Sports drops ball regarding character

Commentary

November 13, 2005|By RICK MAESE

I know how you feel. Sometimes it's hard to swallow the sports news. Just last week ...

A Philadelphia Phillies pitcher was jailed, accused of attacking five men with machetes and pouring gas on them in an attempt to light them on fire. And that same day, six Chattanooga (Tenn.) football players were charged with raping a female student.

Also last week, we learned that Terrell Owens doesn't play well with others, and the University of Virginia suspended four football players for undisclosed reasons.

A week after baseball suspended former All-Star Matt Lawton for steroid use, Congress cleared Rafael Palmeiro of perjury charges. The consensus opinion, though, is Palmeiro still hasn't disclosed the truth.

It's dangerous to use the same thick brush to paint every athlete. There has always been a bit of internal guilt attached to naive blanket statements, such as "They're all a bunch of criminals" or "They play by their own rules."

But what if they really are morally starved? And what if sports is at the root?

We've theorized for a while that sports isn't building character the way we've always assumed. Now there's actual proof.

You enroll little Jimmy in a basketball league and put little Jenny on a soccer team because you want your children to develop all those important characteristics that lead to being a well-rounded member of society. But sports -- the way most coaches, teams and leagues operate -- is not the proper conduit right now.

There's an ongoing study at the University of Idaho that illustrates the moral gap between athletes and non-athletes. The school's Center for Ethical Theory and Honor in Competitive Sports houses the results of more than 72,000 questionnaires taken by athletes -- junior high through college -- over the past 17 years.

The results might make you want to put that closet of sports equipment in a garage sale.

Athletes score significantly lower on moral reasoning categories than non-athletes.

Male athletes in sports that produce revenue score significantly lower than athletes from non-revenue producing sports.

Women score higher than men, though their scores are dropping and researchers predict they will be even with men's scores in five years.

The longer an athlete competes in sports, the more likely it is that his or her moral reasoning will be affected.

The problem isn't that sports simply breeds morally corrupt humans, rather athletics aren't focused around a broad enough skill set. Even at the youth level, athletes are taught traits that will be important later in life, but they aren't all encompassing and many athletes never develop other skills that provide balance.

Sports may teach competition, teamwork, loyalty and self-sacrifice, but coaches gloss over other virtues that might grow a better person, but not necessarily a better linebacker. The Idaho study reveals many athletes don't test as well in moral values such as honesty, fairness and responsibility.

I remember chatting with Joe Ehrmann a couple of months ago about this. Ehrmann is a lot of things to a lot of people. The former Baltimore Colts player works in a local ministry, volunteers as an assistant coach at Gilman, and helped found community programs such as Building Men for Others and Baltimore's Ronald McDonald House.

Ehrmann was struck by the images that were flashing on his television in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For weeks, we saw what generations of poverty had wrought on a beloved American city.

"If we were all doing our jobs properly, it wouldn't be like that," he said then.

Sports can play a role in solving social ills, but it has to be methodical. Sports doesn't naturally lend itself to character-building.

"One of the greatest myths in America today is that sports build character," Ehrmann said last week. "It does, but it's a win-at-all-costs character. Sports don't build character unless a coach intentionally teaches it."

Coaches need to do more than instill a sense of hyper-competition. It's important to be goal-oriented, but the cost shouldn't be forsaking what's right and what's wrong. They need to forge relationships that encourage athletes to create bonds of their own that can transcend the playing field.

The Idaho study has spawned a teaching curriculum that is taught to coaches, who can in turn teach their players. Much of it is aimed at the younger athlete, but even the Atlanta Braves have plans next spring to use it throughout their minor league system.

It's clear sports in and of itself doesn't offer the full range of skills and experiences to prepare a young athlete for the real world. But it could if coaches could start to recognize inherent deficiencies.

"You develop men and women in the context of sports," Ehrmann says. "You have 40 million children -- 30 million under the age of 13 -- who play sports in this country. All of them stand in front of one of the most influential people in the lives of a child-- their coach. That coach has unbelievable opportunities. But they have to take advantage."

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