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Moral reasoning and teaching found lacking in sports, society

Moral reasoning among athletes is at a record low and declining rapidly, according to 18 years of research and statistics gathered by WSU’s Jennifer Beller, and University of Idaho’s Sharon Stoll.

“When I first heard that (supposition), I thought ‘What does that say about me,’ ” said Beller, who played field hockey and tennis throughout high school and college — enough to advance to the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) national tennis championships. So in 1987 that news propelled her to focus her doctoral research on the topic, with Stoll as her principal advisor. To Beller’s dismay, their study and statistics supported the theory.

Today, armed with survey results and statistics gathered from 72,000 athletes, the two work fervently with coaches nationwide to reverse that trend. Ideally, they’d like to see athletic programs return to the competitive goals and integrity upon which they were founded. Unfortunately, their message and mission are not often embraced.
Beller, an associate professor with WSU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology, and Stoll, a UI professor in Physical Education, together form the UI’s Center for ETHICS. Beller eventually earned her Ph.D. in education from the UI and is now a research and measurement specialist, collecting and evaluating data; Stoll, who earned her Ph.D. in sport philosophy from Kent State University, is the center’s director.

The two have worked with 26 high schools, numerous universities including the University of Georgia, University of Alabama, and most recently the Atlanta Braves. In addition, they serve as consultants to such organizations as the U.S. Naval and Air Force Academies, the Idaho Bar Association, and the American Bar Association.

Evolved ethics
At the root of today’s moral decline in athletics lies a battery of competitive ethics that have evolved over the past 40 or more years.

“We (athletics) lost competitive integrity when we began to morally justify that the win was the most important facet of competition,” said Stoll. “That has not always been there.”

Stoll points to such examples as a 1940 game between Darmouth and Cornell. Cornell won the game with a last-minute touchdown. However, it was later determined that the referees had errantly allowed Cornell a fifth down. Cornell’s captain stated that based on the rules his team did not fairly win and that its opponents deserved the victory. In addition, Cornell’s coach and university president telegrammed Dartmouth: “We congratulate you on the victory of your fine team. The Cornell touchdown was scored on a fifth down, and we relinquish claim to the victory and extend congratulations to Dartmouth.” The gesture of sportsmanship cost Cornell both the game and a national championship.

Fast forward to Oct. 6, 1990, when officials failed to turn the down markers and the University of Colorado gained a similar fifth down and a last-second touchdown victory over University of Missouri. Immediately after the game it was realized that Colorado had gained a fifth down. But the game was over, and NCAA rules dictate that once time has expired no changes or appeals can be made. So, Missouri’s appeals were ignored. And, with the help of that hugely controversial victory, Colorado went on to win the Orange Bowl and the Big Eight championship.

Unlike, Cornell, Beller agrues, the Colorado coach did not “take the high ground” by attempting to admit defeat or forfeit the game or accept accountability. Instead, he defended his team by pointing the NCAA rules and  the failure of sideline officials to turn the down markers appropriately.  

Push the rules, get the win
“Today, coaches and players are taught to push the rules as much as possible,” Stoll said. “Some promote (illegal) strategies and work to manipulate field or playing conditions to gain the advantage. And some encourage their players to attempt to outwit the referees, so they don’t see or know what they’re doing (outside the rules).

 “When strategies are changed and manipulated so not to honor your opponent, the game and referee, you have a mess… Athletics hinges upon an understanding that coaches and players respect the opposing team and players…. It’s supposed to be about is the integrity of the game. Doing your best to win the game has always been important, but how you get the win and the integrity of the game must come first.”

There was a time not that long ago, Stoll noted, when the role of sports was to teach. It was a means by which to:
• test and build character
• improve players’ education and skills
• learn to respect your opponent
• teach teamwork and cooperation
• build self-respect through doing one’s best
• teach players how to be good losers, gracious winners and benefit from criticism
• just have fun

“Over time we’ve moved away from principle of building character,” said Stoll. “It was never perfect, but today it’s pretty much out of control.”

A steady progression
Today’s competitive ethics, Beller noted, are often taught from elementary school and beyond in all types of sports. Unfortunately, those same ethics are carried over by athletes into daily life and society.

Sports-page headlines provide ready evidence: university programs suspended for recruiting violations; athletes involved in bar fights and shootings; coaches fired for gambling violations; athletes suspended for drug abuse and drunk driving, etc.

But no one can dare be priggish as the same decline and lack of moral reasoning is evident among nonathletes: students, businesspeople, lawyers and those in competitive jobs. (e.g. Enron, Tyco, Metropolitan Mortgage, etc.)

“Athlete populations score significantly lower on moral reasoning inventories than do nonathlete populations,” said Beller. The reason for the difference is that many socially unacceptable standards are taught, reinforced and modeled in athletics. And statistics show that “the longer one is in athletics, the more affected and calloused one’s moral reasoning becomes.”

Enemy vs. competition
Coaches think athletes need to be motivated to do their best, Beller said. Even at younger ages that might involve pushing, swearing, yelling and other normally (social) unacceptable behaviors. Yet in athletics those actions have become acceptable.

“Opposing athletes become your enemy or an object. When they are an object, it’s okay to violate them or ‘take them out.’ In sports like football and hockey it’s easier because faces are hidden behind helmets and masks, larger bodies are exaggerated and protected by padding and other gear, and brute force against an opponent is lauded.”

For many, today’s athletic philosophy includes “do to others before they do to you.”

The degree of this is lessened in individual and noncontact sports, but the trend is still there.

“We have become good at rationalizing why it’s an acceptable action,” Beller said.

Even in squash, said Stoll, a player might decide to manipulate conditions to his advantage. For example, a player might intentionally hit his opponent in back of the head with the ball to “shake him up or keep him on edge.”

Point of derailment
Although one cannot pinpoint a place in time where society lost its moral compass, in general Beller points back to the 1960s, when the Baby Boom generation promoted such agendas as free love and no accountability, and educators began to embrace and promote a perspective of social contructionism played out as moral relativism, which pervades today’s classrooms. In essence this viewpoint contends that there are no absolute or moral truths, no moral rights and wrongs, everything is relative based on society.

“It was in the 1960s and 1970s that values clarification exercises were begun in the classroom,” Beller said. “Today, moral relativism and moral justification pervade education and society.”

Beller, to many of her colleague’s dismay, argues that those theories don’t hold water and that there are clear absolute and moral truths and that those truths have consequences. “My office is on the third floor, and if I step out the window there is a (universal) truth in place that takes affect.” she said.
Similarly, the lack of teaching of moral ethics and principles has resulted in today’s ethical dilemma in sports and society.

(Information below not available in print — only available via WSU Today online.)

The social constructionist philosophy allows athletes and coaches to simply choose the morals and ethics that best suit their needs, she noted. In the classroom, similar philosophies have been adopted. Virtually everywhere Beller and Stoll go, students and professionals espouse the belief that “cheating is okay as long as you’re not caught, after all everyone is doing it.”

“What we are finding is that more and more people no longer know what the right thing to do is,” said Stoll.

From nuts to winning teams
“In our early years, people looked at us like we were nuts,” said Stoll. “They don’t anymore.” Today, they are calling the Center for ETHICS for assistance.

To help reverse this trend Stoll and Beller have developed a copyrighted educational program that helps coaches teach moral ethics, decision making, sportsmanship, competitive integrity, inspiring through leadership, justice, and competitive responsibility. Topics include servant leadership, fair play, teamwork, respecting opposing players, cheating, consequences, as well as off-the-court behavior — drugs, alcohol. And, coaches are required to teach segments of the course.

Although most coaches have not endorsed such a program, those that have are beginning to see the results, telling Beller and Stoll that it has resulted in more teamwork and better and stronger players and staff.

This year, the University of Georgia won its conference with a 9-2 record and was ranked 13th in the nation. The University of Alabama took third in its conference with a 9-2 record and was ranked 14th in the nation.

Stoll, however, says one of the most important outcome measurements of the UGA program — now in its fourth year — will be revealed next spring. That’s when senior UGA football players each complete a journal reflecting their thoughts about the ETHICS program and the issues taught. Those journals will be shared with Beller and Stoll.

“We’re trying to get to the point where each player is a servant leader,” said Stoll. “You serve others in order to lead. … It’s a foreign concept to athletes. Today’s athletes think ‘It’s about me. I’ll make a touchdown. I’ll catch the pass.’ But as a servant leader, it’s not about me, it’s about others. 

“If we are concerned about the mental, physical and social growth of athletes through sports programs, we as parents, coaches, teachers, professors, administrators and media must challenge the status quo and demand changes.”

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