Role Models and Sportsmanship

Those of you who have been following the NBA playoffs this season no doubt saw or heard about the Lakers’ unceremonious exit from the race, with very poor displays of sportsmanship by two of their players.  With the game quickly getting out of hand and elimination imminent, two of the Lakers players, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum were ejected for cheap shots that could have potentially injured opposing players, and these players are role models to our children.  Responses from the sports’ community ranged from outrage at these acts to sadness over Phil Jackson possibly ending his coaching career on this sour note.

From the perspective of parents and coaches of young athletes, these actions bring up the topic of professional athletes as role models.  Although the quote was made years ago, many of us recall the words of Charles Barkley: “I am not a role model.”  So, should we tolerate these actions in professional sports?  Are professional athletes beholden to young athletes to serve as role models?  Is it their obligation to refrain from illicit drug use, marital infidelity, and deplorable on-field actions?

Although this would make for a lively discussion amongst a group of sports fans for sure, I will present just one perspective, a statistical viewpoint of a psychologist.  Scientists who study human behavior pay close attention to bell curves, also known as normal distributions.  For any skill or ability, the great majority of us are somewhere close to average.  The further the skill diverges from average in either direction, the fewer people you will find at those levels.  Professional athletes are clearly way above average in their ability, most of them beyond the 99th percentile.  So in a way, they are abnormal.  Abnormally good, but abnormal nonetheless.  We want our teams to have the very best players, so in a way we select specifically for great levels of abnormality.

So, by choosing individuals who are so unusual in one regard, is it reasonable to expect them to be normal in all other ways?  Or to take it a step further, is it reasonable for these abnormally good athletes to also be abnormally upstanding citizens and role models?  I would say no.  This raises the question of what the relationship really is between athletic ability and moral character.  Are they positively correlated (i.e., those with great athleticism also tend to have good character), negatively correlated (i.e., great athletes tend to be below average in moral strength), or are these two traits independent of one another?  I don’t know the precise answer to this question, but from seeing the extreme range of sportsmanship and moral character across professional athletes, if I was forced to guess, I would guess that they are relatively independent of one another and depend on other factors.  As a society we can decide to demand a high level of integrity and character in professional athletes and have a zero-tolerance for any moral infractions.  But it would almost certainly decrease the overall level of athletic performance.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about this matter, but given the emphasis on winning and the ridiculous amount of money in professional sports, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for this to happen.

So, where does this leave us as coaches and parents of young athletes?  That’s right, it is our obligation to be role models for our young athletes; it is not Charles Barkley’s job.  And to take it a step further, it is our job to explain this process to our players.  When one of our players emulates some of this bad behavior, be it arguing with an official, delivering a cheap shot, or taunting another player, we can take them on the side and counsel them.  I think that most people would agree that athletes who exhibit these behaviors do not benefit from them.  If we were able to have a frank and honest discussion with Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, or Barry Bonds, I think they would admit that they succeeded despite their moral shortcomings, not because of them.  We can also point out to our players that for every star athlete who has struggled with their behavior, there are others that have done a pretty good job.  Regardless, we need to lead by example, reinforce sportsmanship, honesty, and other desirable personal characteristics, and be ready to step in quickly when a young athlete needs some guidance.

To conclude, I will leave you with a quote from the great golf teacher Harvey Penick who said “I learn teaching from teachers.  I learn golf from golfers.  And I learn winning from coaches.”  Hopefully, our young athletes will learn about winning in life through good morals and sportsmanship from their coaches and parents, too.