UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – The handshake line

As a parent, educator, and sports fan, I think there’s no better display of sportsmanship than the handshake line tradition of the National Hockey League. As much as we all enjoyed watching the Avs players hoisting the Stanley Cup this year, I equally enjoyed, as I always do, the handshake line at the end of the final game. In the most intense and aggressive of sports, one in which fighting is practically an expected part of the game, the handshake line at the end of a playoff series is an admirable tradition of respect, humility, forgiveness, honor, and class.

Following the intense, controversy-filled playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, many people might have expected bad blood to taint the tradition. Many might have wondered whether Blues and Avs players would even shake hands. Yet, there was never the slightest hesitation after the final horn blew. When asked about the post-series handshake line, Avs forward Naz Kadri downplayed any lingering negativity, telling the press the handshake line was not a problem. “Nah, people leave that stuff on the ice,” he explained. 

Americans, nay people in general, have long been too serious about winning and losing in sports. From historical accounts of English soccer hooliganism to the ubiquitous news reports of parents-gone-wild at youth sports events, we don’t handle our excitement about athletics very well. And in a society at a time when manners, decorum, and goodwill fade from daily life, including in the once-hallowed halls of Congress, Americans’ immature antipathy for the other side is getting worse, even when that other side is just across a gym or field. There’s no better example of how bad it has become than discussions this year about canceling the handshake line. 

At a Michigan-Wisconsin basketball game last March, coach Juwan Howard’s words and actions in the handshake line led to punches being thrown and a melee among players. Following that embarrassing fiasco, veteran sportscaster Dick Vitale made the sad, silly suggestion that “it’s time to eliminate the line after games of shaking hands” because there have been “too many incidents.” In reality, these incidents indicate all the more reason to keep the handshake line and to emphasize its importance. Grown ups need to manage their emotions. Adults need to re-learn the rules of sportsmanship. After former NBA star Kendrick Perkins supported doing away with handshake lines, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith simply rolled his eyes dismissively, saying “That’s utterly ridiculous.” Of course, we all make mistakes, and coach Juwan Howard should also be acknowledged for one of the most endearing moments of this year’s NCAA tournament when he held and consoled Tennessee player Kennedy Chandler who was devastated after a huge upset loss to Michigan. The handshake was replaced with a hug.

Sociologists and anthropologists believe the handshake has two possible origins. One was to demonstrate “peaceful intent” by showing the hand carries no weapon. The other symbolically signifies a relationship and bond between two people. It represents a shared humanity and a spirit of goodwill and connection. Athletes should play with passion and intensity, but not with anger. Fans should cheer on their teams with equal enthusiasm, but not contempt or rage. And a post-game handshake should be a no-brainer. If any athlete or coach can’t tell the difference, they should walk away from the game until they’ve figured that out. 

Whether on the playground or at the professional level, the reality remains – it’s just a game. Even when it’s a career, it’s still a game. In playing “for the love of the game,” respect for the competition and the opponent should be fundamental, and sportsmanship should never take a backseat. Shake hands. Have some class. Control yourselves. Show some respect. At the end of this year’s Wimbledon Men’s Championship, the intense match between Novak Djokovic and Nick Krygrios ended with a handshake and smiles at the net. Two incredibly talented tennis players who also wear their fiery emotions on their sleeves found a way to honor and respect each other in victory and defeat.

Athletic competition is a key element of the human experience. Drawing from the earliest civilizations, it’s a testament to the value of achievement and excellence. Sportsmanship is a virtue that derives from the act of competition. Humility and gratitude in winning, respect and graciousness in losing – that’s what the handshake line is all about. It’s something I hope we never lose.