Thursday, September 25, 2014

Athletes: Do You Have Everything You Need and Need Everything You Have?

We have often written about sports as a metaphor for life at Sporting Chance Press.  In fact, our first book, The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Baseball (and Life) was a perfect model for that sports-metaphor approach to publishing.  McCarthy's mostly simple rules that have been incorporated into most baseball programs are also perfect life lessons.  They promote action, hard work, looking at things you can do to improve yourself rather than blaming others, fortitude, and other terrific practices and traits.  When young people are exposed to sports and are taught well, there are many benefits that can help them in everything they do.  When they are exposed to sports and not taught well, there are problems.

Off the Field Problems in Athletes' Development

But I think if we are honest with ourselves, most of the problems with athletes are more likely to be those that come from the things that develop off the field.  When good athletes are treated better than others in the classroom; when they don't have to work as hard in the classroom; when they are not exposed to mundane tasks around the house; and when they are "worshiped" by their friends--these are just some of the things that can occur fairly early in an athlete's life that help foster entitlement thinking-- rules don't apply to them. When college athletes are given expensive wardrobes, when they get special treatment that other kids who need it can't get, when they have extravagant housing, and have all kinds of special privileges that other classmates don't have, it can't be good for developing a well-balanced understanding of their place in life.

Oddly enough, rather than average citizens crying out for reform that might help make better people out of our athletes, there are suggestions from many that college athletes ought to paid.  A football player gets a full ride to a University and it's not enough? 

I think perhaps one of the biggest life lessons in sports can be illustrated by the phrase: Do You Have Everything You Need and Need Everything You Have? 

What do athletes need? 

They need a safe environment, clean living conditions, a disciplined regimen, study time, good equipment and diet, excellent role models in coaches and other players, excellent instruction, supportive parents and friends who will encourage them without idolizing them, challenges in the classroom, and other things that help students grow, mature, and learn. After all, what is the purpose of a college education?

What do athletes have that they don't need?

An athlete's schedule can be overwhelming in top college programs and surely they need extra help just to make it logistically possible to go from one event to another -- a certain amount of special help is necessary, but what are the things that athletes don't need that they often have?  They don't need a general dispensation from the classroom.  They don't need a pass on homework.  They don't need to be treated differently around the campus or in their dorms.  They don't need people knocking on their doors at all hours of the night to party. They don't need people taking their tests or writing their papers. They don't need to be treated like royalty and travel in a posse around campus. There is little as sickening as a college athlete who essentially has all ready become a rock star, a brand, and a corporation. 

Reform in College Sports Programs

Of course, it's human to dote over a child that excels in sports, but parents are the number one influence and gatekeepers.  You do see tremendous athletes who like to talk about how their parents made sure that they grew up with humility and humanity.  At the same time, their are plenty of busted families.  Athletes from good families and athletes from broken ones will need good friends, coaches, teachers and others to support their development.  There is no substitute for a positive disciplined childhood with plenty of good role models and support.  Parents can't fall into the trap of getting caught up in the celebrity of their children--they need to be parents at all times. 

Once an athlete gets to college, there are other issues.  It's naive to think some top colleges can reform their programs at their own discretion, while other schools ignore the need.  Any reform needs to be broad based and universal. College associations are deeply involved in oversight and they maintain a greater presence on campus than most of us could imagine.Recently, one university announced it was investigating some student athletes for cheating.  This was called a "scandal" by the press.  It would have been a scandal had the school not taken action.  Students cheating is not scandalous, it's bad and risky behavior that happens frequently.  Scandals occur when school look the other way--that's when there should be public outcry. 

High standards must be maintained by the athlete as well.  Institutions that support and influence the athletes must do their part to encourage proper development and growth, but the essential core values of sportsmanship and honor must be accepted and lived out by the athlete.  Ultimately, like life itself, an athlete's behavior is an athlete's behavior. If an athlete has what is needed to succeed and needs what he or she has, they are likely to succeed.  If they lack what they need or have what they don't need, problems follow. 


Just as an athlete must deal with the positives and negatives around, so to the colleges and their associations.  We are certainly a society that lives with excess.  When that excess carries over into college programs that create a harmful environment for student athletes, the institutions must do their part to protect their number one responsibility--their students. Everyone must understand, the student athlete never gets away with poor behavior, it will always catch up to them.  It's never acceptable to look the other way.  Universities and other institutions need to look beyond their association rules and do their best to support moral principles that support the spirit of the rules. 

I was impressed with the words of one college AD who talked about how her school (and others) consider developing leadership as the number one goal with student athletes.  They want their athletes coming out of athletic major programs to be good principled people, but they also want them to have the skills to bring that out and promote it in other people.  How can you tell if the student is on the right track--for this AD it's about doing the right thing, not some of the time, but all the time.  It's a kind of zero tolerance scale of behavior.  It may not be possible in every instance, but it's an excellent goal and something students can measure themselves toward. 

Schools that are working with athletes who believe their responsibilities end once they exit the practice field, have the wrong athletes in their program.  I believe most athletes are highly intelligent, but I also believe we need schools that have academic programs that can accept and work with some student athletes and non-athletes who are challenged in school. But programs for these students should be promoting real world readiness that develops the right knowledge, skills and abilities in a rigorous way.  There is no shame in having programs for students who may be challenged in conventional college course, but certainly schools should be able to develop useful programs.  A student challenged in a technical or trade class is certainly more fitting than one who manages to get by in a program that promotes graduates who will never be employed in a bloated major that offers a cadre of simple classes. 

The student athlete is generally someone who understands how difficult he or she needs to work at to excel in their sport.  It is a shame when they do not take stock of the sports-metaphor to real life.  Working through a simplified conditioning program is not going to make them better athletes--they get that.  But they also need to get that taking the easy way out on anything else in life is a recipe for failure.