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Character in sports

02/02/07 12:00AM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) We usually expect sports to build character, but commentator Brian Porto says it doesn't always work out that way.

(PORTO) The newspapers are full of college sports scores and highlights these days, making it easy to forget that last summer, the only college sports news involved the arrests of at least twenty-five athletes for off-the-field misbehavior.

The arrests were surely no surprise to Sharon Stoll, a physical education professor at the University of Idaho and the director of a sports ethics institute. For over twenty years, she has challenged the conventional wisdom that "playing sports builds character" by administering a test known as the "Hahm-Beller Values Choice Inventory" or HBVCI to college students, both athletes and non-athletes. This device presents students with propositions and asks them whether they "strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree." One example states, "A college baseball game is tied in the bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded with two outs. Just before Marvin comes to bat, his coach pulls Marvin aside. The coach commands Marvin to crowd the plate in hopes of being hit by a pitch. This would allow Team A to win the game. Although Marvin is concerned about getting injured, Marvin should risk injury to help his team win." Another example states, "During a volleyball game, Player A hit the ball over the net. The ball barely grazed off Player B's fingers and landed out of bounds. The referee did not see Player B touch the ball. Because the referee is responsible for calling rule violations, Player B is not obligated to report the violation."

The results of the HBVCI, which Professor Stoll has administered to more than 72,000 students, are disturbing. College athletes are significantly weaker in moral reasoning than their non-athlete classmates. Male athletes who play team contact sports - for example: football, hockey, and lacrosse - are especially weak. Female athletes score higher than their male counterparts, but their scores are declining and Professor Stoll surmises that they will probably mirror the scores of male athletes within five years.

According to Professor Stoll, team contact sports are linked to low moral-reasoning scores because "when you are allowed to hit within the rules, you start to view your opponent as an object and not human." Furthermore, she points out, from an early age, elite players in team sports develop a sense of entitlement and often escape consequences for irresponsible behavior.

Professor Stoll's critics charge that these conclusions are suspect because the HBVCI erroneously assumes that "correct" answers exist to the moral dilemmas it poses. Conclusions aside, her work deserves praise for reminding us that athletic participation is no substitute for the teaching of values by responsible adults, including coaches, on and off the playing field. Unless we heed this reminder, we can expect to read sports pages peppered with crime news indefinitely.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a free lance writer.
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