Most semesters I start off my ethics course with an article about the connection between sports and character building. It inspires debate, requires an assessment of data, and sets the tone for the course in which I am asking my students to check their preconceptions in order to effectively engage in a process of moral reasoning.
We discuss definitions of character and how those definitions are often shifted or ignored when considering actions and decisions that happen in the context of sports. While many students will start to see that sports are not automatic character builders, that mere participation does not make someone a better person, they will take exception to the idea that unethical things done "in the heat of battle" does not make one unethical or speak badly of sport itself. In other words, the drive to win sometimes makes people do unethical things, but that's kind of just the nature of sports.
But doesn't an ethical person, by virtue of being ethical, do the right thing regardless of "the moment"? I ask.
Later in the semester we read a piece about virtue ethics and coaching in which the authors demonstrate the moral imperative coaches have to behave ethically and teach ethical behavior that, in fact, this is their primary responsibility--above winning and even above skill building. The majority of my students have experienced bad coaching. We fill the board with their examples. But few have ever questioned why so many of them have had bad coaching experiences.
If we truly want sports to build character, we must acknowledge that coaches are crucial components in modelling character. This rarely gets discussed though. And it is never a requirement for consideration when we talk about "good coaches." I still hear people call Joe Paterno a great coach.
Last weekend, University of South Carolina football coach, Shane Beamer, yelled at women athletes who were brought onto the field to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. He wanted them off so the game--which was at a critical juncture--could proceed. He claims he was not aware that the ceremony was happening (yet also goes on to explain how much of a women's sports fan he is and that he has sport-playing daughters so...there was a celebration of the law that likely led to his daughters' ability to play sports yet he was unaware. #thingsthatmakeyougohmmmm)
He apologized but in the same breath noted how he was so focused on this fourth down conversion and that other team was gaining an advantage and...and..."heat of the moment." Perhaps he thinks this focus and attention makes him a good coach. I think it makes him a bad coach. Because good character should be displayed in the most difficult moments. In the grand scheme of things, a 4th down conversion in a game you are losing--even in the SEC--is not an especially difficult moment. He did not model good character for his players. He modelled what has become very common in our sport culture: making a mistake in which a minoritized person or persons is a victim and apologizing with an asterisk (heat of the moment, in this case). He also, in the process, threw the officials under the bus saying that they told him to line his players up. Blaming the officials is also not good character.
Sports do not magically make one a better person and research shows that actually the longer one stays in sports and the higher the level achieved, the less likely one is to have/display good character. Sadly, there are examples galore to use but no real movement to hold people--like coaches--responsible.