Do Sports Still Build Character?

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Putting ethics back into athletic programs

We have heard it since we were children. School athletic programs help students learn sportsmanship and unselfish team behavior. They build character. But do sports really do that anymore? You wouldn't think so by perusing the flood of news reports on athletes these days. It appears at times that athletes from high school to professional sports consider themselves above the standard of acceptable behavior. Let's go back to the beginning of the school year:

September: Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire after a disputed call in a playoff game and was suspended--at the beginning of the next season.

October: University of Rhode Island President Robert Carothers ordered his university's football game against the University of Connecticut forfeited due to unacceptable behavior by numerous players, stating: "This is about community standards. This is about character."

November: Little more than a year after winning a national collegiate basketball championship at the University of California, Los Angeles, the team's coach was dismissed for "ethical violations."

The cases have continued at a steady clip throughout the year, from betting scandals and assault charges to the antics of Dennis Rodman. A popular radio station in the Los Angeles area has even instituted a segment called "athlete arrest of the day." Is this what sports have come to?

Professional athletes, college athletes, and, yes, even high school athletes are role models. Younger students follow their lead and model their behavior. What, then, is the standard of behavior we are willing to accept? And how will we tailor our athletic programs to ensure that we convey the appropriate expectations?

Years ago, when concerns about the academic progress of athletes became an issue, the 2.0 grade point average and other standards of academic competence were instituted in nearly every athletic association and school district in the country. Scholar-athlete programs and similar incentives supported the idea that athletes must be able to compete academically, as well as athletically. The National Collegiate Athletic Association Clearinghouse was established with minimum academic requirements to ensure that athletes could be successful in the classroom as well as in their athletic endeavors as they moved from high school to college. In short, things were done to help overcome and alleviate the problem.

The issues today center around sportsmanship, character, and ethical behavior in athletics. Students nationwide still believe that sports and athletic programs offer them unique opportunities. In Minnesota, for example, the state high school league has released the results of a survey of 4,800 athletes. Ninety-one percent of them said that students who participate in school activities tend to be school leaders and role models; 92 percent said that participation in school activities provides an opportunity not found in a regular classroom setting to develop self-discipline.

Many schools have done self-assessments of their athletic programs, critiqued those of others, and tried to apply the best ideas to improve the ethical behavior and sportsmanship of their student-athletes. The Florida High School Activities Association has developed the "Thumbs Up to Sportsmanship" program, which rewards good sportsmanship among its athletes, coaches, and spectators. In Dallas, "Character Counts" week has been instituted, with the focus for students and athletes on the importance of being a SMORE (not the treat made from graham crackers, marshmallow, and chocolate, but a "Student Modeling Responsible Behavior"). The Dallas model includes six pillars of ethical behavior: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.

Occasionally, situational ethics drives some coaches' and administrators' behavior. They rationalize breaches in ethical standards because 'everyone else is doing it.'

Ethics education can be controversial, but there are certain values we all can agree are common and should be taught and reinforced in our schools: Honesty, responsibility, and respect, for example, are valued as characteristics essential to a civilized society. They may be rooted in family upbringing, religious training, strong role models, or a combination of all of these, but they come basically from the individual. Whatever term we use--ethical behavior, values, character, sports-manship--schools have to take a stronger stand in imparting to student-athletes the high value they and society in general place on developing such fundamental personal characteristics.

Two critical factors will ensure a high-quality, ethically sound athletic program on our campuses. First, we must provide students with an athletic staff that exemplifies good character. Are the coaches controlled, well-mannered, and professional, or do they use profanity, scream at the game officials, and lose their composure easily? Do they exemplify good sportsmanship, or is it "win at all costs"? Are the athletes treated with respect or as tools to further the coach's goals? Does the administration support and exemplify the goals of the program, including holding the coaching staff accountable, or do school officials look the other way when ethical violations occur? It is of utmost importance that high ethical standards are modeled by authority figures.

Occasionally, situational ethics drives some coaches' and administrators' behavior. They rationalize breaches in ethical standards because "everyone else is doing it," or the pressure to win takes priority over character. Are we ethical only when we are ahead in a contest and the outcome is not in doubt? Only when it is convenient? If student-athletes are collecting unsportsmanlike penalties or personal fouls at an unacceptable rate, or one or more of the coaches are continually "misinterpreting" the rules, the red flag should go up. Conversely, if an athletic program and coaching staff possess and display high levels of good sportsmanship, that fact should be reinforced and rewarded.

The second critical factor is the communication of expectations. What should parents expect from the program? From the coach? What are the expectations we have of the athletes and their parents? The ideal time to answer these questions is at the very beginning of a season. Certified educators have a code of ethics. Most official associations have codes of ethics. There is certainly nothing wrong with an athletic program's having a code of ethics or a sportsman's creed. It helps set the tone for the expectations of all participants.

Specifics about the athletic program should be communicated to parents and athletes. What is the mission of the program? Why does it exist? What are the standards of conduct for athletes, parents, and spectators? How can parents address their concerns regarding the program? What are the eligibility standards? What are the chances for scholarships? All of these should be on the table from the beginning of the school year. The final step is to put all of these program standards and beliefs on paper--and then live up to them.

If we believe that athletic programs are an integral part of the high school experience and not just an "extra"; that the most important result of competition is not winning, but the development of lifelong values and skills; that sportsmanship leads to positive athletic experiences; and that students are the highest priority in an athletic program, then we must all move quickly and decisively to reinforce a faltering truism: Sports do indeed build character.

Vol. 16, Issue 39, Pages 45-46

Published in Print: June 25, 1997, as Do Sports Still Build Character?
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