Monday, October 17, 2011

Football Etiquette: Jim Harbaugh and the Post-Game Handshake

Yesterday morning I watched football of the English variety before heading to a friend's house for some NFL. When the Lions and 49ers game ended with a dust-up between the two coaches due to a perceived breach of post-game etiquette, I couldn't help but contrast the behavior of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh with the typical interaction between managers following an English football match.

Here's the basic breakdown:

Top photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images Europe

In England, post-match handshakes receive intense scrutiny when they involve football's more fully developed personalities, such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Journalists are always on the lookout for the slightest signs of a snub, and when a handshake is refused outright, it doesn't take a keen eye to notice the fallout. This month a Tottenham coach got into it with Wenger when the latter failed to shake hands, and two years ago Wenger allegedly committed similar affronts against manager Phil Brown. Writing about the Brown incidents, journalist Phil White noted that, at least according to the film The Damned United, legendary English football skipper Brian Clough carried a years-long vendetta when Phil Revie failed to press the flesh prior to a cup match.

The post-match handshake between NFL coaches rarely commands such attention. It's just something coaches do. There's no coded messages transmitted by a refusal to make eye-contact, or nuanced meanings to take away when one party offers a claw grip rather than standard extended hand. We Americans are, after all, more straightforward -- some might say "blunt" -- than our cross-Atlantic cousins. The NFL handshake has become routine, devoid of meaning -- a formality. 

And that's exactly what makes Jim Harbaugh's treatment of Lions coach Jim Schwartz so obnoxious. As you can see in this video, after greeting one of his players with a triumphant (if errant) flying chest bump, Harbaugh launches himself at Schwartz before pounding the Detroit coach on the back. 

Schwartz responded verbally before tracking down Harbaugh and squaring up. Kevin Seifert of ESPN called this reaction "lunacy," an assessment that I in turn find insane. I was actually proud of Schwartz, and here's why:

Before taking a hiatus from this blog, the big question that I constantly returned to, post after post, was, "How should one respond to rude behavior?" Is it better to let rudeness slide and turn the other cheek, or should one point out the behavior and therein risk exhibiting behavior that's just as bad -- if not worse -- than the original affront itself?

In this case Schwartz took the latter route, and I applaud him for it. When greeting a defeated foe, you chill. It's what Schwartz referred to in his post-game remarks as "decorum." Far from chill, Harbaugh displayed all the exuberance of a newly initiated fraternity pledge. Was Schwartz a poor sport in return? Possibly, but had he done nothing, Harbaugh might well have continued to act like a jerk to his colleagues in subsequent games. One imagines he'll now consider conducting himself with a bit more civility when leaving the sidelines to greet a bested opponent.

P.S. If you happen to be an English footballer reading this, and you're wondering, "If I have sexual relations with an opponent's girlfriend, can I expect him to refuse to shake my hand before the match," the answer is, "Yes. Yes you can."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this article! I enjoyed it! I'm torn over whether teams should continue this tradition or not. On the one hand, it's respect for other teams. On the other, what's the point? There's a good discussion of this over at TC Huddle. I found your article looking for more opinions on this.

    This is a good article. Thanks! Here's the article that led me here if you're interested. It's enjoyable if nothing else.