What's Happening in Character?

Final score: 161-2

Posted by Dave Keller on Fri, Feb 13, 2015 @ 12:02 PM

Keller_photo_(2)Sadly, 2015 has already produced its share of disappointing sports stories. In the midst of more well-covered national stories, you might have missed this story from a few weeks ago: A high school girls basketball coach in California was suspended for two games after his team beat another team 161-2.


That’s not a typo.

I’m not kidding.

The final score was 161-2.

That headline brought so many questions to my mind. How is that possible? How did two teams of such unequal talent end up playing each other in the first place? Why would the winning coach allow his players to continue scoring? Is this one of the worst examples of sportsmanship in recent memory, or is there more to the story?

I’ll come back to this story a little later.
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I am a huge believer in sports to powerfully reinforce positive character traits in young people. Sadly, we all know sports can also undermine character development if done poorly. Most of us can readily recall salient examples of each.

I tend to look at the topic of “character in sports” in two primary dimensions: OUTSIDE the game, and WITHIN the game. Both are important. Both can play a huge role in the development of younger athletes.

When I talk about character outside the game, I am primarily talking about athletes, coaches, and parents being role models for young people. Every few months, I am asked to write a sports-related article for Essential Character. In most cases, I have primarily focused on outside-the-game character dimensions.

As positive examples, I explored the exemplary character legacies of Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera. In a more sobering article, I questioned the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse situation a few months ago. Each of these articles primarily focused on character and behavior of these athletes outside the games themselves.

As mentioned earlier, 2015 has already seen several examples of high-profile athletes struggling outside the game. We’ve seen athlete arrests, substance-abuse-related hospitalizations, accusations of lying and cover-up, and self-imposed sanctions for NCAA recruiting and academic violations.

Each time I read or watch one of these stories, I wonder about the impact on young developing athletes. I always think of some young boy or girl with a poster of the disgraced athlete on their wall. Breaks my heart. Obviously, the same can be said of other role models, such as parents, teachers, neighbors, ministers, and others. The sting of their ethical failures produces similar damaging effects.

On the other hand, character in sports also occurs within the game. This includes hallmark qualities such as sportsmanship, respect for officials and opponents, and playing within the rules. The “deflate-gate” accusations over the past several weeks are an example of within-game infractions (recall the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots were accused of attempting to gain an unfair advantage by altering the air pressure of the footballs in their conference championship game…the investigation is ongoing). In the eyes of many, these accusations marred the Patriots’ legacy.

Upon his retirement from the game, former professional baseball player Dale Murphy decided to make an impact in the area of within-the-game character development. He established the "I Won't Cheat" foundation for Little League baseball. Participating athletes and coaches around the world display "I Won't Cheat" patches on their sleeves throughout the season, and participate in meaningful discussions about competing with honor. (As a side note, Character.org is proud to have Dale Murphy as one of our speakers at the 2015 National Forum on Character Education in Atlanta on Oct 16-17)

I recently read a 2012 on-line article by Kirk Hanson and Matt Savage from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, entitled “What Role Does Ethics Play in Sports?” In this article, the authors drew a distinction between “gamesmanship” and “sportsmanship.” This was not the first time I’d seen or read about this distinction --- both terms are fairly common in the sports ethics lexicon. However, I appreciated the way they described and discussed each term.

For example, they defined “gamesmanship” to be present when “athletes and coaches are encouraged to bend the rules wherever possible in order to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent.” In short, with gamesmanship, the ends always justify the means. Greater emphasis is placed on the outcome of the game than on the manner in which it is played. Within this mindset, many believe it is the officials’ job to catch wrongdoing --- athletes and coaches have no inherent responsibility to follow the rules. Faking fouls and injuries are gamesmanship examples, per their definition.

In contrast, the authors offered a “sportsmanship” model, where healthy competition is seen as a means of cultivating personal honor, virtue, and character, contributing to a community of respect and trust between competitors. Per their definition, the goal in sportsmanship is not simply to win, but to “pursue victory with honor by giving one's best effort.”

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That brings me back to the 161-2 game. I have read several articles about this game, including numerous quotes from both coaches. The winning coach repeatedly said he was not trying to embarrass the opponent. However, he offered no apology for allowing his athletes to play to the best of their ability. The halftime score was 104-1. None of his starters played in the second half, he said.

As you might guess, the opposing coach had a different perspective: “People shouldn’t feel sorry for my team. They should feel sorry for his team, which isn’t learning the game the right way.”

Personally, I cannot fathom any scenario where a 161-2 score in a high school game is anything but disgraceful and disrespectful. I have been trying to wrap my head around the final score ever since I read the headline.

I understand asking student athletes to play to the top level of their ability. As a professional character educator, though, I believe that should only apply to portions of the game when the actual outcome is in doubt.

To be completely transparent, this game does create some legitimate questions in my mind. For a moment, let’s forget the actual score of this game. Be honest…the game still would have been a blowout if the score had been 61-2. Or even 31-2. By all accounts, the winning team was simply much, much better than their opponent. They played hard and tried their best.

At what point should a clearly superior team stop competing to the best of their ability? What is the best way to honor an opponent when the score is overwhelmingly lopsided? What kind of conversations need to occur in the wake of a game such as this one? How can this experience be a developmental exercise for athletes on both teams, and others?

I think we can all agree that 161-2 is WAY over the line of appropriate sportsmanship. But it does beg the question… where exactly is that line?

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts…send them to me at dave@character.org.

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Every time I write a sports-related character article, I encourage readers to visit Character.org’s vast archive of Promising Practices winners. We are fortunate to be connected to such an amazing group of educators. 

To apply for a 2015 Promising Practice award -- in sports or any other educational area. The application deadline is March 20th.

Also, this column may inspire you to think about your own way of educating for character through sports. If so, consider submitting a proposal to speak at this fall’s National Forum, which will feature a sports and character track.



Topics: sports