Sports Doesn’t Always Build the Right Character

Organized sports is often promoted as a character-building activity for the young. But after a civil trial in 2003 between two former Ohio State University football players, questions arose about the type of character being built.

One of the players sued for damages caused by a vicious punch the other had thrown after a practice session. During the practice, words were exchanged between the two linemen over each other’s athletic prowess.

Afterwards, while walking to the locker room, the defendant suddenly and without warning threw a devastating punch that crushed the plaintiff’s face, including breaking his nose, shattering an eye socket, and chipping several teeth. Long-term effects of the injury included severe headaches, dizziness, and blurred vision.

Testimony at the trial indicated the victim had used racial epithets in the past. But the attacker apparently never considered – and still doesn’t – that there are legal and nonviolent means of dealing with such problems. After the trial, he refused to apologize for the assault and said of his former teammate: “I don’t owe him anything.”

The jury’s understanding of the defendant’s wrongdoing was not much better, since they awarded the plaintiff a paltry $6,000 in damages. This sum was about enough to cover the cost of fixing his broken face. The attacker was all smiles after the verdict, probably because the amount is barely a slap on the wrist to an athlete who is now playing professional football.

During the trial, other OSU players were shown to have similar violent tendencies. Apparently in an attempt to make the punch look like nothing out of the ordinary, testimony was offered to show that fights between players occurred “all the time.”

The brawls were said to happen on the practice field, at the training table, and in the locker rooms, showers, and meeting room. Testimony was also given about players threatening to murder other players. And this is the way they treated their teammates.

These glimpses into behavior on a major college football team support the opinion of author James Michener. “I am very doubtful that big-time sports, whether high school, college, university or professional, do much to alter the character of the young men who participate,” he wrote.

The trial’s depiction of the former OSU coaching staff also supports Michener’s position. Previous head coach John Cooper gave stunningly harsh testimony against the victim of the assault. He acknowledged telling the owner of a professional football club, prior to the 2002 draft, that the victim was a “cancer” on the team.

Cooper’s vituperation could have ruined the player’s chances of a professional football career. When asked why he did it, Cooper explained: “Because he sued one of his teammates. I don’t think that’s very good. . . . I would not want to have a guy on my team that would sue a teammate simply because he got into a fight with him.”

Cooper obviously doesn’t think highly of players who would resort to the courts – the remedy the law specifies – in an attempt to obtain justice for horrendous injuries inflicted by wrongdoers. The coach even thinks those whistleblowers deserve severe punishment, including having their careers ruined by vicious gossip spread to prospective employers.

Others in the football world seem to feel the same way. Speculation after the trial was that the legal proceedings could hurt the victim’s professional football career, while nothing was said about possible negative effects on the career of the attacker. An ESPN commentator and former OSU football player remarked about the victim: “He not only sued a former teammate, but he tried to get two million dollars. I think that tells everything you need to know about what kind of guy he is.”

Actually, comments like that reveal much about the character of some in college football today. In their view, those who use legal and nonviolent means of settling disputes are anathema, while others who resort to violence or remain silent about wrongdoing deserve approval. Moreover, no one mentioned that besides being sued, the attacker should have been arrested and jailed.

With coaches like Cooper leading them, perhaps it should not be surprising that after 10 to 15 years of participating in the “character-building” activity of organized football, certain OSU players were still so ignorant that they thought problems should be handled through violence rather than peacefully. It’s a barbaric and idiotic attitude. Not to mention unsportsmanlike.

Unfortunately, a comparable attitude appears to have persisted after the Cooper era. During the 2003 season, an OSU linebacker intentionally choked and crushed the windpipe of the University of Wisconsin’s quarterback after a play. The attack caused the quarterback to have difficulty breathing and sit out the rest of the game. Although the referees missed the linebacker’s deplorable act, an ESPN camera captured it to the shock and dismay of a national audience.

Some observers were not terribly surprised, though. During the national championship game the previous season, the same linebacker was seen twisting the legs of a University of Miami receiver after tackling him. Nice guy.

Additionally, two OSU football players were arrested in May 2004 for beating and robbing a randomly chosen pedestrian early one morning on the OSU campus. They jumped out of a car, punched and kicked the victim, took his wallet, and fled.

Several months earlier, one of the same players pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and one count of disorderly conduct. He had punched two male students and shoved his girlfriend during an altercation.

Between January 2001 and May 2004, a total of 14 OSU football players were arrested in 14 separate incidents.

As the arrests continued in 2005, a Columbus newspaper columnist quipped that the most valuable Buckeye in the upcoming season might be the bail bondsman. The columnist advised the coach to obtain one who offers group rates. He also wondered whether the coach, when traveling to an away game, could be subject to arrest for transporting felons across state lines.

In 2006, a former star running back for OSU – who scored the winning touchdown in the national championship game several years earlier – was arrested for robbing two people outside a bar. Later that year, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. He was sentenced to at least three and half years in prison after pleading guilty to the robbery and weapons charges.

The arrest records don’t tell the whole story, however. The perpetrator of the Wisconsin chokehold was not arrested, and many other players apparently get away with similar actions. In commenting about the incident, a former OSU player said that “what you saw on TV happens far too often – the kicking and scratching and clawing. I’ll guarantee that hundreds of things have happened that were much worse . . . and were never publicized. You’re talking about the wrong place at the wrong time with millions of people watching. . . .”

Whether caught by TV cameras or not, this behavior cannot be good for a society that is already extremely violent. The actions can be particularly harmful when committed by college athletes who are often admired by fellow students and other young people.

The same is true, of course, when the behavior is by professional athletes. More than 200 members of the National Football League were arrested during the period from 2000 to 2007.

In addition to striving to emulate the athletic performance of the players, the young are likely to develop the same tendencies to cheat and use violence both on and off the field.

The example set by many college and professional athletes certainly didn’t help the top high-school football player in Ohio for 2003. The player, who was named Ohio’s Mr. Football in November of that year, pleaded guilty to robbery and involuntary manslaughter for an incident that occurred the following April. He and two players from his state-championship team committed a robbery that resulted in the death of one of the players. As a result, Mr. Football’s college scholarship was withdrawn, and he faces 3 to 20 years in prison.

Moreover, because a macho and aggressive attitude is often held by rapists, it’s probably no coincidence that, as author Leora Tanenbaum reports, male athletes in team sports constitute a disproportionately high percentage of rapists.

There is in fact evidence of a causal connection. Jessica A. Johnson, a professor at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, relates: “Academic studies . . . have found that fraternities and men’s athletic teams promote environments that encourage sexual aggression against women.”

Johnson points to further support for that position in Jeff Benedict’s book Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women. He says over 400 professional and colleges athletes were involved in sexual crimes between 1986 and 1996. The offenses included rape, assault, and harassment.

Clearly, sports does not necessarily build good character. There’s even research indicating it can produce negative effects on some participants. For sports to have a beneficial influence, schools and coaches need to ensure that players are learning the right lessons.

Andrew W. Miracle Jr. and C. Roger Rees explain as much in their book, Lessons of the Locker Room. They write: “It is the consensus among social scientists studying sport that whereas athletic participation per se is not good or bad, the environment of participation . . . is important. If coaches stress that it is more important to win than to play fair, or that your opponent is to be hated rather than respected, then one of two things will happen. Either these values eventually will be internalized by the participants, or only those participants who had these values in the first place will remain involved in sport.”

Either way, the participants can end up being hate-filled cheaters and brutes. This is not the type of character that athletics was originally intended to build.

If school administrators and coaches really want sports to build good character, some of them need to make major adjustments in the lessons being taught. To hate, cheat, use violence, and ignore wrongdoing are incorrect attitudes to learn from athletic participation.

As Miracle and Rees also state: “If school sport is to become a training ground for moral development, then coaches need to be trained in ethics and learn how to reward athletes for ethical behavior.”