Exploring the fundamentals: what do sports teach us?

Recently one friend showed me the “Remember the Titans” movie, which is an American sports film based on a true story. For those who have not seen the film (and I strongly recommend it), the story takes place in 1971 in Virginia, and deals with an American football team comprised of a mixture of black players and white players. Exploring the topics of racism, discrimination and intolerance, the plot shows how football changes the newly founded team’s racially motivated struggles and fights into united battling against any kind of discrimination. The Titans (name of the team) achieve both racial harmony and athletic triumph, thus posting the question ‘if we can unite in sports, why can we not unite in society?’

I see it as a good movie for two main reasons. First, it inspired me! It made me love sports even more, as it reminded me that sports goes beyond the activity itself and can serve for good for the whole society. As ‘cheesy’ as it may sound, sport can unite, it can make people better! Going from the societal to the individual level, I readily proclaimed that sports build character and develop right values. Second, after the wave of inspiration passed, the film made me think. Becoming more realistic and critical, I realized that in the same way that sport includes, it does concurrently exclude; in the same way it promotes supporting one’s team, it enhances aggression against the opponents; in the same way it teaches moral principles, it also develops the ‘winning at all cost’ attitude.

Without the intention of creating a heated debate about the social value of sport by asking whether it is a ‘peace maker or warmonger’, I choose to discuss the more manageable topic of the character building in sports, or the so called sportsmanship.

Thus, I ask, what does sport teach us? Does it build a moral character or create the ‘winning at all cost’ personality?

Florida State University scholar Andy Rudd proposes quite an interesting explanation by investigating the paradox between the popular claim of ‘sport building character’ and the common mentality of ‘winning at all costs’.  Being a researcher in the area of sportsmanship, Rudd (2005) argues that the reason for this paradox may relate to differences in understanding the concept of sportsmanship. Specifically, he identifies two distinct types of characters that are referred to in sporting context: the social character and the moral character.

Think about the last time when you considered some athlete displaying a character. Probably the person worked very hard, was fighting for the team or personal performance until the end, and made substantial sacrifices? Well, this refers to how character is defined in competitive sport setting. Rudd (2005) notes that coaches, athletes and sports administrators associate ‘character’ with several values such as teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice, perseverance, work ethic, and mental toughness. These values constitute what he calls the social character. Conversely, sport scholars (e.g. sport psychologists, sport philosophers) define sport character through honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect and compassion. These factors constitute the moral goodness, or the moral character.

In order to better understand the differences between moral and social characters, it is worth clarifying the differences between moral and social values. According to one of the leading researchers in the values movement, Rokeach (1973), moral values are related to modes of behavior between people. In other words, these values are vital to human relationships and have an interpersonal focus. A person of moral character, when choosing between right and wrong, would emanate moral values despite any surrounding societal or peer pressures. For example, a moral athlete should be able to act honestly even when his/her peers act dishonestly.

In contrast, social values may be defined as values that have been deemed by a society or culture as being vital in reaching a desired end state (Rudd, 2005). In competitive sports the end state is winning. Social values are the ones exposed by a social group, thus an athlete may be requested to act with social character in response to the team’s ethos, norms and values.

Rudd argues that the existence of these two distinct character ‘camps’ is the reason behind the frequent feeling of lacking sportsmanship in competitive sports today, as well as the increase of ‘winning at all cost’ attitudes. Putting it differently, it can be argued that many coaches, parents and consequently players pay so much attention to social values, which unite teams in their desire to win, that they downplay the time-honored moral values that do at times hinder winning oriented behaviours. As a specific example, consider the feigned fouls in football. Using a player`s deliberate dive to make the referee call a foul is much more common today than standing up for the opponent’s ‘innocence’ within this type of situation. In fact, teammates and coaches would probably consider the latter behavior ‘crazy’.

Examples like these and various other ongoing occurrences of cheating and violence in sports indicate that there might indeed be an underdevelopment of moral character. Rudd (2005) concludes that ‘although values such as teamwork, loyalty, and self-sacrifice may be helpful towards winning, these values may not be enough towards helping athletes compete fairly, honestly, responsibly, and respectfully’.

Finally, from a more practical perspective, granted that there is the possibility of overlap between moral and social characters, there is a need for a more balanced approach. Although, winning will always remain the goal in competitive sports, and social characteristics may indeed bring positive results to the teams and individual athletes, we should not forget about the general boundaries of morality, and neither should we strive to succeed at the expense of  moral ‘goodness’.

Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids” ~ Aristotle

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5 Responses to Exploring the fundamentals: what do sports teach us?

  1. StevenP says:

    If you go back to ancient Greece, it was an unwritten law that during the Olympic Games all nations had to stop any kind of war or conflict. The main idea was that sports unite all people, despite their social or cultural background. Do you believe that we can do that in our days? or it’s impossible to have it.

    • Snezana Stoljarova says:

      Dear Steven, I think that your example with ancient Greece is a great illustration of an ideal picture of sports, of how it should work even nowadays. And actually, to some extent it works, as for example the unifying force of sports is used in several integration programs in different countries. However, as You may have experienced yourself, today sport relates also to hostility (e.g. among sport fans), aggression, unhealthy competition and unmoral behavior. I think that it is possible to improve the situation by education athletes, coaches, parents and spectators. It is important how we promote sports, with which sets of values, and what kind of behavior is accepted and encouraged by our society.

  2. Sergey says:

    one very respected business trainer in Russia admitted that the best pupils at his trainings that show the best results in the field tasks and change their lives to good after training are usually people with significant sport results in the past (masters of sport, etc.). He thought that the possible cause of that difference from laymen’s performance in learning new selling communication skills is that sport people know from their experience that to succeed one needs to repeat some challenging and stupid from first glance actions again and again trying to do them better each time and eventually results will come up as the skill will be formed. People more often surrender, than actually fail (H. Ford)

    • Snezana Stoljarova says:

      Thank You, Sergey, for such an interesting comment. I believe what You are talking about is persistence, and I would agree that doing sports and mastering skills is a great way of developing the quality.

  3. Matt Brown says:

    Sports competition only unites people in order to overcome another group. There are other activities – music, dance and drama, for instance – that unite people in a common purpose without setting up conflict or turning half or more of the participants into “losers.”

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