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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Sports and Character

Basketball huddle (photo by Joanne Lee)

Basketball huddle (photo by Joanne Lee)

Pressure to succeed may overwhelm ethics

Giannina Ong

Giannina Ong is an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow at the Ethics Center.  Views are her own.

The saying goes, “sports builds character.” At least that was what I was reminded as a five year-old spending what was the hottest summer I’ll ever remember learning to play tennis.

Today, as a student-athlete at Santa Clara, I am most proud of the moments of character I display on the court. Pope Francis once said that sports are “a human activity of great value, able to enrich people’s lives.” He is right. But what he is most right about is the ability for sport to be an enriching factor.

As a Hackworth Fellow, I have endeavored not only to better understand the population of student-athletes on our campus, but how sport can develop character and be part of the Jesuit mission to be men and women for others.

On campus, I have witnessed the accolades of my fellow student-athletes on and off the court, inside and outside the classroom. I know these people to be upstanding citizens and I’ve gained more appreciation for the fact that I can call myself one of them.

However, research concerning character development as a product of sporting activities claims that little evidence links the development of moral character to participation in sports. Despite how we have held athletes up as people of virtue since the ancient Olympics, sports—it seems—do not inherently build character or ethical reasoning.

We’ve seen this misbehavior displayed by many notable professional athletes, including Lance Armstrong, Maria Sharapova and Tiger Woods.

Having a united goal of winning on a team or individually can build social mores. These include character traits like teamwork, dedication and loyalty.

However, that same ultimate goal can detrimentally affect an athlete’s ability to discern fairness, honesty and ethical choices. Therefore, the transferability of moral sportsmanship—with rules that are made to prohibit cheating or unfair advantage—to “real world situations” is negligible.

In the Sports for the Service of Humanity conference, Pope Francis was careful to note that sport has the ability to do good. Intentional character development during sports participation is not an easy pill to swallow, however.

Like any task regarding moral reasoning— i.e. situations that require deciphering right from wrong—building character in athletes is a choice and one that could mean sacrificing one’s own victory for the sake of a greater cause. A call for more moral athletes asks that coaches be willing to lose the game in favor of fairness.

Instead of pressuring athletes to win, push them to strive to be better people. This means coaching players to handle losses in a way that respects the work of the opposing team and prevents athletes from mistreating opponents or referees. So yes, when the win hinges on the call of an umpire, being a person of moral fiber is a difficult task.

Many athletes and people would fail such tasks. However, without the intentionality of character development, sports do not build anything more than the social construct that they are: entertainment for the masses and socialization within a structure, or even some might say, a type of modern clan warfare.

Therefore, I ask if our campus and our athletic department is answering Pope Francis’ call that “you live your sport as a gift from God, an opportunity not only to bring your talents to fruition, but also as a responsibility.”

I ask that you inquire of not only our coaching staff and athletic department, but those supporting young athletes how success is defined: does a year end evaluation of a coach include their ability to garner sportsmanship awards for their players or is it only about wins and losses?

Finally, I wonder how we can do better not only when raising young athletes, but also in supporting the student-athletes on our campus to fulfill that responsibility.

This article appeared originally in The Santa Clara on April 19, 2018.

Apr 25, 2018