Ray Rice and Jameis Winston have brought to the forefront a number of issues. The crisis facing American sports is not one of talent, but of character. (And this is true in more than sports.) The fundamental truths of right and wrong, or good and bad, are being re-written by many of the players, coaches, administrators, and yes, Roger Goodell. Truth or right are being usurped by money or value to the team. What is happening is what a famous historian called “a failure of nerve” by those in leadership. The failure of nerve is of those in authority to teach and demand good character from their players – the kind of character reflected in the Code for Living. When Bear Bryant heard that Joe Namath had had a few sips of beer at a local diner, he suspended him for the final game of the year, and for the Sugar Bowl which followed. Joe was not drunk, nor was he arrested – he had simply broken training rules. It begins with youth coaches, continues with high school coaches, college and professional – coaches and administrators. The failure is not in the stars, as Shakespeare said, but in ourselves. What are your standards? How are you doing? How can you do better?
Many universities face increasing stories and cases of rape and violence against women; the NFL is being exposed for its apparent nonchalance toward domestic violence in more than one form. Part of the NFL solution is to bring in some experts “to help lead and shape the NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault.” Telling people what behaviors will not be tolerated, and all the things you may not do, may be necessary in an emergency, but this is not the best way to proceed. The better way is to teach players what TO do, rather than what not what NOT to do. That better way is to teach players to learn the value and dignity of every human being, and to treat every person with respect. This is a challenge for everyone: to give the same respect we would want to be given to us. Learning to respect the other, especially those with whom we differ, is called “growing up.” The Code says, “I will respect the dignity of every human being and will not be abusive or dehumanizing of another either as an athlete or as a fan.” It’s incumbent on parents, coaches, teachers, and athletes to do more than model respect; character must be taught, just as we teach young people to say “please” and “thank you.”
Devon Still hasn’t been able to pay much attention to football since his four year old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. He did nothing in the off season to prepare for this season, and his mind was not on football, so the Bengals cut Still from the team. Surprisingly, they signed him to the practice squad – so he could continue to receive medical benefits and a salary to help pay for the expenses. In a time of continuing negative stories, the Bengals are to be commended for doing a good thing. The Code says, “I will give of my time, skills and money…for the betterment of my community…” and “I will be a positive role model…” It’s refreshing to see a team doing these things. Can you think of some other instances when an individual or team did more than was expected to help out or make a situation better?
Everyone has loved and been amazed by the success of the ALS ice water bucket challenge. And what a great thing it is: people having fun and doing a lot of good at the same time! The Code says, “I will give of my time, skills and money as I am able for the betterment of my community and world.” Here’s a challenge: how can your team have fun and at the same time raise money and awareness for a good cause? What is a need within your school or your community and how can you make a difference?
What’s different about the Little League World Series? So many people become hooked on it every year, but why is that? Discuss that with your team, and see what answers they come up with. We think that one reason is because the players are kids, and it’s all about fun. Yes, there is competition and heartbreak for many when they lose, but for the fans it’s all about watching young athletes having fun by playing a game. Why is it that we don’t watch all sports with the same attitude? So, what is your attitude about the games you play, and the games you watch? What about your teammates – how do you think they view the games they play and watch? Are you having fun? Are you winning more than the game?
Everyone has been shocked to learn that Robin Williams took his own life. Most of us did not know that he suffered from depression, a serious illness. Many of his friends are probably thinking that they should have “done something.” What does the Code have to say about this? The Code says, “I will be a positive influence on the other relationships on the team.” Part of what this means is that we will take responsibility to do what we can to help other members of the team. Usually this may mean stepping in when two players don’t get along, or whenever there are issues between members of the team. But, it can also mean having the courage to “be a friend” to anyone in time of need. Do you have any friends who are going through a difficult time personally? How can you be a better friend to them?
The NCAA is constantly discussing ways of paying or not paying its athletes. It will apparently vote to allow the five wealthiest conferences “autonomy” in determining their rules. The reason for this is that the NCAA has lost sight of the purpose of college: to get an education. It began sliding down this slippery slope when the idea of an “athletic scholarship” first came into being. The idea that a college would give a person a scholarship to play sports was thought of as a noble idea: to enable a person to get an education who would otherwise not be able to afford it. Of course the athletes would have to do the normal academic work! Despite many individual exceptions, the athletes’ course of study in most major universities is now a joke – all you have to do is listen to their use of language when interviewed to understand this. Latrell Sprewell, the latest professional athlete to go broke (despite turning down a $21 million dollar contract at one point “because I have to feed my family”) is an example of an athlete who obviously missed out on an education while at the University of Alabama. The $100 million he did earn is gone. The Code says “I will develop my skills to the best of my ability.” The “skills” referred to are not just athletic – they are academic as well. Until coaches and administrators make education the top priority for all their athletes, they are failing them, their institution and themselves. Where is your school, your coach, your league in this debate?
Ray Rice dragged his unconscious girlfriend from an elevator after having knocked her out, resulting in a charge not of assault, but of aggravated assault. Ray said, “Failure is not getting knocked down, failure is not getting back up.” In other words, he did not fail because he was learning from his mistake and trying to become a better person. Wrong. He failed. Yes, he failed: he knocked his girlfriend unconscious, a monstrous failure. The problem with using sports clichés (“failure is not…etc.”) is that it is an easy out; an easy way to gloss over the failure – to say “I may have made a mistake but since I’m sorry let’s forgive me right away and only suspend me for two games.” The punishment should fit the crime, in other words, which is why so many voices have been raised against the NFL. What do you think the appropriate punishment should be? What is the difference between taking steroids, gambling, or beating up your wife? What are the consequences on your team for various violations?
The question of whether the Washington Redskins should change their name has been simmering again in recent months. Supporters of the Redskin name like it and mean no disrespect by it; to them it simply means a “fierce competitiveness” which honors the Native American. The larger question is not how “I” feel about it – but whether we care (or should care) about how someone else feels about it; and then, am I willing to do something different if I find out that it hurts someone else – even though that is the opposite of my intention? Andrew Young, the African American former Congressman, Mayor of Atlanta, and UN Ambassador said that he understood that many white people viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride, and that it had nothing to do with racism for them. The problem, of course, was that many others saw it differently. If your team’s nickname was the “Cannibals” (“We’ll eat you alive!”) or the “Bad Guys” (“We’ll kick your behind!”) – and you loved it – would you be willing to change it if you found it was offensive to others? Or, would you just tell them to understand that it’s not meant to offend, so get over it? Where do you draw the line on the Code’s “I will respect the dignity of every human being…?”
Even most Yankee fans will have to think a while before they can remember who was the shortstop before Derek Jeter. Jeter has been the face of the New York Yankees for as long as we can remember. The Yankees are a franchise that is disliked by many fans for the reasons we all know so well, but Jeter has earned the respect of all. As he is recognized at the All Star Game in his final appearance in this game, take a moment to ask three things: 1. Who are the players that you most respect, current and in the past? 2. Take a minute to go through the Code for Living – can you think of an example of how Jeter, or your favorite player lives out each of the tenets? 3. What do you think is the single most impressive thing about Jeter?