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Does Sport Participation Build Character?


Written by Rob Haworth, Assistant Superintendent

Did sports participation build the character of the professional football player who funded a dog fighting ring? Did sports participation build the character of the high school athletes who sexually assaulted their younger teammates in a hazing activity? Beyond these actions are the constant news stories of cheating and unsportsmanlike behavior by athletes, coaches and parents.

For years, we have justified athletic programs in our academic institutions by stating that athletic participation builds character.

Ask any high school administrator or college president the role that athletics plays on their campus and you will probably hear something about character in their answer. Communities have spent millions of dollars on public recreation facilities to provide adequate athletic facilities all because of a belief that sports build character.

Approximately a half century ago, researchers began to investigate whether the age old saying “sports build character” was correct. Their findings suggest that it all depends upon what type of character you are talking about.

If you are talking about moral character or what is just, right and fair then “no.” If however you are talking about social character or the willingness to sacrifice for others then “yes.” The problem is moral character without social interaction does very little good and social character without a moral compass can be dangerous.

Despite the difficulty in defining character, the definition that lends itself to what schools and communities want from their sports programs combines the moral and social definitions of character. This athletic based definition of character includes a list of qualities that have been historically linked to the word character.

The outcome for athletic based character would then be an individual who is loyal, cooperative, selfless, courageous, honest, responsible, fair and respectful.

Even with this understanding of character, rolling out the balls and lining the field can only take an athlete half way there. Despite how we feel regarding the demonstration of poor behavior we should always remember that character is a learned behavior. Athletes develop their skills in an environment led by adults.

Sports do NOT build character in young people- character driven adults do! So for character to be learned it must be taught. Character-driven athletics must be intentional. Inherent to character-driven athletics is the belief that character is handed down from one generation to the next.

Until those providing athletic opportunities are willing to commit to character-driven athletics and put the athlete first, the current cycle of character development will continue.

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