Frankly, I didn't really know how to title this post, which I've been contemplated for quite some time. Lets look at a few very serious issues that have happened in our country over the past several months, and while they do not appear to have any common threads, perhaps they do?
- Despite the increased awareness of cyber-bullying, bullying and other hazing activities in sports, we have seen troubling incidents in high school (Sayreville High School Football, Central Bucks West Football)
- We have also seen hazing incidents in professional football, with last year's troubling Miami Dolphins locker room culture causing irreparable harm to rookie Jonathan Martin.
- Several high profile criminal investigations in college football, which include 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the list of college athletes who have either been suspended or removed from their universities.
- An alarmingly high number of NFL athletes who have been charged and/or indicted on criminal charges. These include domestic violence (i.e., Ray Rice), physical harm to a child (i.e., Adrian Peterson), and many, many others that have exposed the alternate reality that professional athletes face versus the general population.
What is going on here?
I have a few theories, and I believe it is important that our communities and our schools take a good, hard look in the mirror and see what we can do to address them.
- We have forgotten what the role of sports is in our society. Sports has become big business, and the lines have blurred significantly between amateurism and professionalism. As such, our sports programs, even as early as high school, are being built with the false notion that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." That's a real quote, and although it was wrongly attributed to Vince Lombardi, it was really from the words of former UCLA football coach Red Sanders. Sports is supposed to be about building many non-cognitive skills, such as character, leadership, sportsmanship, teamwork, persistence, and many others. It's about doing your best, and sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose. It seems we are all guilty of taking our eye off the ball and drilling into these young, impressionable minds, that if you don't win, you're a failure. This mentality may be one factor in why hazing and other activities are still alive and well in many sports programs. We need to do a better job training our coaches because they are supposed to be important role models in our children's lives, just like a classroom teacher. John Wooden wasn't just a great coach of basketball, he was also a life coach.
- The lack of social and emotional learning in the home and the classroom. I believe that we are not doing enough to expose our youth to sensitivity training around how you interact with others. Poverty can only be blamed for so much. As parents, we still have a fundamental responsibility to teach our kids right and wrong. Many of them take out their lack of values in the home on the world around them, and ultimately, this emerges in our schools. So while parents do share some of the blame, our schools do as well. Don't just put up signs saying you don't tolerate hate. The mindset has to permeate through your entire school culture in everything you do. We need to remember to treat others the way we want to be treated. Why should we expect our children to listen to and respect their teammates and coaches if they don't mimic these same behaviors in the classroom and in their homes?
- Who are good role models for our children? This one speaks for itself. If we allow our youth to idolize these professional athletes and then we do not punish them for moral and/or criminal transgressions, then they will believe it's ok to do wrong. We should absolutely give second chances, but we need to take a hard look at how we discipline wrongdoers. Many scholar-athletes feel the "rules don't apply to them." Do you want your child to idolize Jameis Winston, or do you want them to idolize Nelson Mandela or Oprah Winfrey?
The media plays a major role in this ecosystem as well. Don't just gloss over the off-field transgressions and focus on the winning. It's time that we all work together to try and address what I believe is a growing problem in our societal fabric. Sports are supposed to be fun. They are supposed to build character. They are supposed to build the skills you will need to succeed not only on the field of competition, but also the field of life.
Lets not assume that all of these issues are not related. I hope that our society takes a good hard look in the mirror and starts identifying a practical approach to addressing them. The long-term health of our society depends on it.