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Published September 03 2013

Forum editorial: ‘Ethical sports’ an oxymoron?

The findings in two recent surveys of North Dakota high school coaches and athletes put into question the maxim “sports builds character.” (See Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt’s article, Page One, Tuesday.) Results of the studies indicate that school sports can skew the moral compass of a significant number of young athletes, and a lesser number of their coaches.

North Dakota State University professor Bradford Strand asked coaches and athletes a series of sports ethics questions in two published studies. The findings

show that approximately 18 to 27 percent

of athletes think it’s OK to purposefully injure an opposing player or to cheat to gain advantage.

The topics included targeting an opposing player’s injury, throwing a pitch at a home run-hitting batter, using an opponent’s playbook if you get hold of it, and condoning parents screaming coaching instructions to his/her child.

All those things happen in school sports – commonplace by some reckoning. Of course, the surveys confirm a majority of young athletes do not condone such conduct. But the percentage of those kids who say it is OK is worrisome. By the way, ice hockey emerged in the surveys with the highest levels of unethical behavior among athletes and coaches. That suggests the nature of the sport and the nature of those drawn to it contribute to condoning unethical practices.

The surveys do not constitute condemnation of school sports. Indeed, majorities of coaches and athletes disapprove of the conduct questioned in the research. Nonetheless, the level of those who either wink at or participate in unethical conduct in school sports proves it is not a given that sports builds character.

There are factors other than sports that influence a young person’s values. Those include parents’ attitudes about sports – about winning at all costs or about abusing coaches from the sidelines, for example. The influence of the way media report unethical and illegal conduct in collegiate and professional sports is a factor that affects high school athletes, often negatively.

The data are useful. The research indicates that, despite an upbeat mantra, school sports can have a negative influence on character, and on perceptions of right and wrong. Parents who celebrate their kids’ participation in sports need to understand the life-affirming benefits of winning the right way and the corrosiveness of winning dishonestly.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.