Just about everyone has heard the saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
Although others said it before former pro football coach Vince Lombardi, this quote somehow stuck with him. Sometime before his death, he was asked about this famous quote, and he said, “I wish to hell I’d never said the darned thing. I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”
Thankfully, Lombardi seemed to fully recognize the damage that such comments can have on athletes and those who follow sports — he corrected himself and was seemingly embarrassed by explaining that winning, is indeed, not the only thing.
With an emphasis (and thus pressure) from coaches and parents on athletes to win, it seems more than ever that a win-at-all-cost mentality has undermined moral and ethical behavior within sport. The good news is that more people than ever are discussing ways to participate in sports as an athlete or fan or coach with integrity — to use sports as a way to become a better person as a whole. There are weekly blogs and websites, podcasts, articles in professional journals, and even weekly radio shows.
All of this study and conversation has rendered important conclusions for our social and moral lives. Sports can form our character in more ways than just avoiding obviously bad behavior (such as taking bribes to lose a game or using performance-enhancing drugs) — it can foster self-sacrifice, loyalty, fairness, honesty, and respect.
In a typical Texas high school football game in 2015, referee Robert Watts made a call that went against John Jay High School of San Antonio. As a result, assistant coach Mack Breed sent word to the team that referee Watts “must pay” for the call. Two defensive players behind Watts rammed him at near-full speed in consecutive hits prior to the start of the next play.
Watts, who was unsuspecting and vulnerable since he had his back turned and, of course, wasn’t wearing pads or a helmet, was slammed to the ground. As a result of this incident, the two players were not allowed to participate in any sport for the remainder of the school year, coach Breed eventually resigned (but offered no apology or explanation), and the head coach, Gary Gutierrez, was placed on probation for two years.
Loyalty, by definition, means being faithful to an obligation, but we need to determine if the cause or person is worthwhile. It’s possible to be loyal to a bad cause. While being loyal may lead to positive outcomes, it could also mean following corrupt leadership from a coach, a parent, or a teammate.
USA Gymnastics has experienced far too much bad press recently. Many retired female gymnasts have discussed the great pressure placed on them by their national coach to lose weight and keep fat weight off. At 14 or 15 years old — major developmental years — depriving calories can lead to a number of health and growth issues.
Too often, athletes see sport as an opportunity to sacrifice their bodies for the betterment of the team, as well as to gain favor with a coach. Just as with loyalty, though, sacrificing self can be for a bad cause — it has to be weighed against the development of the whole person.
As a professor of exercise science at a Division II school, I interact daily with serious athletes. One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had is with one of the top female tennis players. In college tennis, there are no chair umpire and line judges like at the professional level; the athletes, in fact, self-govern.
So, when Player A hits the ball to the opposite court near the sideline or baseline, Player B makes the call on whether the ball is in or out. The arrangement can cause a set of problems, of course, but it also allows the opportunity for student-athletes to display great sportsmanship.
This particular player told me that she handles the situation very pragmatically: if she feels that her opponent is calling her shots correctly, she will do the same with her opponent’s shots. But if she feels her opponent is cheating, she will regularly indicate that the ball is out, even when it’s in. Honesty gets trumped in the need to be fair.
Let’s face it: being honest in all of life’s situations is one of the biggest challenges we face. And while competing in sports, it can be especially hard because of the strong desire to win (or avoid embarrassment).
Interestingly, most athletes do not need to be honest. A referee, for instance, does not ask a lineman if he was guilty of a holding penalty the play before, or whether a basketball player committed a foul — the referee just calls it as he or she sees it.
One significant exception to this is found in golf. Just like in tennis, if you’re playing golf recreationally or even in college, there are no judges or marshals, so virtually every penalty is self-imposed. In addition, every golfer would agree that the opportunities to be dishonest are nearly infinite: gentling pushing your ball away from a tree root before the next shot, or acting as if a found ball is yours when the original cannot be located.
Golfers are like many athletes — they may pat themselves on the back for being a good sport when they don’t do anything to blatantly injure or taunt another player, but being a moral athlete is telling the truth not just to others, but to yourself.
A great hitter in Major League Baseball was interviewed and asked why, when he crushes a mammoth home run, he acts nonchalantly, as though he just hit an easy infield pop-up. His response: “The guy pitching has to earn a living, too, and he’s already pretty embarrassed he gave up a big home run. He doesn’t need another reminder that he failed.”
Respecting the opposition not only seems like a lost art, but it seems that some sports somehow condone the opposite behavior. For example, when football players deliver crushing hits, they often will stand over the fallen opponent, taunting them. (The sad thing is, the player lying on the ground is sometimes unconscious.) Further, teammates of the player who made the hit will celebrate the play as if the tackler did something virtuous.
I can’t think of a better example of showing a lack of respect for a fellow human being. Players don’t need to apologize or feel sorry when they succeed over an opponent by hitting a home run, making a great tackle in football, or scoring a goal, but they can show respect to their rival by always acting honorably and playing within the rules. Many players — professional down to amateur — feel the need to entertain, which too many times leads to disrespecting the opponent and their fans.
Here’s the good news about all of this: adopting loyalty, self-sacrifice, and fairness does not compromise what it means to be a good or successful athlete or coach. In other words, we can still be competitive and display honesty and respect.
So, how do we become a moral and ethical leader in sport? We can pray, for instance, prior to games (as I did with teammates at my Catholic elementary and high school), but athletes, especially young ones, need more than an “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary” to display good behavior on the field. The biggest factor is the examples of adults: it takes wisdom, knowledge, and experience from adults who oversee the games (coaches, referees, and parents), to model a way to be faithful and still be competitive.
Is it difficult at times to be moral and ethical when trying to win? Of course. Is morality an intentional act, and does it take practice to perfect? Absolutely. But just like our faith only grows through intentional practice, so it goes with life outside stained-glass windows.
“Sport builds character” is a common expression. But many who experience sport firsthand feel that such an expression is simply wishful thinking. It’s also been said (and closer to the truth) that sport reveals character.