Tuesday, March 20, 2007

This I Believe: Sports as Teachers

This week instead of writing an opinion, I wanted to share a personal belief that I hold about sports and their psychological effects, so that you my readers may better understand me, and the stance from which I view the world. My motivation was taken from the "This I Believe" national media project (their logo is pictured right), the purpose of which is to engage people "in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives." My daily life is largely consumed by my devotion to cheerleading—I am the President of my cheer club at USC, and I also serve as the Captain of my particular team. As a cheerleader, I have absolutely no doubt that playing sports has helped build my moral character—both good and bad aspects—into what it is today. I believe that sports have the capacity to teach participants the vital principles in life, such as selflessness, hard work, honesty, and perseverance, and that those who play a sport are morally more experienced than those who do not. Any person who has partaken in a sport can easily identify the basic beneficial values one develops from encountering the athletic world. Teamwork, friendship, goal-setting, and leadership are all obvious principles that can be seen on the surface; however, I believe sports have the unique ability to teach more subtle morals, such as those involved with loss, failure, and picking oneself up.

In a game, players are faced with many moral dilemmas both on and off the field. For instance, when the referee is not looking, who is there to call an athlete on bad sportsmanship? Many players in contact sports will take cheap shots at each other simply because they think they can get away with it. In some extreme cases, such as when NHL player Chris Simon took a "vicious two-handed stick swing to the face" of Ryan Hollweg with his hockey stick (pictured left), the offender does not end up getting away with their immoral actions. Although they may still learn a lesson from their punishment, unacceptable acts are looked down upon and shameful. On the opposite hand, I believe someone who makes a conscious decision to do the right thing (such as a football player who resists the temptation to grab a face mask when bringing a man down) is rewarded with pride and learns that doing things the honest way is psychologically rewarding, especially in regards to their self-esteem. So, although it may seem as though unsportsman-like players do not care what their actions are, I think the result of any decision is a valuable lesson learned by the athlete.

Soccer is an example of a sport where the fans actually receive just as many moral teachings as the competitors themselves. Both soccer players and fans are infamous for running amok in hosting towns; watching one game of World Cup Soccer feels more like watching an acting class than a sporting event when the participants fake their injuries to draw fouls. The lesson they learn comes from the fact that this pretending works very little, and referees are actually less likely to sympathize with the player who constantly acts hurt. This is referred to as "crying wolf," where a person's dishonesty can impair other's judgments and affect their future opinions. In comparison, the fans of soccer (especially in Europe) let their emotions get the best of them as they run wild through towns after winning a game, destroying everything in their path and sometimes assaulting supporters of the opposing team. The moral people learn from this is that disrespecting others and their property leads to resentment and mutual disrespect, which can lead to a snowball effect. In fact, fan clubs of soccer teams in England have become so rowdy that riot police have been called out to subdue the crowd, as was the case during a day in the FIFA 2006 World Cup,when English and German fans suddenly started "throwing bottles and chairs and trading punches." Many English fans, such as the one pictured to the right, were arrested and put in German jails for disturbing the peace.

Learning from immoral acts is not just contained to the actual game or match; much of what athletes learn comes from the everyday practice of their activity. For instance the use of anabolic steroids (some examples are pictured left) to enhance muscle-building capability is not illegal in baseball, but it certainly gives the consumer a great advantage over his competitors. Sports were meant to test the limits of the human body, so by taking steroids, a person is cheating their competitors—and themselves—of a fair match. Ethics concerning performance-enhancing drugs have recently been a large issue, simply because the utilization of them is so widespread at all levels of play. The use of steroids teaches a hard lesson: while immediate gratification may be a result, the side effects in the future may not be worth taking the drug. In addition to the potential negative results, a moral lesson is given in the form of lessened pride—knowing that anything achieved was not solely because of hard work, but partly because of an external factor that could be considered cheating.

While certain morals are obviously taught through participation in sports, some are more subtle and require closer examination. I, for one, have put to practice all the morals by which I stand during my cheerleading career, and I am proud to say that I have made good decisions.
All moral lessons (good or bad) taught by sports are important and relevant to every day life, and those who take these lessons to heart are better for it. I know I am.

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