One of the most bizarre sports stories I have seen recently carries the following headline: “Bad sports: Kentucky school teams told not to shake hands after games.”1 According to the story, there have been more than two dozen postgame confrontations among high school athletes in Kentucky during the past three years, and so the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) has ordered the traditional postgame handshakes to stop. The story gets stranger: There is no penalty for going ahead with the handshakes, provided that the schools “supervise the activity and report any incidents to KHSAA.”
Wait a second. Weren’t the handshakes always supervised? Were coaches and administrators leaving official high school sporting events so quickly after the final buzzer that the handshakes went unsupervised? Perhaps this new ruling is merely a reminder to administrators to be especially wary of violence during the handshakes.
Wait one more second. Weren’t the handshakes always valuable? I played organized rec-league basketball for years, and upon reflection, it seems to me that the postgame handshakes were important for at least the following reasons:
The handshake keeps the game in perspective. We play sports in order enjoy the inherent goods of a collaborative, pre-organized, physical activity that requires great effort, skill, and often strength. We do not play in order to punish a real enemy, but to see if we can overcome a challenge presented by a competitor within the pre-set rules. If we understand this distinction between enemy and competitor, then the handshake is a natural expression of thanks for the help that the challenger has provided. In other words, handshake says, “It’s a game.” Sports are very important, but by definition they occur only within prescribed boundaries of space and time. Therefore there is no reason to think of our adversaries on the field as our adversaries in life. Quite the contrary: They are our friends for playing with us. Remember Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
The handshake disciplines the emotions. Due to the emotion often required to perform at our best in sports, we may be tempted to forget that our competitors are not real enemies, and that a game is not war. It seems to me that a handshake with the opponent is the ideal tool to help us calm down and move on. It’s hard to allow anger to get the best of us if we know that we are just about to participate in a traditional greeting of the opponent whom we may seem to hate at the moment. Remember Ephesians 4:26-27: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The handshake gives coaches an opportunity to mentor, and an opportunity for players to learn. I remember that opposing coaches in the handshake line occasionally complemented my shooting, and it meant a lot to me to know that someone other than my parents and my own coaches noticed what I was doing on the court. It was encouraging to know that a coach had to game-plan for me. We often watch coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski taking the opportunity of the handshake ritual to have meaningful discussions with opposing amateur athletes. Why would we give up an opportunity like this? Remember Proverbs 1:5: “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance. . . .”
I hope that high schools throughout Kentucky will continue to have postgame handshakes, and that players will be sufficiently respectful of one another and of their institutions to make it through the handshakes without incident. Most of all, I pray that the families of our communities will turn to the Lord so that their young people can learn respect for one another and for authorities (Romans 13:1-7).