How the Dawgs can teach us about competition with respect

Fall is upon us here at Notre Dame. Leaves haven’t quite changed yet, but the wind-blow is a bit more chilly than refreshing, and the purple evening skies want nothing more than to carry the ubiquitous scent of bonfires and fallen leaves. Fall brings these changes, but at Notre Dame, it brings something more — college football. The Fighting Irish are a storied college football program steeped in tradition and excellence. They are competitive; they also comport themselves with a great deal of respect for their opponents. They are able to play hard; they are also able to perform with exceptional sportsmanship. 

Many of us have probably seen a post-game video from last Saturday’s meeting of the University of Georgia and Notre Dame down in Athens. In this video, Georgia fans are seen applauding the Notre Dame squad as they make the walk back to the locker room after their 17-23 loss to the Bulldogs. The video was short, but it expressed the UGA fanbase’s abiding respect for the players on the opposing team. What is it about that video that caused it to make such wide rounds? Why is it that when an opponent grants you respect and acts with good sportsmanship, the world seems to gawk?

It might be because we’ve lost sight of the nature and importance of sportsmanship — of respect.

Competition and sportsmanship ought to go hand in hand. They inform one another, temper one another, and, when they are healthily paired, they make each other far more effective. Being able to play hard, work as part of a team, focus on a common goal, and aim to win are absolutely necessary to being a great athlete. But being able to help an opponent up off the ground after a tackle, shake their hand after a game, and appreciate their opponent’s ability are just as much so. 

If our athletes lose their sense of sportsmanship and respect, they languish. They become nothing more than heartless warriors careening into one another, laughing at an opponent’s injuries and hoping to inflict more. There is a sense of humanity that is lost when priorities shift from winning well to what kind of touchdown celebration comes next. On a practical level, things wouldn’t go well for a team if they had so little respect for their opponent’s ability that they didn’t run any analysis of their go-to plays.

At the same time, if they lose sight of competitive aspect of the game, our athletes fail. They lose their motivation and their ability to succeed. It wouldn’t be much fun to watch a bunch of football players run as if on eggshells and make sure they apologize after every tackle, or feel like it would be mean to talk some smack between drives. Both of these deficiencies, in competition and in respect, are serious concerns; it just seems like we’re a lot closer to a deficiency in first than in the second.

This issue is not limited to sports; it finds itself impressed on an ever-increasing swath of our American society. We’ve become so individually competitive in the name of becoming a more driven and successful society that we’ve lost sight of building relationships and knowing one another. We’re willing to step on our peers’ heads to reach towards ever-greater success, instead of asking for their help and getting there together.

It would be against my core beliefs to say we have to limit our focus on competition. I believe that people should strive to be the best in their field, and compete with others in order to do so. I also believe that they should do so while keeping in mind the value of the person they’re competing with. Imagine what we could accomplish if we could respect both our peers and our competitors. We could more readily collaborate when necessary, and when circumstances don’t permit collaboration, this foundation of respect would allow us to take seriously their contributions and open the kinds of dialogue that bring a profound sense of humanity to our work.

Compete. Play to win. Work hard. Respect the other. Understand their achievements. Appreciate their work. Those Bulldog fans know what it means to respect the other team. Our Irish certainly do as well. Let’s not tackle for targeting calls or go for a field goal when you’re down a touchdown with 12 seconds left on the clock. Let’s run good plays this fall and beyond, and no matter the result, let’s give a hand to whoever’s on the other side.

Zach Pearson is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies (Book Guy) with a second major in music (Singy Boy). He watches sports too! Reach out to him at