skip navigation


01/10/2013, 10:15am CST
By Val Belmonte

USA Fencing CEO Val Belmonte

It seems inevitable that I would write this article for USA Fencing. Every time I speak at a coaching clinic or sports event, the discussion would turn to the topics of ethics and sportsmanship.  Expressions like “respect for the sport,” “respect for officials,” “respect for adults and authority figures,” and “respect for opponents,” repeatedly surface.  Then one day I realized these clichés are never really understood by many of today’s youth athletes, parents, coaches, officials and volunteers.

More than 20 years ago, President Gerald Ford remarked: “Broadly speaking, outside of a national character and an educated society there are few things more important to a country’s growth and well-being than competitive athletics.  If it is a cliché to say athletics build character as well as muscle, then I subscribe to the cliché.” (Ford, page 247).

A few generations ago many people in sport organizations nodded approvingly when such views were expressed.  In present time, it is difficult to be as clear when thinking about the moral and ethical possibilities of sport participation.  What are our children, coaches, sport administrators, volunteers and parents learning as they turn off ESPN, return from fencing tournaments or watch a game on television?  There was a time when fencers had the good fortune of watching Albert Axelrod, Jan York-Romary, Norman Armitage, Maria Cerra Tishman or Joe Levis exhibiting a respect for their opponents and a humility and grace in relation to the traditions in the sport of fencing.

Recently in amateur sports, we have read stories that are frighteningly real:  coaches verbally and sexual abusing athletes; athletes racial and ethic slurs on the field of play; inappropriate coaches’ action during the heat of competition; and detestable hazing incidents in college, high school and even youth athletics.

But merely bemoaning the situation is not enough.  Something seems to have happened concerning the substance of our collective moral lives, in sports and in society at large – and some kind of response is called for.

We must teach our athletes what is right and not expect that they already know.  We must institute good habits in our athletes and assist them in developing good moral and ethical traits.  All of us in fencing and sports contend that one must practice sportsmanship, just as a player practices sport skills and athleticism.  But we can’t teach ethics or sportsmanship and guide our athletes in the process if we as gatekeepers of sports do not know what it is, or why it is important or what is its true meaning.

Ethics in sports also requires proper perspective about what sporting activities are and what are sport’s core values.  Fencing can and should teach all of us lessons, and such experiences can be crucial for self-understanding.  Ethics in sports revolves around respect for the opponents, for teammates, for officials, for coaches, for administrators and for the sport.  The principle of good sportsmanship does not give us defined rules of behavior, rather directives to the pillars of good character:  responsibility, trustworthiness, respect, caring, fairness and good citizenship.

I hope this article will be useful as a basis for discussion and reflection about virtuous conduct in fencing and sports.  If this article helps raise your awareness and provokes discussion on the subject of good sportsmanship, it has done its job.

Hopefully, you will come up with your own situations and examples – and reflect on them.  In the months to come, USA Fencing will be developing its codes of conduct for athletes, spectators, coaches, officials, parents and volunteers.  Something good happens to people when they are engaged in dialogue about important human concerns.

Long ago, Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.   He did not exclude coaches, athletes, parents, officials, sports administrators or volunteers.

An adaptation of an article written by Val Belmonte for Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut and USA Hockey, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

References provided by Andy Shaw, USA Fencing Hall of Fame and Museum.

Albert Axelrod – Albert Axelrod won four U.S. foil titles, was 5th at the 1958 World Championships and took the Olympic bronze medal at the Rome Olympics.

Jan York-Romary – AFLA National Foil Champion (1950, '51 ,'56, '57, '60, '61, '64, '66, '67 ,'68). Member, U.S. Olympic Team (1948, '52, '56,' 60, '64, '68). Twice a finalist, Olympic foil individual (1952) – tied for third place, finished fourth; and (1956) – fourth place. Carried the U.S. Flag in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games (1968).

Norman C. Armitage – AFLA National Sabre Champion [1930, ’34, ’35, ’36, ’38, ’39, ’40, ’41, ’42, ’45); National Outdoor Sabre Champion (1929, ’30, ’32, ’33, ’35, ’39, ’40). Member, U.S. Olympic Team (1928, ’32, ’36, ’48, ’52, ’56). Finalist in Olympic sabre individual (1932) – finished ninth. Member, Olympic bronze medal-winning sabre team (1948). Carried the U.S. Flag in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics (1952,’56). IFA sabre champion for Columbia (1928).

Joe Levis – AFLA National Foil Champion (1929, '32, '33, '35, '37, '54); National Outdoor Foil Champion (1929, '33); National Three-Weapon Champion (1929). Member, U.S. Olympic Team, (1928, '32,'36) captain (1936). Individual Olympic silver medalist in foil (1932). Member, bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic FoilTteam (1932). Vice-president of the AFLA. His victory in the 1954 Nationals after a 17-year layoff from competition is considered the greatest comeback in the history of American fencing. IFA foil champion for MIT (1926).

Maria Cerra Tishman –AFLA National Foil Champion (1945). Member, U.S. Olympic Team (1948). Finalist, Olympic foil individual (1948) – tied for second place, finished fourth. NIWFA champion for Hunter (1938, '40). First woman to officiate at a national final (1949); first woman member of the Olympic fencing committee (1965).

Tag(s): News