Do Sports Build Character: Sudden Fame Edition

January 18, 2013

This week, in the long-running Lance Armstrong saga, we are being treated to yet another demonstration that in professional sports, the urge to win will decimate commitment to sportsmanship or adherence to rules of the sport unless there is a strong commitment to insist on those rules and constant vigilance.  Armstrong has now admitted to what every sentient fan already knew: he cheated, and worked tirelessly to avoid detection.

More interesting for me is the Manti Te’o story, also unfolding this week but with a less certain story line — or less certain as the press is reporting it.

Manti Te’o is a star linebacker for a Notre Dame football team that did not lose a game until the national championship contest with Alabama.  All season long he has been a media hero, lionized for his football prowess but also for his character.  He played valiantly, the story goes, despite losing a grandmother and then his girlfriend (to leukemia) in the same week, just before the season began.  The media has just loved this story; sports announcers repeated it endlessly. The story helped propel him to consideration for the coveted Heisman trophy.

This week we learn that the girlfriend was a hoax. His was an on-line relationship, the two had never met, and now it turns out the young woman was a fiction.  But whose?  Was this all a cruel hoax, as Manti Te’o now claims, or was he (in part or in whole) the one who perpetrated the hoax? The media want to know; the sports world is waiting for the next revelation.  Is Manti Te’o a wronged hero or a fallen one?

We don’t know yet. Count me as one who really doesn’t want to know. Count me as one who is troubled by the character-on-steroids narratives that the media and the pernicious college sports enterprise generate each season.  These narratives are another reason we should end intercollegiate sports as we know them.

Manti Te’o is a student, a young man just emerging into adulthood.  Yes, he is a gifted and talented football player. But why should we look to him for moral superiority, for example of noble character? What does the one have to do with the other? Young men and young women endlessly fall in and out of love. For most, there are moments of sadness and joy and instances of true commitment, changed minds and occasional betrayal. Rarely do we look to young adults for manifestations of character in their formation of romantic partnerships. And why should we?

Whatever happened with Manti Te’o and the fictitious young woman, however that story began, it was certainly not Manti Te’o who is most responsible for relentlessly bring it to our attention.  He may be the one who first told it to a reporter.  But responsibility for hyping and endlessly repeating the story falls not upon that young man but rather upon the enterprise of intercollegiate sports and the sports media. For all the endless repetitions of the story of Manti Te’o and his ‘girlfriend dead of leukemia,’ not once did any sports reporter follow the story even to so far as to verify that she ever existed.  Should they have? Had she existed, perhaps her parents would have found the attention unwelcome. But if that’s a reason not to have pursued a story, it’s also a reason for not reporting it, not mentioning it, not publicizing it.

That sports enterprise is deeply in thrall to the idea that ‘sports build character’ — the idea that excellence on the playing field often brings with it (naturally! magically!) excellence in character. But shame on them for thinking so, and shame on us for believing it. (I’ve written about this before.)

Character is formed in this life in many ways. It can be shaped by adversity and accomplishment, it can be shaped through parenting and friendship and mentoring. It can be shaped through athletics — but no more through athletics than through a hundred other endeavors.  If we want to focus on character — and we should — then let us do that seriously, recognizing that formation of character is something that happens over time, through effort and learning. Yes, we should celebrate character, but let us celebrate character in a manner that understands how character is formed and sustained.

One implication is that we need to recognize that character is rarely helped by media glare. Sudden attention and shallow praise are things that benefit few of us. Like lottery winnings, such publicity is likely to bring more harm than good.  If we want to celebrate sports heroes, Let’s do it with the recognition that sports are sports, and that athletic prowess is no more likely to be accompanied by other virtues than good looks or intelligence.

I don’t need to know whether Manti Te’o was in on the hoax or whether he was its victim. Either way, bears little responsibility for this mess.  He is just a young man who plays football very well. All of the rest of this story is a story about the rest of us, about our shallow susceptibility to seductive stories purporting to link sports to character.

And we believe that link despite the endless examples of Lance Armstrongs.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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