It's a given that parents only want the best for their children. And that's one of the reasons they enroll them in organized sports -- often at a very early age; they believe that sports participation builds "character."
People can go on and on, expounding on the many values children supposedly learn by taking part in competitive sports. It's been the conventional wisdom for longer than I've been alive. But the truth is, there's little research to support the theory. There is, however, evidence to the contrary.
Consider this: a 1995 poll of 198 Olympic or aspiring Olympic athletes, reported in Sports Illustrated, showed to what lengths individuals will go to win. Asked if they would take a banned, performance-enhancing substance that would both go undetected and enable them to win, 195 said they would; only three said no. And when asked if they would take such a substance if they wouldn't get caught, they would win every competition entered for five years, and then die from the substance's side effects, more than half of the athletes said yes!
But, you may be thinking, those were athletes whose lives had revolved around winning for many years; they're probably an exception to the rule.
Maybe, but the attitude had to begin sometime and grow from there, as this story indicates: a survey of 965 students at four middle schools in Massachusetts found that almost 3% of the children were using anabolic steroids to enhance their appearance and performance. From where do children as young as 10 learn such skewed priorities?
Other research shows that long-term participation in sports results in the display of less sportsmanship and more aggressive behavior -- and that even if athletes learn some prosocial behaviors on the field, they rarely transfer them to other areas of their lives. Studies have also demonstrated that competitive children are both less generous and less empathetic than others.
Most recently, the Josephson Institute of Ethics released a report on the impact of high school sports on the values and ethics of student athletes. Here's part of what it found:
- Boys who play baseball, football, and basketball are more likely to cheat on the field and in school.
- Nearly half of the baseball and football players saw nothing wrong with using a playbook stolen from a rival team.
- A high percentage of both male and female athletes thought it was okay for a coach to tell a player to fake an injury.
- About half of all baseball players thought it was okay for a coach to tell a pitcher to throw at the opposing batter.
Still, people continue to believe that sports participation builds character. But is that the kind of "character" we want our children to grow up with?