What does ‘victory with honor’ mean to you?

Updated: March 1, 2013

By Sandy Stevens

 Editor’s Note: The following column first appeared in WIN, Volume 19, Issue 6 and printed March 1, 2013.


On the final night of the California High School State Championships, a dozen or so young men stand on the raised mat, plaques in hand, acknowledging the applause of thousands.

They’ve just been named outstanding wrestlers.

Although the plaques’ inscription reads “Pursuing Victory With Honor,” these wrestlers are outstanding, nominated during the tournament by referees who cited each athlete’s example of sportsmanship, ethics and integrity.

What a concept.CIF_State_Seal

We’re a culture that places such faith in celebrities that we become ambivalent about their deeds, especially if they’re athletes. We anoint them and turn a blind eye toward their actions and their conduct because of their fame.

Yes, we all make mistakes, but theirs is conduct that goes beyond a simple error of judgment; conduct that usually ends up making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Name the sport — football, basketball, basketball, biking, golf, track and field — and the list seems endless. And unless these athletes truly learn from their mistakes and change, there’s little value apparent.

Mostly we hear arrogance. Seldom do we hear these men and women acknowledge the gifts of ability and opportunity they have been given.

But this is where wrestling can stand apart. I may be naïve, but in decades in the amateur wrestling world, I’ve seen little that strikes me as dishonest, deceitful or unprincipled. But when I do see it, it makes me furious!

A couple years ago, I watched an NCAA Division I assistant coach go into a profanity-laced tirade on the mat. I’ve watched losing USA wrestlers stalk off the mat without shaking hands.

And I remember having to read the name of the “Outstanding Wrestler” at a national collegiate tournament, not terribly long after I’d watched him lose a team point for spouting multiple swear words at the referee and then storming away.

“Outstanding”? No way! My definition of the word encompasses more than number of pins or points scored.

And I wondered: What was his coach’s and his teammates’ reaction? Congratulations or a calling out?

The responsibility for ethical behavior falls on all of us: coaches, wrestlers, officials and fans. We must let our athletes know our expectations and what the consequences will be for inappropriate actions.

Too often getting “caught” misbehaving turns into a “Who can I blame?” scenario. If you know the rules and choose to defy them, what results is not punishment; it’s the consequences of your choice.

By caring only about recruiting and developing physical skills, we overlook our responsibility to teach character and hold athletes to a standard higher than victory.

Integrity is a simple concept. It is a choice of behaviors displayed in small decisions, made daily. Then actions follow words and beliefs … on and off the mat.

You can lose a match or a title, but no one can take away your integrity.

The California Interscholastic Federation adopted the principles of “Pursuing Victory With Honor” in 1999, recognizing the character-building aspects of athletic competition. The fledging Arkansas Wrestling Federation has already included “Victory with Honor” awards at its state tournament. The Wheaton College “Pete Willson” Invitational, hosting wrestlers from 29 teams, names a Sportsmanship Award recipient.

But far more needs to be done. The shocking news that the International Olympic Committee aims to drop our sport not only has energized wrestling fans worldwide, but it offers us an unparalleled opportunity.

Our sport can reset standards. Wrestling can be a leader in bringing honor back to athletics so that we can truly say that our sport builds character.

Honesty, responsibility and respect are characteristics essential to a civilized society. What standard of behavior in wrestling are we willing to accept?