Obviously, Sports Do Not Build Character

If you are one of those people who believe the old adage “sports builds character,” you have some explaining to do.

Why are so many professional athletes, who have spent their entire lives in organized sports, masters at cheating, serial adultery, drunkenness, compulsive gambling, drug abuse, and thuggish fighting (to name just a few of the vices)? The truth is that sports no more builds character than attending Clemson University football games qualifies you to replace Tommy Bowden as head coach.

By character I mean moral excellence: a life characterized by prudence, fortitude, self-discipline, and humility in pursuit of what is good.

University of Colorado sociologist Dr. Jay Coakley, in his book Sports in Society, explains that we mistakenly believe that sports builds character for two reasons. First, we wrongly assume that all athletes have the same experiences in all organized sports. Secondly, we wrongly assume organized sports provide unique learning experiences that are not available from any other activities.

Unfortunately, whatever character-building potential may exist in the world of athletics is often overwhelmed by a profit motive devoid of moral constraints. Increasing ticket sales, advertising revenue and winning, by any means necessary, are more important in professional sports than the character of those athletes we cultivate to get there. It is an inhumane system.

 Michael Vick is only the latest and most sensational example. Vick has possibly ruined his career after pleading guilty to federal dog fighting conspiracy charges. Why didn’t anyone ever sit Vick down and explain to him why participating in dog fighting while you have a $130 million NFL contract — or at all for that matter — is stupid? Vick likely was viewed less as a person worthy of dignity and more as an “it,” a mere commodity, during his formative football years.

Did sports build the character of Travis Henry? In August, the Denver Broncos running back was ordered to provide $3,000 a month for an Atlanta-area boy he fathered out of wedlock three years ago. Henry, 28, reportedly has sired nine children with nine different women in at least four states. In the Georgia case, Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger wrote that Henry also displayed "bad judgment in his spending habits," dropping $100,000 for a car and $146,000 for jewelry.

College athletes fare no better. The Benedict-Crosset Study of sexual assaults at thirty major Division I universities reports that at one in three college sexual assaults are committed by athletes. The three-year study demonstrates that while male student-athletes comprise 3.3 percent of the college population, they represent 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators. In 2006, Duke University’s lacrosse team got drunk and hired strippers for fun and for some reason we all acted surprised when it came to light.

This year’s Tour De France was mired in blood doping controversies. T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz, 26, now faces a possible two-year ban from competition and could be required to repay a year's salary, estimated at $684,000, for a doping violation. Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, lost two key crew members back in February when NASCAR penalized his team for using a fuel additive, NASCAR's biggest cheating scandal to date.

Hypocrisy blares like Ohio State’s marching band when we express outrage at professional athletes’ lack of character. Athletes are merely putting on display the character of the adults who nurtured them. School-age athletes are immersed in a world of adults who are masters at cheating, gambling, violence, serial adultery, lying, drunkenness, drug abuse, and misogyny. “Bad company corrupts good character” is such compelling ancient Greek wisdom that it is quoted in the Bible (1 Corinthians 15:33). By the time many young athletes become “professionals,” they have already adopted the dissolute values learned in the company of malformed adults.

Sports do not build character in young people but virtuous adults do. In one sense youth sport is simply a medium for adult mentoring within the context of challenging situations. Character is bestowed — or not — from one generation to another.

Until adults in the world of sports are willing to commit their own lives to virtuous character, until they are willing to pair a valid desire to make money with an equally powerful concern for the true welfare of athletes, the cycle of young “professional” adults ruining their lives will continue. In athletics as elsewhere, we reap the moral character we sow.

[Counter the poor moral example of sport's bad guys with the edifying stories of baseball's  Champions of Faith -- available on video now.]

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  • Guest

    I have cut this response short. It is still long for a on-line forum. I apologize…no I don't. The sort of thinking this article demonstrates needs to be attacked strongly…maybe in book-length form. And I THANK Catholic Exchange for posting it, because the issues it raises needs to be discussed more in the public forum.

    My thesis: Sports (specifically team sports) DO BUILD CHARACTER, and I'll be glad to explain why — and how Anthony Bradley's article (and the social communication that supports this kind of thinking) is rife with fallacies. Where do I start? The point intended by the evidence I provide below is this: In an academic setting, only with team sports — where players elect a captain, where there is an authoritative coach and administration, and where there is a "god-like" referee — do students learn the most important intangibles necessary for keeping a job and living a successful life in general. Let me innumerate the ways, now, in which this article is both fallacious and the position that "(team) sports builds character" strong.

    My rebuttal assumes, in a general way, that the article generalizes the conclusion that "sports do not build character in young people." Although the article tries to also argue in favor of "virtuous adults do" build character. But it does so in vain. I'll now explain.

    1. The category "virtuous adults" is not the OPPOSITE of "sports." This is a fallacy that violates the acceptability criterion. It is a fallacy of "linguistic confusion," e.g. "illicit contrast" or "distinction without a difference."

    Bradley sets up the argument as if we don't need sports, but we do need virtuous adults. These are not exclusive categories. You can have both, at the same time. Evidence: The video Champions of Faith. See item 3 below about how silly this comparison is.

    2. Fallacy of "insufficient sample" (violation of the sufficiency criterion).

    Another name for this is "arguing a general conclusion from anecdotal evidence." Bradley provides a plethora of anecdotal evidence of sports figures who have fallen morally into greed and a variety of other sins. Even expanding the sample he provides by ten fold would result in a very, very small number of incidents compared to the larger universe of team sports players who have excelled in developing good character traits. There are about 98,000 high schools and colleges in the U.S. Do your estimating on the number of teams at those schools, and then the number of players that participate. And don't forget to include the intramural teams, not just the interschool competitive teams. The number is huge.

    3. Fallacy of "assigning guilt by association" an emotional appeal that violates the relevance criterion.

    This is huge. If the anecdotal evidence of immoral character that Bradley provides is to be considered a reason for demeaning or eliminating sports, then we also need to consider that the example of immoral character in other disciplines are examples for demeaning and eliminating those disciplines. Let's see where should we start? We can find a lot of immoral fathers, mothers and boyfriends who abuse and kill children. Shall we argue that parents are bad for developing character? We can find a lot of greed-filled businessmen and women, many of who are in prison today. Let's get rid of business as a possible location of virtue. Shall we say that because of the immoral character of sitting congressmen, and the hypocrisy of those that have left office, that politics is bad for character? (Yeah, I know, on that question there are a lot of bobble heads out there.) Or shall we say, because of the well documented priest scandal that the priesthood is bad? Of course not, on all counts. Bad anecdotal evidence is never good evidence to use to arrive at a general conclusion.

    This is long, and I need to move to the evidence in favor of team sports as the ONLY character building device in academia.

    4. My years in management working for very large and very small corporations, hiring and firing dozens of individuals, taught me one thing that is backed up by Human Resource Management statistics (which I taught in college — I'll find the citation another time if someone needs it) — 80% of the reason people loose their job is their inability to get along in a team environment, and work well with suppliers, peers, management, and customers. Only 20% of the time does someone loose their job because of a lack of knowledge about their job. We're talking character, here. In academia, the ONLY activity that teaches the character skills known as teamwork is team sports. ALL THE OTHER CLASSROOM ACTIVITY teaches ONLY knowledge that relates to the 20% factor involved in keeping a job. I include in this assessment "team projects" in the classroom. Team projects do not count because there is often little teamwork involved, few rules, and one or two people can do all the work while the rest of the team sits back and collects the grade.

    Now, I am NOT saying that you can only learn teamwork while on a sports team. Some people are born with a team mentality, and get along regardless. Large, loving, well-disciplined families are another great place to build team skills. But in a school setting, you only have team sports.

    5. So important are team sports for building teamwork and leadership skills, all of our military academies require that all of their students participate in a team sport every semester. This is not just for physical fitness, but for building team character.

    6. Related to all this are the population numbers (not statistics) that academic athletic associations track regarding the GPA of athletes and their graduation rates compared to those that do not participate in sports. When my son was being recruited to play college basketball (he ended up at the Naval Academy — thank you one and all for helping pay for his education) I discovered that in just about every category, college athletes have higher GPAs and higher graduation rates than the general student body. There is some evidence of higher character in these numbers.

    Conclusion (and there is so much more that can be said): Sports does teach character — "prudence, fortitude, self-discipline and humility in pursuit of what is good" better than almost any other activity in life. Unlike head knowledge that we get in classroom settings, sports makes that knowledge visceral, physical and real. Sports are metaphors for life, and are exceptionally good places for the development of character.

    Stan is the author of the Catholic Exchange series on faith and reason: "Trying to Fly with One Wing". He is the owner of Nineveh's Crossing (a Catholic Media distribution company), SWC Films (a production company) and author of "The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success" a Hollywood screenwriting book.

  • Guest

    As someone quipped, Catholic schools don't build character either!  (Any takers?!)

    I was an athlete and so was my spouse and so are all of our children.  Here follows an example dated yesterday illustrating Stan's point.

    My 15 year old son, a competative swimmer,arose at 6:30 AM attended school all day, went directly to a HS swim meet, returned home at 8:30 PM wolfed down a waffle, and began his homework.  At some point around 9:30 PM he said, "Ah!  I don't want to go to practice tomorrow morning (5:30 AM).  His younger sister began giving him suggestions for ditching practice: you're sick, too much homework….He brushed them all off.  I "connected" the dots for her.  "He doesn't really want to ditch practice, he's just tired and verbalizing the difficulty of training."  (He'd already articulated that he "couldn't" miss practice–he's part of a team!)

    Character is my 15 year old son and his older sister pulling down the rain soaked driveway in the dark for a two hour practice!

    Gotta go!  They barnstormed in just now….I can at least pour a bowl of Wheeties for my Champions!  

    ….He needs strength for his one hour piano practice after school and she needs to keep up her 4.53 GPA!

  • Guest

    I'll put more credability in the first article. Team sports is grossly overated as developing anything that a child or a person already has. The team playing qualities are developed in a family setting. The more children in the family the better is the setting for the development of a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. When these qualities are brought into any team, then you a have a winning team. Sure children that lack these basics can in a small way acquire them in team sports but character is a inate trait. It's not something that a team posseses and being on that team will allow a child to absorb  it. Character is what a teammate brings to the team. 

    I won't even get into the topic of how the sports industry and cheerleading parents and the lust for fame and glory have put even Little League into the character deforming catagory.

  • Guest

    Hi Stan,

    You make some excellent points about not associating the relatively few bad examples with all athletes, who number, as you point out, in the millions.  However, I just can't agree that team sports are  "the ONLY character building device in academia."  You go on to point out that you believe that team sports build team-playing ability as no other school activity can, although you also acknowledge that some people have natural team-playing abilities.  But your point is not supposed to be that team sports build team players.  It's supposed to be that sports builds character, and you say that ONLY sports can do that.  I think this is an example of making sports out to be more than they are.  They aren't superior to building character by discipline in practice of the arts.  They aren't superior to buidling character by discipline in the practice of pursuing the truths in science that can help improve man's situation on earth.  I admire students who manage to excel in many areas – sports, music, school - and many of them still find time for volunteer work.  Surely these are the future leaders in our society.  But how about a DVD on great musicians who also are men and women of great faith?  How about a DVD on great scientists who are also great men and women of faith?  One can be a great musician and a great scientist without also being particularly athletic.  To say that sports are the only avenue for building character – sports just aren't "all that", and to indicate that they are gives them a status that is higher than they deserve.

  • Guest


    I wasn't going to say it, but my experience coincides with your statement: 

    The more children in the family the better is the setting for the development of a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect.

    That said, neither participating in sports, growing up in a large family, playing an instrument, going to Catholic schools, etc….automatically create character.  Goral's word "setting for the development" are key.

    Back to athletics, however, St Paul frequently used the athletic competition analogy to describe the spiritual journey.  "fight the good fight" and "finish the race" come to mind.

  • Guest

    SharG and Goral:

    I'm afraid the length of my rebuttal has clouded my point. I make the point that my comments are not about the team building opportunities in large families, etc. My point is not to say that team building sports are the only way to build character in the world. But I DO make the point that in an academic setting they are the ONLY way. I will stand corrected, however. Playing in a band, or music ensemble, or in dance…or any such normally extracurricular activity where there are more than one "player" and a "coach" and a "judge" does constitute the ONLY type of team building character in a SCHOOL setting. Marching band, and cheering are, under that definition, team sports.

    Please notice that the first article was not about the many ways of building good character. Bradley's article was aimed at how SPORTS do not build character. It's a fallacious argument that I wanted to rebut in that limited way.

  • Guest

    Mr. Bradley's arguments do not support his conclusion because he can't tell the difference between a sport and a business.

    There is nothing "sporting" about professional athletics, large college athletic programs, and Olympic athletics. These programs are all about money, so to use them as examples of why sports don't build character is ridiculous. The money of professional sports has a corrupting influence that is now reaching high school and even junior high athletics as college recruiting becomes more intense.

    On the other hand, truly amateur athletics, such as school intramural programs, municipal softball leagues, and amateur golf, have taught all of us lessons about working with others, perseverance, winning, losing and sportsmanship that are much different from the lessons learned in family relationships.

    As the "self esteem" crowd continues their denigration of all forms of competition, America is poorer for it. But, many of us who have participated in sports (rather than the sports business) are richer for the experience.

  • Guest

    Dear All,

    I thought I would chime in with some words from John Paul II on the topic that changed my once negative attitude about organized sports.  [Thanks, Elizabeth Foss, for helping me see these points in your book Real Learning Smile].  JPII wrote on the benefits of sports in his letter Sport As Training Ground for Virtue and Instruments of Union Among People (Rome, Dec 20, 1979).

    "The Church has always been interested in the question of sport, because she prizes everything that contributes constructively to the harmonious and complete development of man, body and soul. She encourages, therefore, what aims at educating, developing and strengthening the human body, in order that it may offer a better service for the attainment of personal maturation."

    "Sport has, in itself, an important moral and educative significance: it is a training ground of virtue, a school of inner balance and outer control, an introduction to more true and lasting conquests."

    In other writing such as in Human and Sporting Qualities Make Men Brothers (June 20, 1980) he points to sports as a means to bring about "psychological well-being," and in the article Be Examples of Human Virtue (Sept 2, 1987) he also refers to the need for sports to "help restore a healthy balance of mind and body."

    I vote for organized sports being a good tool for human development and I am eager to enable my children to participate because I see the benefit to their formation–both as Christians and as decent human beings. The problem, which was brought out eventually in the article, are the other influences on character formation or deformation. Obviously more factors than JUST sticking your kids in sports. [I would say the same thing about JUST sticking your kids in a Catholic school and expecting them to turn out exemplary Catholics....] You have to also be a good witness and exercise your parental responsibility for their development. Sports can be one excellent means, among many, to help achieve these certain goals. 

  • Guest

    I will only comment on the experiences I have been through concerning sports.

    I live in a small town where there are no heros other than sports heros.  While that may be a slight over statement, it's not far off.  I played junior and senior high school sports all years and did have generally good formation.  However, there were allowances for athletes not passed on to the rest of the student body.  I live now in another small town raising a family and see even more allowances for athletes not passed on.  Don't get me wrong, I don't believe these favors should hapen at all.  Athletes are allowed to delay turning in papers to the end of the quarter.  The amount of the budget spent on extracurricular sports activities engulfs the budget spent on the curricular electives like music and art.  Sports coaches are hired and fired solely on their win/loss record, not taking into account their talent pool for rosters or their own classroom prowess.

    Sports have gone from being a good character builder to trumping all aspects of life.  I witness much of the trumping coming from parents that try to relive their earlier years through the kids.

    While sports seem to have lost it's way I plan to stay the course and try helping sports back to their glory days.



  • Guest

    And when exactly were the "glory days" of sports?

    People have exalted athletes and athletic prowess for thousands of years.  (Think Olympics and Ancient Greece.)

    One reason St Paul wrote about "finishing the race" and "winning the crown" is precisely because the Emperor would claim victory and receive a laurel wreath just by "being"….no sweat involved!  Talk about corrupt.

    "The Church has always been interested in the question of sport, because she prizes everything that contributes constructively to the harmonious and complete development of man, body and soul. She encourages, therefore, what aims at educating, developing and strengthening the human body, in order that it may offer a better service for the attainment of personal maturation."

    "Sport has, in itself, an important moral and educative significance: it is a training ground of virtue, a school of inner balance and outer control, an introduction to more true and lasting conquests."

    John Paul II wrote the above to illustrate God's plan for us.

    Satan has a plan for our bodies and souls too.  The corruption of sporting competition all generations have seen is evidence of the Evil One at work.

  • Guest

    Obviously we at CE think a lot of the importance of sports given our fidelity to the teaching of JPII and our promotion of Champions of Faith — if you haven't seen this yet, what are you waiting for?! But I made the decision to run the article, not to illustrate our editorial position, but to demonstate a certain attitude that is developing because of scandal and to see how the CE audience would respond. Thank you everyone for such thoughtful comments and especially Stan for leading us off with such a good critique.

  • Guest

    Thanks Mary.

    This is why I'm hooked on CEKiss

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