Obviously, Sports Do Not Build Character

First Published: 2007-09-21

Reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Bradley and the Acton Institute.

If you are one of those people who believe the old adage "sports builds character," you have some explaining to do.

Why are so many professional athletes, who have spent their entire lives in organized sports, masters at cheating, serial adultery, drunkenness, compulsive gambling, drug abuse, and thuggish fighting (to name just a few of the vices)? The truth is that sports no more builds character than attending Clemson University football games qualifies you to replace Tommy Bowden as head coach.

By character I mean moral excellence: a life characterized by prudence, fortitude, self-discipline, and humility in pursuit of what is good.

University of Colorado sociologist Dr. Jay Coakley, in his book Sports in Society, explains that we mistakenly believe that sports builds character for two reasons. First, we wrongly assume that all athletes have the same experiences in all organized sports. Secondly, we wrongly assume organized sports provide unique learning experiences that are not available from any other activities.

Unfortunately, whatever character-building potential may exist in the world of athletics is often overwhelmed by a profit motive devoid of moral constraints. Increasing ticket sales, advertising revenue and winning, by any means necessary, are more important in professional sports than the character of those athletes we cultivate to get there. It is an inhumane system.

Michael Vick is only the latest and most sensational example. Vick has possibly ruined his career after pleading guilty to federal dog fighting conspiracy charges. Why didn’t anyone ever sit Vick down and explain to him why participating in dog fighting while you have a $130 million NFL contract — or at all for that matter — is stupid? Vick likely was viewed less as a person worthy of dignity and more as an "it," a mere commodity, during his formative football years.

Did sports build the character of Travis Henry? In August, the Denver Broncos running back was ordered to provide $3,000 a month for an Atlanta-area boy he fathered out of wedlock three years ago. Henry, 28, reportedly has sired nine children with nine different women in at least four states. In the Georgia case, Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger wrote that Henry also displayed "bad judgment in his spending habits," dropping $100,000 for a car and $146,000 for jewelry.

College athletes fare no better. The Benedict-Crosset Study of sexual assaults at thirty major Division I universities reports that one in three college sexual assaults are committed by athletes. The three-year study demonstrates that while male student-athletes comprise 3.3 percent of the college population, they represent 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators. In 2006, Duke University’s lacrosse team got drunk and hired strippers for fun and for some reason we all acted surprised when it came to light.

This year’s Tour De France was mired in blood doping controversies. T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz, 26, now faces a possible two-year ban from competition and could be required to repay a year’s salary, estimated at $684,000, for a doping violation. Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, lost two key crew members back in February when NASCAR penalized his team for using a fuel additive, NASCAR’s biggest cheating scandal to date.

Hypocrisy blares like Ohio State’s marching band when we express outrage at professional athletes’ lack of character. Athletes are merely putting on display the character of the adults who nurtured them. School-age athletes are immersed in a world of adults who are masters at cheating, gambling, violence, serial adultery, lying, drunkenness, drug abuse, and misogyny. "Bad company corrupts good character" is such compelling ancient Greek wisdom that it is quoted in the Bible (1 Corinthians 15:33). By the time many young athletes become "professionals," they have already adopted the dissolute values learned in the company of malformed adults.

Sports do not build character in young people but virtuous adults do. In one sense youth sport is simply a medium for adult mentoring within the context of challenging situations. Character is bestowed — or not — from one generation to another.

Until adults in the world of sports are willing to commit their own lives to virtuous character, until they are willing to pair a valid desire to make money with an equally powerful concern for the true welfare of athletes, the cycle of young "professional" adults ruining their lives will continue. In athletics as elsewhere, we reap the moral character we sow.

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