Will coronavirus spell end of handshakes in sports?
LOS ANGELES — Blood streams in dark rivulets down the side of one man’s face. The other man has a blackened eye as he extends his hand in congratulations or, perhaps, empathy.
The year is 1952 and two hockey teams have just finished a brutal semifinal series. A bloodied Maurice “Rocket” Richard, star of the victorious Montreal Canadiens, looks wobbly standing at center ice for the “handshake line” that has followed every NHL playoff for decades.
The goalie of the losing Boston Bruins, a similarly battered “Sugar Jim” Henry, leans slightly forward as they meet. There is something emotional about his affect, an old photograph of the moment capturing everything you need to know about this ritual of sport.
Boxers touch gloves before fighting and football players greet each other at the coin flip. In tennis, golf and soccer, competitors wait until after the game. Sportsmanship only begins to explain a custom that endures regardless of animosity or even violence on the field of play.
“It’s rooted in our primate psychology,” said David Givens, an anthropologist at Gonzaga University’s Center for Nonverbal Studies. “Primates, especially chimps and gorillas, will reach out and touch each other’s hands, before aggression and after aggression.”
Evolution and neuromuscular circuitry notwithstanding, the handshake has come under attack — in sport and throughout society — from COVID-19. Common etiquette has been rebranded as a vector for spreading infection.
“When you consider the sweat factor, in just two months shaking hands has become unthinkable,” said Pam Shriver, among the greatest doubles players in tennis history and an ESPN commentator. “It’s done and I don’t think it’s going to come back.”
The question is, might sports be losing something important?
The physical act has a geometry all its own.
The palm should be perpendicular to the floor, facing neither downward in a show of dominance nor upward in meekness. Contact should be diagonal, the web of skin below each thumb meeting in symmetry. Shake two to five times, no more or less.
The result of this equation can be far greater than the sum of its parts.
Nelson Mandela helped cement his fledgling presidency in post-apartheid South Africa by way of a famous handshake and pat on the shoulder with a white national rugby star, Francois Pienaar, at the 1995 World Cup championship.
In 1963, the all-white Mississippi State basketball squad sneaked out of town, defying a segregationist history to play in the NCAA tournament against a Loyola of Chicago squad with black players on the roster. The teams shook hands before tipoff.
“It was amazing, so many camera flashes,” Joe Dan Gold, captain of that Mississippi State team, told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, in 2011. “That’s when it hit me, this was more than a game. This was history.”
Flouting the ritual can mean trouble.
The Detroit Pistons walked off the court after a 1991 NBA conference final loss without acknowledging Michael Jordan and the victorious Chicago Bulls. Recently asked about public backlash, which persists to this day, former Pistons star Isiah Thomas seemed to have second thoughts.
“Knowing what we know now, in the aftermath of what took place, I think all of us would have stopped to say, ‘Hey, congratulations,’” he told ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary.