Sport's Role Models...The Blind Leading the Blind

"I think integrity is individual. Some guys believe in it and act accordingly. I don't expect it from anyone. Most athletes use the old pro wrestler saying, 'win if you can, loose if you must, but ALWAYS cheat.' The idea that just because you're a powerlifter, you have to have integrity is silly to me. Business has no integrity, the government has no integrity, religion has no integrity, but somehow powerlifters are expected to have it. I don't get it. By the way, once you fill up a syringe and jam it in, you have no integrity. What you have is a burning desire to go beyond, but not integrity."
                                                                                                        - Billy Mimnaugh
 
To be honest, I don't even know how to react to the aforementioned quote by one of our sports best lifters. I am not sure if I should pay tribute to him for being honest about advocating dishonesty (Isn't that an oxymoron?) or criticism him for such a myopic view of life. Worse yet, to a large extent he is right. One thing I will have to agree with him about is the seemingly lack of honesty and integrity in our culture.  Although our society formally and authoritatively condemns such behavior as fraud, cheating, corruption and deceitfulness that allows an individual to succeed by strategically breaking the rules rather than prevailing by merit, we seem to accept or at very least tolerate such immoral behavior.  In fact, there is growing evidence that the next generation of Americans will be bringing into the culture a very tolerant attitude toward cheating and lying.

Surveys conducted on Masters of Business Administration (MBA) students, college students and high school students have revealed a common strain among them when it comes to honesty and integrity. Of the students surveyed 50 to 70 % of them admitted cheating and similar numbers indicate that they think there is nothing wrong with being dishonest. Worse yet, most of these students regard cheating as a "real world" skill that is essential for success.

Of course, this would never happen in sports. As we have been told for decades, athletics build strong character, honesty and team-building skills. It goes without saying that participation in sports encourages positive behaviors. Well, if you believe all of that, don't, because you are dead wrong.  In fact, the way things are going sport arenas are becoming the training grounds for the next generation of liars, cheats, and thieves. A two-year survey conducted by Los Angeles ethicist Michael Josephson of 5,275 high school athletes from across the U.S. yielded some rather shocking results...at least for anyone who believes in the character building aspect of sports. Over two-thirds of the athletes that Josephson interviewed admitted to cheating on an exam at least once in the previous year.

Where did the kids get the idea that it is okay to cheat your opponent or cheat in school if you can get away with it? Josephson's interviews revealed that while the students overwhelmingly viewed their coaches as a positive influence on their lives, they also said it was all right for the coach to teach them how to cheat and get away with it. For instance, 43 per cent of boys thought it was okay for their coaches to teach them ways to break the rules without the referees noticing. Even more astonishing over 80% of the athletes surveyed said their coaches did teach such tactics. Interestingly, the rates were much lower for girls, of whom only 22 per cent thought it was all right for coaches to teach illegal tactics. Josephson concluded that, for most kids, sport promotes rather than discourages cheating and that too many coaches are teaching our kids to cheat and cut corners. He also found that there was a growing acceptance of cheating to gain an unfair advantage over the competition in sports not only by the athletes but by the coaches too.  

 How did we get to the point where cheating is viewed as a "real world" skill that is socially acceptable and essential for success? Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, who has conducted a number of the studies on this very issue, believes that sports are one of the major culprits. "Sports...the cultural 800 pound gorilla," says McCabe, "that both reflects the culture and dominates it, especially for men under the age of 30, which not so coincidentally is also the group most likely to cheat. Athletes and coaches on a continuous basis clearly demonstrate that cheating works and that cheating is no big deal."

How can they justify such behavior, you ask? Well, have you ever heard the expression that man is not a rational human being; he is a rationalizing human being? That's right, they simply rationalize that cheating is a part of sports tradition and, therefore, is acceptable. According to these individuals, competitors are expected to try and cheat and get around the rules...if you are not cheating, you are not trying. Of course, disproportionate cheating might earn you a penalty, but nothing major. In fact, the rewards for cheating far out weigh the punishment. Consequently, cheating and lying are reinforced and viewed as good even necessary.

Could there be a clearer message for our children who idolize elite athletes? The message screams piercing and pure...cheating is okay, and yes, you may have to be punished if you're caught, but the benefits of cheating are so great that it is worth the risk---especially since most of the public won't think less of you and maybe even admire you for trying. After all, they're probably cheaters themselves.

Now I know, Charles Barkley once said it was not his responsibility "to raise our kids." Barkley's point is irrefutable, but the truth of the matter is athletes can't escape from being role models. Actually, none of us can opt out of our obligation as role models. Like it or not we are all role models to some extent...some by infinite thinking, others by physical prowess, and even others by performing simple deeds.  There is always someone screening our behavior while trying to determine what is the most appropriate behavior for themselves.  Individuals who merit great public attention because of their role in sports, politics, the media or entertainment have an additional burden because they are being scrutinized by so many more people. Needless to say, people in general develop a blueprint for their own way in life by emulating the behavior of their more successful peers. Consequently, athletes, (as well as politicians, entertainers, educators etc.) whether they want to be a role model or not and whether they are qualified to be such an example or not, have little to do with the fact that their behavior is going to be emulated not only by their peers, but by impressionable children.

Unfortunately, a lot of our athletes (as well as politicians, entertainers, educators etc. etc.) are selling us short, and we as a society are subtly condoning their behavior. "By tolerating uncouth and unethical behavior by our athletes in return for a high level of performance, we are basically surrendering the sports we love to bad actors and in the process creating a corrupt generation. Not surprising, just about every one of the analysts articulating on the recent cheating surveys and studies have come to the same conclusion....we are in a crisis mode and we are cultivating a bumper crop of liars and cheaters in our culture.

What is the cure to the crisis? Obviously, the answer is rather multifaceted and convoluted, but a good start would be to present our children with good role models and ignore the boorish, unethical, and obnoxious role models we have in sports today.  We need to demand that our athletes (as well as politicians, entertainers, educators etc. etc.) rise to higher standards both on and off the field. It goes without saying that if we are to hold our fellowman to higher standards we too should aspire to those same standards.

By being selfless, we can make a difference in the world. By spreading honesty, love and hope through our daily actions, we can make the world a better place. It is not only by what we say but more importantly by the life that we live that demonstrates what each of us is made of.

Remember, too, that God's gift to you is life....your gift to God is how you live it.

Yours in Strength,
 
Dr. Judd

 

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