College football players are enduring twice-daily workouts in the August heat, practicing blocking and tackling, running wind sprints and learning the playbook.
Sharon Stoll would like to see them add one more exercise – in ethics.
Stoll is a University of Idaho researcher whose studies may reinforce the impressions of those jaded by steroid scandals and courtside brawls. Athletes, according to her research, generally are less equipped than others with a foundation for making reasoned, ethical decisions. The longer they’re involved with sports, the worse it gets.
“These coaches have so many problems with their athletes that they just don’t know what to do,” Stoll said.
Stoll, the director of UI’s Center for Ethics, has been working for several years to help change that. She’s developed curricula for three major college football teams that now are being incorporated into summer practices at the universities of Georgia, Maryland and Alabama.
She’s also worked with 25 high school teams and is in early discussions with a Major League Baseball team.
“It’s all about stopping and reflecting,” she said. “What is the right thing to do? Why is it the right thing to do?”
Such questions may seem basic. But Stoll says that a lot of U.S. kids today are growing up without the habit of making conscious decisions about whether their behavior is ethical or not. According to a 17-year study directed by Stoll, the environment surrounding competitive sports in America hasn’t supported moral reasoning or actions.
In surveys of 72,000 people, Stoll reported, athletes tended to score worse than nonathletes in an assessment of moral reasoning, and male athletes scored worse than women. The longer athletes were involved in sports, the more “morally callous” they became – less respectful, more selfish and willing to justify questionable behaviors to win.
“It usually has to do with revenue-producing, male contact sports,” she said. “You also find it in business and law, and it has something to do with competition in general.”
Among all the athletes surveyed between 1987 and 2004, lacrosse players registered the lowest scores, followed by hockey and football players, she said.
Stoll said university mission statements regarding sports usually reflect the idea that sports build character. But she said that the values reinforced by athletics are typically qualities such as dedication, loyalty and hard work – all of which could coexist with unethical behavior. A summary of the research says, “There are very limited consequences for immoral behaviors in the sport environment but very large consequences in the real world.”
Not everyone shares that view. Jim Tunney, a professional speaker with a doctorate in education who worked for 31 years as a referee in the National Football League, said sports remains a good way to teach useful character traits.
“I really believe in the value of sports for kids,” said Tunney, who lives in Carmel, Calif. “I can’t find anything else as an educator where a kid learns teamwork.”
Tunney, who grew up playing sports and whose father was a coach, said participating in sports also helps teach responsibility, sportsmanship and fairness.
Pamela Parks, the new interim athletic director at Eastern Washington University, said the influence of an athletic environment can vary from program to program and coach to coach.
“I don’t think participation in sports inherently is going to make you a better human being. It’s ludicrous to say that,” she said.
But if coaches create the right environment, “then I think athletics does build character.”
Parks said that the coaching staff at EWU has done a good job of emphasizing that athletes must also be good citizens off the field. She said during her 25 years of involvement with athletics, she’s seen athletes overcome personal problems and establish good habits through sports.
“They have just grown enormously,” she said.
Ethical problems in college and professional sports are not new. The top sports scandals of all time, as ranked by ESPN, were the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which the World Series was thrown, and a point-shaving scheme in college basketball more than 50 years ago.
But Stoll and others think the problems have become much more pronounced in sports and elsewhere in society. In recent years, Stoll has been working with the nonprofit organization Winning with Character, developing curricula for teams interested in adding ethical decision-making to their training.
Typically, the curriculum will focus on subjects such as fair play, cheating, sexual behavior and others. But each team has specific needs, she said. The University of Maryland, for example, asked her to address the issue of carrying weapons.
Stoll requires the team’s coaches to participate in the programs, which walk players through decision-making scenarios and try to provide them a framework for making thoughtful, ethical choices. Athletes are tested before and after, and Stoll said the results indicate that the moral reasoning skills of athletes improve.
“It’s been very promising,” she said.
Stoll was a gymnast and ice skater as a young woman, in the “pre-Title IX” days of college athletics, and she later was a coach. After earning her doctorate and arriving at the University of Idaho in the mid-1980s, she began researching the issues of ethics and athletes.
She emphasizes that it’s not sports that are to blame, but the way they, along with other forms of competition, are taught and emphasized in society.
“If we did this test with concert pianists, we’d find the same thing,” Stoll said. “It’s because of how society values this gift that they have.”