Mark McGwire at congressional steroid hearings.
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images file
Retired baseball star Mark McGwire became a national hero when he broke the single-season home run record in 1998. But at congressional hearings last month, he broke down in tears and refused to answer questions about whether he got help from a syringe.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/5/2006 12:57:30 PM ET 2006-09-05T16:57:30

In San Francisco, girls who play high school soccer were told not to line up after games to give their opponents high-fives anymore.

The school district’s athletics director banned the show of sportsmanship last month because the girls were not being especially sportsmanlike. Some were taking the opportunity to get back at their opponents by whacking their hands as hard as they could, calling them names, even spewing obscenities. The ban has since been rescinded after a flurry of publicity.

They were only mirroring their role models. For example, there was the Pennsylvania man who was convicted of assault in February for body-slamming a referee at his son’s youth basketball game because the official had ejected his wife for yelling obscenities from the stands. And the Illinois man who was sentenced to jail in February and banned from attending any sports events for two years for trying to choke a referee at his son’s high school football game in 2003.

Then there was the man who was ejected from the stands because the umpire thought he had spit a sunflower seed at him during a youth-league game in Colorado last summer. That man was Roger Clemens, the 300-game-winning pitcher for the Houston Astros. He was later absolved of any blame, but the publicity the incident drew illustrated the spotlight that shines on misbehavior by famous athletes — even if only alleged.

These are not isolated incidents. SportingKid magazine found in 2003 that 84 percent of more than 3,300 parents, coaches, youth sports administrators and youngsters it surveyed had witnessed “parents acting violently (shouting, berating, using abusive language).” The National Association of Sports Officials, meanwhile, says it gets two to three reports a week of adult violence at youth sports events. It now offers assault insurance for referees.

Assessing the value of sports
Incidents like these long ago raised the debate over whether youth sports teach children to compete honorably and gracefully, or just to win at all costs.

It is a debate that ethicists and sports administrators say is overdue for a revisit, and quickly, while disenchantment with sports is at its peak amid congressional hearings into baseball players’ use of anabolic steroids, the cancellation of the National Hockey League season and the brawl in the stands at a National Basketball Association game in Detroit.

“What is the value of sports to our society?” asked Robert E. Troutwine, a psychology professor at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and author of “The Handbook of Athletics: Winning with Wisdom.” Troutwine administers character assessment tests to more than 500 collegiate players who could be chosen in the National Football League draft and consults with nearly two-thirds of the league’s teams.

“Should athletes be held to a higher standard? A lot of that depends on your philosophical view of the value of athletics to our society,” he said. If sports is only entertainment, then it’s illogical to expect athletes to behave better than their peers, but “if you believe the real value of sports is that it builds character, to me it’s obvious that the answer is yes, we need to hold them to a higher standard.”

Playing to win in life
Most coaches and administrators would agree. Sports is “an educational tool,” said Lance Van Auken, chief spokesman for Little League Baseball and Softball. “We see it as a responsibility.”

The steroids hearings by the House Committee on Government Reform last month were a start toward holding baseball players — and, by extension, all professional athletes — to account.

Jim Nelson, the athletic director at Suffolk University in Boston and ethics chairman of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, said Major League Baseball’s lenience with cheaters was disappointing.

“Young people see this and say, ‘Well, OK, maybe I’ll get caught with it, but I’ve got a second strike or a third strike,’” he said.

Many professional athletes, however, would take the other view, saying their job is to win games. As former NBA star Charles Barkley memorably insisted in a Nike shoe commercial 12 years ago, “I am not a role model.”

But psychologists, ethicists and youth sports coaches disagree.

“Whether Charles Barkley or any other athlete of note wishes to proclaim that they’re not a role model to young folks, it’s not within their control,” Nelson said. “... Any athlete of consequence, simply by their accomplishments, is viewed by young people as a role model.”

Van Auken said that Little League had had few problems with its players’ picking up bad habits but that the potential was always there because “you’ve always seen Little Leaguers copying the mannerisms of big-league ballplayers.” He remembers emulating Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan when he was a child.

For that reason, said Ken Alpern, director of the Center for the Study of Ethical Issues at Hiram College in Ohio, athletes have a burden to model ethical behavior. He draws an analogy to public policy.

“One cannot justifiably say, ‘How can you tax me in order to have schools if I don’t have children?’” he said. “Well, the whole system that you’re benefiting from is one” that improves society as a whole. That includes taxpayers without children, because the schools produce the doctors and police who improve our lives as individuals.

Likewise, star athletes seek out public attention, which is what makes sports so lucrative. “You can’t benefit from that and say, ‘I'm not going to bear the burden,’” Alpern said.

Road map to catastrophe
Educators and youth sports administrators said the examples set by prominent athletes were partly to blame for a wide range of poor decisions by school-age athletes.

They point to Taylor Hooton, a 17-year-old pitcher from Plano, Texas. Taylor hanged himself in July 2003 because of depression caused by withdrawal from steroids, his father, Donald, said at the congressional hearings last month. Taylor was taking steroids, his father said, because he had been told that — at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 180 pounds — he was too small.

“Our kids look up to these guys.” Donald Hooton testified. “They want to do the things the pros do to be successful.”

The problem is most widespread in youth basketball. Because of the lure of the NBA — whose five-man lineups mean a new player can have an immediate impact — and its millions of dollars, more high school basketball stars are skipping college.

College coaches complain that they’re losing the best players to the pros, but they’re not helping the case. Recruitment of high school stars is so cutthroat nowadays that top prospects can’t help but get the message that they’re a valuable commodity.

The most promising players are identified in middle school, when their college choices and pro potential are charted on Web sites like InsideHoops.com and HoopScoop.com. One, eighth-grader, Demetrius Walker of California, has lived in the national spotlight since he was in the fourth grade, when HoopScoop.com tabbed him as the No. 1 prospect in America. He’s already been the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story.

“It’s no wonder so many of these phenoms — and I say that only from an athletic standpoint — have that entitlement feeling,” said Nelson.

“I think, in a sense, they are the victims of their own circumstance,” said Tim Newman, an assistant professor of sports management at York College in Pennsylvania who teaches courses on sports ethics.

“But what happens is that the people who go after these sixth- and seventh-graders are the people that I think should really be looked at. The sixth- and seventh-graders don’t know from anything, and most of the time, those sixth- and seventh-graders’ parents don’t know from anything,” he said.

Doing it right
The good news is that the perception that American sports are grimier than ever is wrong, sports leaders say.

“It has to do with media coverage,” Nelson said. “Back in the ’60s and ’70s, essentially, it was the three major networks. Now, with cable and ESPN and ESPN2 and all the other shows on the radio, there’s regrettably a lot of overexposure. Everyone’s behavior is scrutinized, and as a consequence, we know more about today’s athletes than they would like.”

In reality, said Van Auken, of Little League, “the vast majority of professional athletes comport themselves very well.”

Troutwine said: “I don’t think it’s any accident that people in the NFL were really rooting for a guy like Peyton Manning,” the All-Pro quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. “In becoming a positive role model, you have to really perform on the field, but if you then can do that with the style of someone like Peyton Manning — I think everyone gave almost a sigh of relief: ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about.’”

For Amanda Larsen, an all-conference co-captain of the women’s volleyball team at Concordia University in Portland, Ore., parents, teachers and coaches provided the guidance.

Because role models in volleyball are rare, Larsen took her lessons from mentors like Susi Armstrong, her coach at West Salem High School, and Cathy Nelson, formerly of the University of Oregon, who coached her club team and was “an amazing person in my life.”

“Whenever other people are watching me, I want to represent myself well, and I want to represent my school well, my team, so it was never a question for me to have to respect my opponents, the referees, the other coaches, the fans,” said Larsen, an academic All-American and recipient of the annual Champions of Character Award from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Stepping up to the plate
Society needs more athletes like her, coaches and administrators say.

“The athletes that are in the pros or the high-profile sports don’t realize that their actions really do affect other people,” said Newman, of York University. “When something does come up, how do they react to that? Do they take responsibility for whatever it is?”

Newman pointed to the cases of prospects for the NFL draft who tested positive for marijuana at the league’s combine in Indianapolis two months ago.

“My guess is that they thought, when they smoked the marijuana, that they were going to get away with it. Now let’s see how they react to it. Are they going to say, ‘I did it, I’m going to take the consequences,’ or do they say, ‘It wasn’t me’?” Newman said.

“That's what kids look at, because if you can get away with it, then I can get away with it, and if you don’t have to take consequences, then I don’t have to take consequences. And that’s what kids really relate to.”

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