As the old saying goes, sports does not build character. It reveals character.
That, it seems, is the optimistic view.
Former Georgetown College athletics director Eric Ward contends that playing sports is detrimental to a person's ethical code and good judgment. Therefore, coaches and administrators must make a concerted effort to help athletes overcome the ill effects of playing sports.
"Research shows sports, by itself, actually serves to erode character over time," Ward said last week. "And the higher the level of competition, the more at risk the athletes are to being exposed to moral erosion."
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Winning — or the love of winning — is the root of the problem. Increasingly, the desire to win — and make money, of course — supersedes the quaint ideal of competing for the sake of competing. In order to win, an athlete cuts corners, pops pills or does whatever else is necessary. In the desperate final moments of a game last week, Indiana Coach Tom Crean appeared to instruct his players about how to try to trick the referees into calling an offensive foul on Minnesota.
"I've done research over the last 25 years about the effects of the sporting environment on moral and ethical decision-making and social decision-making at all different levels," Ward said. "Youth leagues to very elite athletes. And it's always the same result. The longer the participation, the more their moral and ethical decision-making is challenged."
This point was brought home with stunning clarity during one of Georgetown's Champions of Character interview sessions a year or so ago. After host Billy Reed finished speaking with C.M. Newton, Georgetown President Bill Crouch stood and made a startling declaration to an audience made up mostly of students.
Playing sports makes the participant less virtuous, he declared.
Ward, now the president and CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Bluegrass, said that research shows the ill effects of playing sports are widespread.
"What's really shocking is there's really no difference between male and female athletes," he said. " ... Whether it's team sports, individual sports, male, female, it doesn't seem to matter. It's something about the competitive athletic culture that challenges their decision-making and really puts them in a position where they're encouraged to make bad decisions."
Examples abound. Derek Jeter, an iconic presence with the New York Yankees, fools the umpire by pretending the pitch hit him. Just doing the job of getting on base.
Outfielders fall into the stands and pretend they made the catch. So many basketball players fake taking charges to the point the NBA began issuing fines for excessive flops.
Of course, winning is at the heart of the so-called American creed. Americans play to win.
"That's what we value," Ward said. "The end justifies the means. If you win, whatever you did to win is OK. It's justified. If that's faking a charge. It's gamesmanship. 'We played the game better than they did.' Well, maybe. Maybe not."
The higher the level of competition, the more prone players are to go to extremes to get an advantage.
The pros? "We've just given up on them as far as their character," Ward said more than a year ago. "How do you keep up with it, right?"
With studies showing that college athletes become more ruthless over time, the NAIA tried to teach values by launching the Champions of Character program. Only a handful of schools signed up. It became a drop in an ocean of questionable behaviors.
Before Georgetown ended its participation, the Champions of Character program included an interview with pro football Hall of Famer Jim Brown. He was arguably the best to ever play the game.
Ward recalled Brown being asked to compare athletics when he played in the 1950s and 1960s to our games today.
"He focused on the sportsmanship component," Ward said. "Basically, there's no respect. That when he played, if you fought hard and left it on the field, there was respect. Your opponent respected you. The opponents' fans respected you. And they appreciated the effort.
"Now, it's just about embarrassing your opponent. It's all about making your opponent look as bad as you can possibly make them look. There is no respect for losers."
In a recent commentary for National Public Radio, Frank Deford called this "dispiriting times" for those who believe sports participation builds character.
"The horrendous shooting by Oscar Pistorius is, of course, in a category mercifully unapproached since the O.J. Simpson case," he said, "but the Whole Earth Catalog of recent examples of athletic character-building is certainly noteworthy."
There's the admission of illegal drug use by cycling icon Lance Armstrong and allegations of two recent Most Valuable Players in baseball, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.
"Throughout Europe, in hundreds of matches, 'the beautiful game,' soccer, turns out to have more corrupt players on the fix than does Illinois politics," Deford said.
And earlier this year, three Alabama football players were charged with robbing fellow students. This drew a rebuke from Coach Nick Saban.
"Naughtiness is apparently more, uh, acceptable in the NBA," Deford said. "Thanks to a compilation online, we learn that one Laker has just received his 12th suspension for displays of violence, this 'for grabbing (an opponent) around the neck and striking him in the jaw.'
"The player, you will be interested to know, now goes by the name of Metta World Peace. It is also a matter of record that after his ninth suspension, the NBA, in its wisdom, awarded said Mr. World Peace the NBA's Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award."
In the Missouri game last weekend, Kentucky picked up its first foul with 8:39 left in the first half. Predictably, the crowd reacted with lusty boos.
At that point, Mizzou had six personal fouls.
Message: It's good to be Kentucky.
Of course, it can be dangerous to cite numbers as proof of anything. Or as the late Aaron Levenstein (professor at Baruch College) once more colorfully noted, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."
With that in mind, there's this: Going into this weekend, Kentucky had shot, on average, almost nine more free throws per game than SEC opponents in Rupp Arena (26.9-18.3). The surprise is that Kentucky had also averaged more free throws on the road against SEC teams (20.3-17.6).
League opponents had also committed more fouls than the Cats in Rupp (22.0-17.0) and in their own buildings (18.7-18.1).
Which leads us to ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. In noting how Kansas benefited from a questionable non-call on a block/charge and then a reach-in call at a crucial time in an overtime victory at Iowa State, co-host Michael Wilbon noted, "It's always, seems to me, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA. They always get this call. Just like in pro basketball, it tends to be the Lakers and the Celtics who get this call. Why doesn't Iowa State ever get that call?"
Nerlens Noel take note:
Last week The Wall Street Journal noted that a torn ACL isn't all bad. It can bring about better shooting.
By this thinking, rehabilitation of a torn ACL limits a player's activity to stand-still shooting for a period of time. Thus, the player shoots more and his accuracy improves.
As the newspaper noted, Nene made only 23.8 percent of his mid-range shots before tearing his ACL in 2005. Since then, he's made 41 percent of his mid-range shots.
Former 76er Jason Smith's accuracy from mid-range distances rose from 36 percent pre-ACL injury to 45 percent (78 of 155) this season for New Orleans Hornets. That's as of early last week.
The Wall Street Journal looked at 20 NBA players, then 26 or younger, who had torn an ACL since 2003. Those players shot 38 percent from 16 to 23 feet. That percentage rose to 42 percent after returning from injury.
Those numbers came from Stats LLC. By comparison, non-injured players' accuracy dropped from 40 to 39 percent in the same time period, the newspaper reported.
Ex-UK player Derek Anderson vouched for the theory of a torn ACL leading to improved perimeter shooting.
"Must be true," he said, "because mine got a lot better."
UK student Hadley Stein uses her name on Facebook to show support for the basketball team. Last year, she designated her name as "Hadley Kidd-Stein" in honor of UK swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Is there any question what name she adopted and adapted this year?
On Facebook, she's Hadley Cauley-Stein. Take a bow, Willie Cauley-Stein.
Stein, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism, is the daughter of Kentucky State Sen. Kathy Stein and Lexington impresario Alan Stein.
Her name change led to questions about whether Stein is related to UK's 7-footer. She's not. They had a class together in the fall semester, but didn't meet. They've exchanged tweets.
By the way, proud papa Alan explained his daughter's real name. She is named for Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson. Her middle name, Darin, is in tribute to pop singer Bobby Darin. If you ever spent any time in Alan's former off-campus watering hole, 803 South, you no doubt heard Darin's biggest hit, Mack the Knife, a few times on the jukebox.
Members of UK's 1996 national championship team appreciated the school's athletic department presenting them with commemorative rings.
Oliver Simmons noted how the mementos can become a family keepsake to someday turn over to his children's care.
Simmons called the NCAA-sponsored rings given every title team "very plain." He said he'd wear the showy UK ring.
"I won't wear it every day," he said before adding with a grin, "but I'll definitely wear it for interviews and special occasions."
Former teammate Jeff Sheppard acknowledged the obvious: These athletic rings feel like wearing a wristwatch on a finger. Of not regularly wearing such a ring, he said, "It's a little uncomfortable."
On Saturday against Ole Miss, Mississippi State sought to avoid tying a school record by losing a 14th straight game.
Last weekend's 72-31 home loss to Vanderbilt evoked an emotion rarely voiced in athletic circles: sympathy.
"Absolutely you feel for the guy," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said of State Coach Rick Ray. "At least I do. Some guys probably don't care."
Former UK star Derek Anderson noted the message of his book, Stamina, is one of encouragement.
"Everything I've done, I've never given up or given in to anything," he said. "And I've always been successful because of that."
UK Coach John Calipari has noted how he's tried to inspire his players by reading to them passages from Stamina.
To Dale Barnstable. He turns 88 on Monday. ... To UK radio play-by-play man Tom Leach. He turns 52 Sunday. ... To Hall of Fame Coach Denny Crum. He turned 76 Saturday. ... To Tayshaun Prince. He turned 33 on Thursday. ... To Marquis Teague. He turned 20 on Thursday.