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Virtues and Vices of Modern Sports

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Sports have much power in our society. But what is the focus of that power?

Athletes bring crowds to their feet, defy our human weaknesses and make us believe in the impossible. Yet sometimes the athletic courts seem to be breeding grounds for crime, scandal and violence. Is the character of sports eroding away to the vices of unbound competition?

On one hand — and for good reason — sports will always be held up as a way to promote virtues such as perseverance, responsibility and teamwork. Over two-thirds of our student body played sports growing up, which adds a special element to our community that few other universities can match.

On the other hand, teamwork can be a one-sided, destructive force. In the book, Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sports, Andrew Miracle and Roger Rees report studies showing that some athletes “have a tendency to shrug off moral decisions as not their responsibility and exhibit a self-serving bias when judging what violent behavior is appropriate.” Examples from sports media immediately come to mind as support.

In this competitive society, sportsmanship becomes increasingly important in keeping our sports firmly grounded in character. It’s a classic battle of good versus bad on a moral playing field. Where does this put Notre Dame, a bastion for both ethical and athletic excellence?

When asked during a talk in Keough Hall about the professions where he would like to see more Notre Dame graduates, Father Edward Malloy gave the reply one may expect from a university president: the Presidency of the United States, higher education and politics. But on the end of this academic list, Monk tacked on coaching. Why?

Psychology Professor and Kroc Fellow George Howard, who teaches a summer 400-level course on coaching youth sports, explained Monk’s reply: “If we really are more value-oriented than most institutions, then we should work harder to get our people to appreciate what sports do, and have them be centrally involved.”

To counter a shift from fair play to winning at all costs in the sports culture, Howard teaches that coaches are to be educators first. This shifts the focus to player development before winning. He believes that “if you’re always focused on winning the next game, you sacrifice the long-term interest of the players and the team.”

This view seems idealistic. Then one name comes to the surface: John Wooden.

Ninety-three year-old John Wooden is ESPN’s Coach of the Century for his record 10 NCAA championships (the second-best record has four) at UCLA. Since his early high school coaching days in South Bend, he has intently focused on developing players according to their ability. Last week at the Air Force Academy, the poet at heart quoted lyrics that explained his rationale: “At God’s footstool to confess / A poor soul knelt and bowed his head. / ‘I failed,’ he cried. The Master said, / ‘Thou didst thy best, that is success.”

Denver Bronco’s manager Ted Sundquist also emphasizes the personal virtues of teamwork in believing that relationships are strengthened through shared sacrifice. Teams are ultimately united by shared scars from common struggles.

Bill Yoast, coach of the T.C. Williams Titans featured in “Remember the Titans” proves Sundquist’s point. He tells audiences about the racial tensions pulsing in the Alexandria, Va. after three rival high schools were combined. The integrated football team was ironically the source of acclaimed community solidarity as the team advanced to win the state championships.

Sports programs have the power to revolutionize communities. They give inner city youth alternatives to crime and drugs. In case you’re interested, the summer National Youth Sports Program facilitated by the Center for Social Concerns pays students to work with teenagers from the local community.

If you are skilled at basketball, you have tremendous power in the city. Being a baller can earn you the respect of many hardcore players off the street.

Sports can bring unity even across national borders. You have tremendous power on the international scene if you are skilled at soccer. While teaching in Uganda during the 2002 World Cup, I could relate to people anywhere in the country through this one sport.

Recognizing the value of sports, the U.S. State Department has even created International Sports Initiatives which relate athletics to foreign relations through “sports diplomacy.”

The ethical climate of athletics is growing more threatening. In renewing a focus on the character of sports, athletics can continue to be a force that brings communities together on all playing fields.

Andrew DeBerry is a tenth semester senior counting down the 90 days till graduation. His column usually appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at adeberry@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.