What does Islam say about sportsmanship?

U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan, left, comforts Thailand’s Miranda Nild.

It’s the kind of story seen most often in high school sports, but this week made its way to the highest level of women’s soccer.

It involves two mismatched teams, a lopsided final score, and the timeless debate over sportsmanship.

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is underway. In an opening-round match on Tuesday, the defending champion United States dismantled Thailand in a 13-0 rout. Star forward Alex Morgan scored five goals for the U.S., while Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis scored two apiece.

It was the largest margin of victory in the history of the World Cup for men or women.

In addition to objections regarding the number of goals scored, there were also allegations that the U.S. was over-the-top in the way it celebrated some of its goals.

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The whole thing reignited an argument that surfaces in mainstream sports headlines a few times each year. Sometimes it’s during college football season, when a powerhouse program beats an outclassed “mid-major” by a score of 63-7 or so. More often, it comes when word gets out of some high school basketball game where one extra-talented, ultra-aggressive side puts an 88-4 whupping on an opposing school that was barely able to field a team.

In January, for example, a girls high school basketball coach in Texas was fired after his team won a game 100-0. The coach, Micah Grimes, was criticized after his team continued to shoot three-pointers late in the victory over an opponent that hadn’t won a game in four years.

“We played the game as it was meant to be played,” Grimes wrote in an email to the Dallas Morning News. “My values and my beliefs would not allow me to run up the score on any opponent, and it will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

These incidents don’t just allow us to talk about what is and is not bad sportsmanship. It also begs the question: What is sportsmanship in the first place?

It is wrong for a clearly superior team to defeat a clearly weaker opponent in such dominating fashion?

Or is it more insulting to “pump the brakes” and take it easy on their peers who signed up to compete and not be treated like a charity case?

Following the U.S. women’s soccer rout of Thailand, U.S. coach Jill Ellis told reporters, “To be respectful to opponents is to play hard against opponents. I don’t find it my job to harness my players and rein them in because this is what they dreamt about. This is it for them. This is a world championship.”

Morgan provided the enduring image of the match when she approached Thai forward Miranda Nild, who was crying on the field after the final whistle, and consoled her after what was surely an embarrassing loss. The gesture received a lot of positive feedback, held up as evidence that the U.S. players were not the mean and classless bullies that some people accusing them of being during the game.

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What does Islam say about sportsmanship and how athletes should conduct themselves in competition?

Looking to the Quran, the answer may be in Surah 49, the chapter titled Al-Hujurat, a.k.a. The Rooms:

“O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent — then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (Quran 49:11)

One could argue that this ayat (verse) was not revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad in reference to sports and games. That could be supported by the fact that just two lines earlier (49:9), the topic is about how disagreeing factions of Muslims should act during a serious fight or dispute. To go from that to a soccer game seems like quite a leap.

On the other hand, the Quran is and has always been viewed as an instruction manual for every facet of life. Even if the reference does not seem to be direct or spelled out in obvious terms, the metaphors and connections can be made to whatever dilemma a person is facing.

In this case, it is not hard to read Quran 49:11 as helpful advice for an athlete or anyone else involved in a competitive setting.

Combining my own experiences playing sports with the Islamic stance on ridicule and insult, I would side with U.S. coach Ellis and others who believe that a dominant victory alone is not unsportsmanlike. In a sense, it can be condescending to not give your best effort.

Kelley O’Hara, a defender on the U.S. soccer team, said after the Thailand match, “You don’t want to take your foot off the pedal because you want to respect the game and play them as you would play anyone else.”

As far as the celebrations, that is something that can and should be kept to a minimum given the setting. While only a tiny fraction of people will know what it feels like to score a goal in a World Cup match in front of thousands of fans, it’s reasonable to suggest that the excitement of that moment — especially when the match is already a blowout — should give way to respect for your opponent. Humility is a core value in Islam.

If an individual athlete wants to pull back a bit against an overwhelmed opponent, or a coach wants to remove their star players from a contest in which the outcome is no longer in doubt, that’s fine.

But that should be a decision made in their best interest — not to protect the feelings of an opponent. Do it to preserve yourself or your team for competitions in the future. Put in the backups to give them some game experience running the same system you’d run with the starters.

The one exception I’d make would be in sports that are actually dangerous, such as combat sports.

If you’re in a boxing match, or MMA, Muay Thai, etc. — something in which an opponent who can’t defend themselves needs to be shown mercy — then the dominant competitor should ease up when things are glaringly out of hand. Ideally, the people working in the corner of the losing fighter will be smart and timely in throwing in the towel. But we’ve seen it before where a fighter is imploring the referee to stop a fight before their opponent gets seriously hurt.

In competitions like soccer or basketball, however, where the object of the game is not to incapacitate, it is not insulting or ridiculing an opponent to win by a large margin.

In sports, giving your best effort is usually the sportsmanlike thing to do.

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