Humility and Grace

The comparison between professional sports behavior and the goals of Harvard’s collegiate athletics program is striking and can serve as a teaching moment for all of us.

Humility and Grace

Harvard’s recently published analysis of its sports programs describes, in part, the University’s goals for collegiate athletes: the pursuit of excellence through personal development and teamwork; ethical and responsible behavior both on the field and off; adherence to the spirit of rules as well as to their letter; leadership and strength of character; and sportsmanship. This means respect for one’s opponents: acceptance of victory with humility and acknowledgment of defeat with grace.

Which of these traits do we see in the NFL, NHL, NBA, or any of the current professional sports teams, during “celebration” displays in the end zone, or when a player posts a great shot on the court? What lesson are we learning as participants in the game of life fall outside our school’s ethical behavior models? Is the lack of humility and—worse—the denigration of our competitors that we see in professional sports spilling over into our family and work life? Are we only happy when we not only win but also humiliate the opposition? And is this also the new normal when it comes to our politicians?

Possibly it is social media that leverages the most spectacular, thrilling, and derogatory spectacles that drive us down this pejorative pathway. The endorphin rush of social hits overshadows the respect an athlete achieves from quiet, unassuming glory. This self-perpetuating mock drama buries the values we once found in sports; the same values instilled in us from an early age, when we were coached us to play well together in the sandbox.

Isn’t it time to elevate grace and humility to their rightful positions? Can it be done? Many people identify these exact contrasts in various places in life: Obama v Trump, Gretzky v Marchand, Federer v McEnroe, Curry v Hardin, ML King Jr. v Al Sharpton.

What tools will get us there? Can our current, unique combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, and global recognition of discrimination inspire us to direct our social media tools and networks toward a different goal: glorifying grace, humility, and above all respect amongst all mankind? Can we metaphorically replace the “like” button with a “respect” button?  

Since many professional sports are seen as the acme of athletic and personal achievement, I suggest that compensation and other rewards be based not just on their number of cheering Facebook or Twitter followers, but on how well they model humility and grace—qualities that will trickle down through the social media universe and bring national focus to the one quality Americans say they value most. 

Could there be an additional song with the national anthem? R-E-S-P-E-C-T.


Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.