything is a matter of life and death, that consequences are temporary, and that results are not critical.
• The Spirit of the Game teaches players to "accept success with grace and failure with restraint."
• The Spirit of the Game of golf is characterized by disciplined conduct, courtesy, and sportsmanship at all times.
 Allan C. Hutchinson, It's All in the Game
, 2000, p. 195.
 Lincoln Allison, Amateurism in Sport
, 2001, p. 161.
 The Quest of the Golden Girl
, 1897, p. 35.
 William John Morgan, Ethics in Sport
, 2007, p. 126.
 Richard Carlson, The Don't Sweat Guide to Golf
, 2002, p. 205.
 Division for Girls' and Women's Sports, Sports Programs for College Women
, June 21-27, 1969, p. 23.
 The Winning Trainer
, 2001, p. 142.
 "Anthony Hope's 'Sophy of Kravonia,'" The Bookman
, 1907, p. 381.
 Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring
, 2000, p. 124.
 Belinda Wheaton, ed., Understanding Lifestyle Sport
, 2004, p. 187.
 Jorg Bahl, Ultimate Frisbee
, 2007, p. 4.
 John Byl, Co-Ed Recreational Games
, 2002, p. 205.
 Andy Caruso, Soccer Coaching
, 1996, p. 29.
 Sharon Colwell, "The 'Letter' and the 'Spirit': Football Laws and Refereeing in the Twenty-First Century," The Future of Football
, 2000, p. 201.
 Gary Belsky & Neil Fine, 23 Ways to Get to First Base
, 2007, p. 209.
 William D. Dean, The American Spiritual Culture
, 2002, p. 148.
 Steve Bristol, quoted in Our Game: The Character and Culture of Lacrosse
by John M. Yeager, 2005, p. 79.
 Hubert Vogelsinger, The Challenge of Soccer
, 1973, p. 274.
 United States Golf Association, Golf Rules Illustrated
, 2004, p. 4.