Sports and morality


Commenting on Robert Burton’s demand that UConn return his $3 million donation to the university because it didn’t consult with him regarding the hiring of the college’s football coach, NY Times columnist William C. Rhoden writes, “The folks at the University of Connecticut can talk about ethics, but they let that horse out of the barn in 1998 when they embraced football and moved up to Division I. If they want to be competitive, they had better ask Burton to bring his ball—and his millions—back to Storrs.”

Rhoden has a point: ethics and money frequently exist in an inverse ratio. This does make moral behavior at Division I, where millions are at stake every season, difficult. But I don’t know whether that makes moral behavior impossible.

The uneasy relationship between sports and morality isn’t confined to money. I remember a discussion I had with a student-athlete a decade ago in one of my ethics classes. She was the star of the softball team and the conversation was about how far you would go when the coach wants to win, at any cost.

I presented the following scenario: “Let’s say it is the championship game. You have a good chance of winning if your opponent’s all-star player wasn’t in the game. Your coach tells you to take her out whenever you get the chance. Would you do it?”

Sure, she answered.

“By punching her in the stomach?”

“Yes.”

“How about spiking her?”

“Yes.”

“Causing a major foot injury?”

“Sure.”

“What about breaking her leg with a slide?”

“Yes.”

“Even though it may mean she’ll be crippled for life?”

“Whatever the coach wants. She’s the coach. And we are there to win the game,” my student said.

I have no idea whether the ethics class and this discussion gave her any pause. I did wonder, though, what values her coach was teaching.

I suspect my student’s attitude is widespread. This got me to question why schools sponsor teams at all, Division 1 or otherwise. Except as an investment. Ethics be damned.

Is winning everything—in sports, in life? Schools promote citizenship, fairness and good sense; at least they say they do. But Rhoden doesn’t think this is possible in Division 1 colleges and universities. I’m not sure but that this deeper corruption of “winning is everything” attitude pervades Divisions II and III and even in Pop Warner youth leagues, football, softball or every other ball.

But to say that morality isn’t present in many sports isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be present or that it can’t be. I know the coach of a prominent Division I basketball team, for example, and his ethics are beyond reproach.

The stated ideals of schools are superior to the actual values often carried out both on the field (and in the schoolroom). It is up to administrators, teachers and parents to insist that the gap be closed and to return school sports to their proper place—a way of teaching good sportsmanship, teamwork and determination.

More than a thousand years ago it was written that you could to win the world and lose your soul; in this case, you can win the game and lose your dignity. For some that’s a small price to pay. For others it is everything.

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