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Right on Sophocles!

by Mimi Murray

In America today sport and education are inextricably intertwined. The semantics of the goals of education in our country have varied throughout the years, but the intent of the goals has remained the same. The total development of the individual, learning the values of our culture, and the possession of one's own powers are generally considered goals of education. In fact these are also goals of sport in the United States. This connection has been proclaimed for its value to the members of our society. Is this relationship all it is vaunted to be, or is it dubious? Here in Odessa, Texas, there is a 6.1 million dollar stadium boasting 19,032 seating and parking for 4,756 cars. This stadium was not designed for the Dallas Cowboys or the Houston Oilers, but for the two cross-town high schools, the Permian Panthers and the Odessa Bronchos. The principal of Permian High School has said:

"Some communities choose to build a 10 million dollar library or a 20 million dollar Civic Center. This community chose to build a sports complex for its young people. A winning football team and a strong academic program are not mutually exclusive."

The public education movement of the 1830's began in the name of Civic virtue. Land grant colleges were founded not just for the learning of the sciences, but for moral education as well. It would seem that the relationship of sport and education would be complimentary since sport is the ideal medium in which values can be taught, reinforced, and learned. Values are ideals, deeply held beliefs individuals consider to be beneficial, advantageous, and significant. In American society, we value achievement -- particularly in sport -- along with hard work, financial wealth, industry, and alacrity. It does not require a rocket scientist to realize the connections of these values and sport. Sport has the potential of providing valuable benefits to participants, associations, societies and cultures, and it does so in many respects. The good things about sport have been proclaimed for years. The citizens of our country have been inundated with all of the positives. Some of these are true, and others are myths, even lies, and do not happen. Whenever presenting a message that in some respects is critical of sport, which in the United States we view as sacrosanct, analogous to motherhood and apple pie, it is well to remember Robert Frost's words, "education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self confidence." So, here's to the educated reader!

The Positives of The Sport-Education Relationship

Certainly there is an emphasis once again in education on the importance of increasing academic achievement. In his classic study, The Adolescent Society, James Coleman found that high school students clearly valued athletic success more highly than academic achievement. He contended that sports participation diverted the students' energies from academics. Yet athletes in high school earn slightly better grades than non-athletes, they are less likely to "drop-out," and they more likely to attend college. There is a well-documented, positive relationship between sport participation and academic achievement. Sport, in fact, may help weak students the most.

At the college level, athletes academically succeed at approximately the level as other students, with the exception of male football and basketball players. The overall graduation rate for athletes is 58 percent. Female collegiate athletes achieve more academically than other female students with a graduation rate of 69 percent, 11 percent higher than female students in general. However, the graduation rate of collegiate male football players is 54 percent and the graduation rate of collegiate male basketball players is 42 percent.

Despite the assumptions behind the "C Average Rule" adopted by some states, including Texas, and also behind the NCAA's Proposition 48, both of which preclude extra-curricular participation when athletes fail to demonstrate or maintain average academic performance, the abundance of evidence shows that athletic participation does not relate to a decrease in academic achievement and may enhance it. If academic achievement is a primary goal of education, then it can be agreed that participation in athletics facilitates the goal and is not anathema to it. Many advocates of athletics would suggest that pragmatic and affective skills such as discipline, time management, cooperation, and respect are learned in sport. These may be among the reasons why athletics aids academic achievement, especially among weaker students, but to be honest, the empirical evidence to support these contentions is lacking. Unfortunately, there is as much, or more, reason for concern about other values modeled, demonstrated, reinforced, rewarded and learned in sport.

The Not So Positives of The Sport-Education Relationship The value that is most pervasive and unscrupulous in the sport and education relationship in our country is winning. The "winning-at-any-cost" ethic certainly costs too much when it is manifest in rampant use of drugs to get the "edge" in sport, or when it shows up in unseemly violence, cheating and gambling. The win-fever frenzy has turned many of our academic institutions into pressure cookers, fans and alumni into zealots, faculty and administrators into second rate academic citizens, and coaches and players into dishonest cheaters. Winning at any cost is a losing game, and the unethical behaviors that emanate from the WIN doctrine are destructive for the athlete, coach, spectator, the credibility of education, and ultimately of our society. The following memo circulated once again this Fall throughout many colleges and universities. It is an example of those win-win-win academicians trying to make football coaches relax their standards:

FROM: Chair, English Department
TO: Head Football Coach
RE: Rhodes Scholarship
Remembering our discussions of your football men who are having trouble in English, I have decided to ask you, in turn, for help. We felt that one of our most promising scholars has a chance for a Rhodes Scholarship, which would be a great thing for him and for our college. He has the academic record for this award but, ideally, should have a good record in athletics too. He is weak. He tries hard, but has trouble with sports. Nevertheless, we propose that you give some special consideration to him as a varsity player, if possible by putting him the backfield of your football team. In this way, we will be able to show a better college record to the committee deciding the Rhodes scholarships. We realize that he will be a problem on the field, but as you have said, cooperation between our departments is highly desirable, and we do expect him to try hard. His work in English Club and Debating Team will cause him to miss many practices, but we intend to see that he carries an old football around to bounce (or whatever one does with a football) during intervals in his work.

This satirical memo parodies the requests emanating from coaches and athletic directors for special attention, extra help, and excuses for athletes from the standard requirements. It is one of the many reasons why critics wonder if athletics should be a part of education.

Shouldn't we question the social institutions of sport and education when high school and college football coaches make more money than their respective principals and presidents; when coaches wear bullet proof vests to games; when parents hold back their children who are good students while in second grade in order to give them an additional year of elementary school competitive football (this practice is referred to as red-shirting by coaches); or when athletes are protected from charges such as, assault, rape, theft, vandalism, or cheating? Certainly, these behaviors hold the schools associated with them suspect.

Contrast this all-too-familiar sport landscape of today with the exemplars of sport history which serve largely to underwrite the notion that sport models good character and values. For example, it's the last few minutes of the football game, a halfback, on a sweep, runs for the game winning touchdown. The coach runs out onto the field and tells the official his vision was blocked when the coach's player stepped out of bounds on the sideline during the touchdown run. The coach asks the official to take the touchdown back. The official does so, and The University of Chicago and the team's coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, lose one of very few games in their storied football history.

This paragon of coaching virtue, Amos Alonzo Stagg, left Yale Divinity School to come to Springfield College, my college, when he realized he could "reach more individuals on the field of play than from a pulpit." In an office below mine are two nails for clothes and scratched under these are the names Stagg and Naismith. Regularly, I rub my shoulders against those names, as if by osmosis some of their purity, their sense of ethical conduct and integrity may become mine as well. Naismith came to Springfield College from McGill University as an ordained minister. He arrived at Springfield at the same time and for the same reasons as Stagg. These two muscular Christians' contributions to American sport are unparalleled. In 1891, Naismith invented the game of basketball, the only sport originated in our country that is now played throughout the world. Stagg became one of the winningest football coaches of all time. In his company are Bryant of Alabama and Robinson of Grambling. Stagg was a great baseball pitcher while an undergraduate at Yale and was given seven offers to play in the National League -- the only professional baseball league at the time -- at a salary of $4,200.00, which he turned down. He was named to the first Walter Camp All-American Football Team in 1889. He was a 10.4 - 100 meter sprinter, a 70's golfer, and an excellent tennis player. Yet he will be remembered more for his ethics of fair play and integrity than as the "Father of American Football," or for inventing the forward pass, T-formation, lateral, flankers, winghacks, flea-flicker, draw play, man in motion, reverse, onside kick, place kick, fake kick, unbalanced offensive line, numbers on jerseys, and the writing of many of the game's rules. Stagg had a code of ethics for his players which included:

"Make your conduct a worthy example. Don't drink intoxicants. Don't gamble. Don't smoke. Don't use smutty language. Don't tell dirty jokes. Don't associate with loose and silly women."

Regarding winning, Stagg said, "Winning isn't worthwhile unless one has something finer and nobler behind it." "When I reach the soul of one of my boys with an idea or an ideal vision," said Stagg, "then I think I have done my job as a coach." "Winning," he said, "is the prize, not the goal," and "Honesty is the basis of all character."

Can We Justify the Sport-Education Relationship?

Corruption in sport has never been in short supply. For all we know it may have been even worse in the past. Even Stagg, for example, wrote Touchdown in 1927, as an exposé on corruption in collegiate athletics. He decried the diminution of academic integrity in colleges and universities, and claimed that dishonest practices in athletic departments reflected upon the integrity of academic programs. Coaches then, Stagg wrote, would regularly play what he referred to as three categories of "ringers:" players would not register for courses; players registered for classes would rarely attend; and players would take "snap" courses. Further back in time, there is evidence of terrible depravity and cheating, gambling, drugging, point-shaving, and brutal violence in the Olympic Games of the Roman Empire, 2000 years ago.

This, however, should not imply that because immoral sport behavior is not new and has existed through the centuries, it is somehow acceptable. The unethical behavior in sport today is still destructive to the game, the athletes, the coach, the spectator, education, and ultimately to our society. Today, many youngsters in the United States wonder, "Gosh, is cheating in sport -- and life -- really wrong?" So many of role models behave in unethical ways and their degraded behaviors are reinforced financially and by the media.

Even more deplorable and destructive to all involved is blaming ethical breaches on someone else. The excuse, "everyone else does it, it's no big deal," is a big deal. This seeming lack of responsibility for self and one's own behavior compounds the problem. It appears we have reached the idea of ethics not as intrinsic and understood, but rather as contingent upon everything else except one's self. In much of sport today, winning is all that matters and fair play, that sweet virtue, is only demonstrated by the athlete or team that is successfully dominating the opponent.

Suggestions for remediation of sport-education problems have ranged from one extreme to another. Some advocate adding more rules and regulations to the already overly burdensome, 400-page plus, NCAA manual and more carefully monitoring programs and enforcing violations. At the other extreme is the proposal to allow athletes to be paid for playing, and if they so desire, to be able to attend classes in pursuit of an academic degree. The latter suggestion, at least, would end the hypocrisy of collegiate athletics, and to use one of Henry Kissinger's lines it would have "the additional virtue of being the truth." Under this approach, big-time college sport would be what in effect it is -- semi-professional leagues training athletes for careers as professional athletes.

The thing about the extreme approaches to solving the sport-education relationship is that neither truly addresses the problem of unethical behavior and corruption in sport. The focal questions are whether dramatic ethical and moral changes can be made in sport, and thus in society, and whether education in its ties with sport can play a role in this?

To affect these changes, we each need to begin by examining our feelings and beliefs about winning, losing, and the competitive process. It is within the fold of education, within the grasp of coaches, administrators, faculty, students, student-athletes, and parents to put sport into perspective. The importance of doing so was captured by Charlie Brown, of Snoopy fame, who mused, "Is there life after sport?"

In beginning to re-examine the sport-education link, it might be sage for us to revisit sport as we know of it in Ancient Greece. The Ancient Olympics began as a religious festival during which the gods were honored. The spiritual purposes were eventually perverted, and winning became paramount. Although Sophocles left no written words, Plato, in his Dialogues saved the legacy for us. Sophocles was credited with saying, "I would prefer to fail with honor than to win by cheating." Right on Sophocles! Is it not a beginning to think of honor as a value that could and should be sought in common in sport, and in education. To live honorably is to have integrity, a keen sense of ethical conduct. The idea proposes that virtue or character should be the basis for personal and social ethics. Virtue is a quality of character by which individuals habitually recognize and do the right thing. Shouldn't doing the right thing be a goal in sport, and in education. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, had one goal in life -- to "do good." How simple, and yet, how profound!

Other Ancient Greek writers also proposed virtues which are as relevant today as they were then. Aristotle, for example, extolled four classical virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Prudence can be defined as having practical wisdom and the ability to make right decisions in specific situations. Justice involves being fair and honest as well as abiding by the rules or laws. It is keeping one's promises. Fortitude includes the strength of mind and the faith in one's convictions to be able to persevere in the face of adversity. Temperance is self-discipline and having control over excessive appetites and passions. Are these virtues not those to which all humans should aspire? Shouldn't they form the foundation of the sport-education relationship? They are qualities that can be found in those individuals who have had sustained and successful careers in sport, and in life, as judged by history. These are the types of virtues that should be the primary focus of sport training. To do such, though, all of our educational systems would need to forego the "winning is the only thing" syndrome which is so paramount.

One reaction to this view about mending and revitalizing the sports-education relationship is that, as a reality, it is just far too naive to aspire to, or to even consider. However, if this is true, then how can we rise above the immorality we see about us in sport, education and society? How can we behave ethically and virtuously if we are unwilling to think about ethics and work toward virtue? How can we take responsibility for unintended ethical breaches and move forward? Can we encourage and insist that all in sport and education follow the rules of good behavior and cease from valuing the cheater if we, at the same time, accept the "get away with whatever you can" ethic? One last reminder from Stagg:

"Students are not fools. The faculty that winks at crooked work by a coach . . . can save its breath in preaching ideals in the classroom."

Ah, where have the Stagg's and Naismith's gone?

In losing our heart, mind and conscience to competitive athletics, our nation has lost its balance. No longer do we play for fun or to learn the lessons of life in a safe environment. Winning has become the only goal of sport. The challenge is for each of us, and school administrators in particular, to regain control of the game, so that this "win-at-any-cost" philosophy will not continue to ruin careers and wreck education. If this does not happen soon, we will all be losers. This great country of ours will not survive, nor flourish, by muscle fiber, but by the quality of its moral fiber. If we provide virtuous models, we will justify the relationship of sport and education by contributing through both to a better world that may have values of value. "I would prefer to fail with honor than to win by cheating." Right on Sophocles!