Building character, values a thing of the past in sports


The Kickoff

March 06, 2007|By MILTON KENT

In a nobler, sweeter time, we encouraged our kids to play sports for what appear now to be the quaintest of notions. We thought they might make lifelong friends among their teammates or competitors, learn things about people who were different, or better yet, even stay in shape.

Most importantly, we hoped that, through games, our children would discover important things about how they would react in pressure situations. We prayed that if they could believe in themselves long enough to make big free throws or score goals or to start over after a heartbreaking loss, they might be able to find strength in their own character when life really got tough.

But a recent Los Angeles Times story should give cause to wonder if the concept of building character and establishing values through sports is as real these days as a visit from the tooth fairy.

The Times cited a two-year study of nearly 5,300 high school athletes conducted by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics that showed, among other things, that athletes were more likely to cheat on exams than nonathletes.

Sixty-five percent of the athletes who participated in the survey admitted that they cheated on a test at least once a year, as opposed to 60 percent of nonathlete students. Broken down by individual sports, 72 percent of football and girls softball players, 71 percent of girls basketball players and cheerleaders, 70 percent of hockey players and 69 percent of baseball players admitted to cheating on exams.

On the field, the survey showed that significant numbers of kids have, shall we say, questionable attitudes about how their games should be played. For instance, 48 percent of baseball and football players believed it was OK to use a stolen playbook sent to a team anonymously before a big game, while 54 percent of football players and 49 percent of boys basketball players thought trash-talking - defined by the institute as "demeaning the defender's skill after every score" - was acceptable behavior.

"The bad news," wrote institute president Michael Josephson in the report, "is that many coaches - particularly in the high-profile sports of boys basketball, baseball and football - are teaching kids how to cheat and cut corners. Both boys and girls [athletes] are more likely to cheat in school, and far too many are willing to cheat in sports and engage in other dishonest, deceptive and dangerous practices without regard for the rules or traditional notions of fair play and sportsmanship. There is reason to worry that the sports fields of America are becoming the training grounds for the next generation of corporate and political villains and thieves."

So, when did all of this change? Perhaps around the time that college tuition prices started rivaling the cost of a modest home or around the time that young phenoms passed Go and the college campus for lives in the professional ranks.

From there, merely earning a letter for the varsity sweater or jacket ceased being a reasonable outcome of a season. Now, our kids play to lower their 40-yard dash times, to boost their averages, whether it be saves, goals or points, or to add some miles per hour to their radar gun readings.

And that's assuming they even play for the high school team. The increasing influence of club and Amateur Athletic Union teams threaten to render the local high school team as superfluous or as a necessary evil on the way to big bucks or a college scholarship.

While the Josephson survey lays considerable, and in some cases, warranted blame at the feet of coaches for ignoring or even encouraging unethical behavior, the fault for most kids' conduct more often than not lies in their homes. After all, a coach can only build on a foundation that was already in place before he or she got there, and a truly caring parent would never let someone else mess up what they've worked so hard to build.

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