Does Sports Build Character?
It is often claimed that sports builds character. We encourage children to participate in them because it teaches them important life lessons. Yet evidence from contemporary sports shows the lie in this.
Professional athletes, the role models of many children and adolescents (and many adults), have far from exemplary characters. In fact, away from the playing field, they exemplify some of the worst elements of our society. They engage in sexual assault, fraud, illegal gambling, sexism, materialism, barroom violence, drunk driving, and illegal drug use. This is what we want our children to emulate? This is being a role model?
Some would say that we need to separate the players’ personal lives from their professional or on-field activities. First, that is an artificial distinction. The idea of being a role model does not come with boundaries. A role model exemplifies characteristics we find admirable. The fact that someone performs admirably on the playing field just shows technical proficiency. What makes that person a role model is what he or she does with the whole of life. Babe Ruth was a great baseball player. He could be considered a good role model only if we do not know about his womanizing, drinking, and other off-field activities. If we deem him a role model to be emulated despite knowing of these serious shortcomings, then we are treating those behaviours as desirable.
Second, players themselves often replicate on the field what they do in their personal lives. Contemporary sports emphasize winning at all costs. Using steroids and other illegal means—corked bats, spitballs, illegal hockey sticks—to get an edge, bending and breaking the rules of the game, lying, intimidating others, and using violence are seemingly justified by the pursuit of winning. Personal standards and integrity often take a back seat to achieving the corporate goal, in this case, winning.
In this respect, sports is little different from the wider society. The goal is to win and so long as the rules (the law) do not prohibit something, anything is considered fair game.
And this filters down into amateur sports. It is newsworthy when a high-school long-distance runner stops to help a fallen runner, thereby losing the chance to go on to the regionals—newsworthy because no one else stopped. It is newsworthy when a Norwegian skier, possibly at his own expense, gives a ski pole to a Canadian who broke his during an Olympic race. That is sportsmanship. And it is newsworthy because it is all too rare.
Sports may instill values and provide role models. However, these are not necessarily the values we want our children, or the rest of society, to learn nor the role models we want them to emulate.