It is the video that challenged everything we believe our children learn while playing on a sports team. Over six million viewers watched as two San Antonio Jay High School football players waylaid a referee during the fourth quarter of a game. The students claimed that the referee made bad calls and used racial slurs during the game. Furthermore, the students claimed an assistant coach told them to do what they did.
The Washington Post published an article by Kevin Blackistone entitled Sports Don’t Build Character so Much as They Expose It in which he argued that sports don’t build character so much as they expose it. He went on to write that the “character-building mantra about sports has always been more of a lofty goal than a reality.” Much of what we believe participation in sports teaches our children is “mere romanticism.”
I have thought about these issues for many years. I played basketball from the 5th grade through high school. I also refereed high school basketball in two different states (TN and Texas). I vividly remember one of my high school coaches stating during half time, “Sportsmanship trophies are a dime a dozen, and we don’t want one.” I was playing in a high school game when an adult came out of the stands and hit one of our players on the court during the game. I’ve been escorted to the dressing room by police escorts on numerous occasions after refereeing a basketball game. I finally got to the point that I never wanted my daughter to play sports unless I could choose the coach. I was thankful that her extracurricular life centered around choral music and playing in the band.
After watching this event on the football field and examining my attitude about coaches, I realized that I remembered no more than five coaches who were in my opinion unethical. I have been a teacher educator at Maryville College for more than 25 years. I have lost count of the teachers and coaches who have graduated from our teacher licensure program. Most of these men and women have impeccable character, and I would trust my children and grandchildren to their influence.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear. To blame the lack of sportsmanship solely on coaches is a cheap shot. Schools, except in a few cases, usually do not impose values on society; rather, schools reflect the values of the society in which they are located. Most coaches in the major team sports know that at the end of the day sportsmanship and academic achievement will not save your job if you are not winning. You will be fired or forced out.
It starts with the values of the community. The members of the community elect members of the school board who reflect the same values. The school board hires the administrators who hire the coaches. The community usually gets coaches with the same values. If the values being instilled in our children are unethical and sportsmanship is sacrificed for winning, then the community needs to rise up and press the school board for a change.
I will concede the point that in most cases winning trumps character building and sportsmanship. However, I believe that being on a sports team does build one character trait that is essential for success in most professions as well as in life—teamwork. Team members learn how to sacrifice individual goals for team goals. They learn how to support and encourage rather than criticize each other. Finally, effective coaches use the teamwork motif as a critical factor in motivation. Math, English, history, and science teachers should take note.
As I look back on my experiences in school, many of my most vivid memories come from playing on the basketball team. For others those memories may be playing in the band, singing in the chorus, acting in a play, displaying work in an art gallery, or participating in other extracurricular activities. These activities are worth our support.
Bless You My Children,
Terry L. Simpson