When winning is the only thing…

…violence is not far away.

The acceptance of body contact and borderline violence seems to be based on the idea that sports is an area of life in which it is permissible to suspend usual moral standards.

Studies show that athletes commonly distinguish between game morality and the morality of everyday life. A college basketball player says, “In sports you can do what you want. In life it is more restricted”. A football player says “The football field is the wrong place to think about ethics”.

Experts express concern about the social implications of this lower moral standard in such an important and influential area. Sports gives us a wealth of metaphors in other activities: the language of sports is often used in discussions of business, politics and war. The influence of this double standard begins at an early age.

Athletes as Role Models

We know from research in psychology that young children tend to model their behaviour and attitudes on those of adults, particularly adults they admire. Athletes (and fathers watching/ playing sports) are role models. Even Presidents admire them. Children watch ice hockey on television. We all know the stale joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out”. But how many children, or adults, are aware that a majority of hockey players want to abolish this violence? At annual meetings of the National Hockey Players Association violence has been a major issue, with players asking owners to impose much stiffer penalties (including expulsion).

But Club Owners (sponsors and the media) refuse to discourage the violence, because it attracts spectators who come to see “red ice”. Players who do not participate in the violence endanger their jobs. Most players do not want to see a game where their lives (or others) are in jeopardy. That pressure ultimately comes from owners (sponsors and the media) “who are into making profits”.

But to children it all seems natural. Little does he or she know that the extreme violence he sees often grows more out of the owners’ commercial interests than players’ inclinations.

A child who watches acts of violence committed by thieves, murderers, or sadists in films or on TV knows that society disapproves of these acts. The child who watches sports knows that athletes’ acts of violence are approved of. It makes sense that sports violence would serve as an important role model for children who tend to be well adjusted socially, while illegal violence on the screen would tend to have a greater influence on the behaviour of children who are more psychologically damaged and/or feel more alienated from society.

Sports plays a major role in reinforcing the concern with success, winning, and dominance. On the sports field these goals alone justify illegal and violent acts.

Violence in the Stands

Sports Illustrated took an “unscientific poll of fans” and reported in its August 8, 1988 issue that “everyone who had ever been a spectator at a sporting event of any kind had, at one time or another, experienced the bellowing of obscenities, racial or religious epithets … abusive sexual remarks to women in the vicinity, fistfights between strangers and fistfights between friends”. Increased spectator violence is one more manifestation of the escalation of violence which has taken place in our society in the last 20 years. Violence between athletes can only serve to encourage it.

Youth Sports: “Just Like the Game of Life”

30,000,000 children are involved in youth sports in North America, under the direction of 4.5 million coaches and 1.5 million administrators. When these programs place inordinate emphasis on competition and winning they become detrimental. Most youth sport coaches lack even rudimentary knowledge of the emotional, psychological, social and physical needs of children.

Many athletes report the enormous importance of the coach to a young boy or girl. Players look to their coaches as figures of wisdom and authority. This deep emotional relationship and respect for the coach’s authority facilitates players’ transference of moral responsibility from themselves to the coach. A core idea transmitted by coaches (and fathers) is that “playing the game is just like the game of life. The rules you learn will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.”

Some of the rules that are emphasized sound good – teamwork, sacrifice for the common good, never giving up, giving 110 percent of yourself – and in the hands of sensitive, knowledgeable, well-trained coaches they can be used to teach youth valuable habits. But such coaches are far from the rule. Examples abound of coaches teaching youth the wrong things, in many cases (most?) without even knowing it, to the point of being a serious social problem.

When “60 Minutes” did a program on youth football they found that the emphasis was very much on winning – to the point that it is no longer fun. The emphasis of winning deprives youth of the pleasure of playing the game. The findings of academic researchers confirm “the obsession with winning is far from infrequent in youth sports”. Eventually, integrity takes a backseat to the pragmatic concern of winning games. Players learn that integrity is a rhetorical strategy one should raise only in certain times and places. The adults involved with Little League tend to be oriented toward winning, losing and competition.

Ironically, instead of focusing on enjoying sports, reaping physical benefits, and instilling a lifelong involvement in athletics, too many of our sports programs are geared exclusively toward winning (and coincidentally destroying bodies and missing out on the fun). The obsession with competitiveness and winning is far more pronounced among managers and coaches (and parents) than players. Many coaches think it is correct to use techniques of pushing, yelling, dehumanizing the opposing team, etc. Many coaches also teach players to sacrifice their bodies unnecessarily, hide all feelings of fear and vulnerability (however warranted they may be), to sacrifice the bodies of others, and use sexual slurs .. often to provoke boys to prove their manhood.

What Sports is About

True courage involves taking risks at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason. It is the competitive spirit tempered by empathy, moral concern, and a sense of social responsibility that causes long-lasting excellence and brings benefits to the community at large.

Here is what I learned from a sports psychologist regarding what they look for in an excellent athlete –

  1. competitiveness – not in the sense of having to win the game at all costs, but in having to win each move or action they make. In other words, a type of striving for continuous improvement – to always do the best you can and doing even better next time. Coincidentally, the sum of a lot of small wins, will probably add up to the big win.
  2. being a task master – the self discipline to organize and carry on the necessary tasks to get any job done, however long it takes, whatever it takes. This keeps you going, on track, or getting back on track. It means having a goal and not taking your eyes off it until you have obtained it.
  3. self esteem – having the confidence in yourself that you can do anything you want to. It helps you when you miss a goal because you know you will get it next time, and it keeps you coming back.

Recommendations

We have reached a crisis point today. Contributing to this crisis is TV, which introduces violent athletes as role models to very young children and often focuses attention on the violence in sports. Also, the commercialization of youth sports introduces children to inappropriately competitive sports at an early age. Both as players and as spectators, children are learning all the wrong lessons. What can we do in youth and high school sports to curtail violence, excessive concerns with winning and dominance, and the denigration of women and homosexuals?

  1. Day care centres and nursery schools are licensed (not to mention the regular school system). There is a problem of accountability of youth sports organizations. It is time for sports organizations, which involve large numbers of school-age children and affect their physical and mental health, to be licensed as well.
  2. All coaches (and parents) should have training in child development and physiology, and sports philosophy and how to deal with violence in sports. All coaches should have background checks (similar to Block Parents).
  3. All players, parents and coaches should sign a “contract” agreeing to a code of conduct, what is expected of coaches, players and parents.
  4. All attempts at injuring other players in order to “take them out” of the game and all borderline violence should be forbidden. Any attempt by a coach to encourage youth to behave in this way should be met with a severe penalty and eventual removal if repeated. There should be no difference between game morality and the morality of everyday life.
  5. Players who are problematic (i.e. offenders) should not be allowed to play on a team (for suitable time periods). For example, a ‘3 strikes and you are out’ rule.
  6. All violent, insulting language on the part of the coach and the players, including slurs against women and homosexuals, should be forbidden.
  7. Friendly, civil relations between teams should be encouraged. All games should start and end with handshakes.
  8. League injury rates should be provided to players and parents.
  9. Professional sports organizations must curtail violence. Otherwise, if society has seen fit to regulate cock fights and dog fights to protect animals and the public, so must violence in professional sports be regulated. Employers (Club Owners) should not be allowed to endanger (or bully) employees (players), even if they are paying them millions of dollars, because there is a very large social cost to which they are not contributing.

Conclusion

A major justification for our nation’s enormous investment in competitive sports is that ‘sports build character, teach team effort, and encourage sportsmanship and fair play’. Studies indicate that youth involved in organized sports show less sportsmanship than those who are not involved. One study found that as the children grew older they moved away from placing high value on fairness and fun in participation and began to emphasize skill and victory as the major goals of sport. In several other studies it was found that youth who participated in organized sports valued victory more than non-participants, who placed more emphasis on fairness.

Instead of learning fair play and teamwork, too many of our children are learning winning is everything. It is time to regulate children’s sports so that youth will really learn the pro-social attitudes and values that they are supposed to learn from sports, instead of the obsessive competitiveness, emotional callousness, and disdain for moral scruples that are so often precursors to violence.