Team Sports and Ethics

When we mention that we will be home-schooling, many people say that our children will miss important socialisation activities, especially team sports. Personally, I was never interested in most popular team sports and neither was my wife, so our family doesn’t have a history of playing hockey, basketball, football, baseball and other team sports.

This report released by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, which surveyed 5,275 high-school students across the USA, shows some interesting findings regarding ethics and team sports, such as:

Some Sports Are Worse Than Others. Boys engaged in baseball, football and basketball are considerably more likely to cheat on the field and in school and to engage in conduct involving deliberate injury, intimidation and conscious rule-breaking than boys involved in other sports. Generally, boys participating in swimming, track, cross country, gymnastics and tennis were markedly less likely to cheat or to engage in bad sportsmanship than their male counterparts in other sports. Girls involved in basketball and softball were more likely to engage in illegal or unsportsmanlike conduct than girls involved in other sports.

They also found that “Many Coaches Teach Negative Lessons”, specifically – Illegal holding; Using the other team’s playbook; Faking an injury; llegally altering a hockey stick; Illegal start; Wrong player shooting free throws; Altering the field of play; Soaking the field to slow down the other team.; Throwing at a batter; Mistake in score; Trash talk; Showboating; Motivation through insult; Swearing at official to motivate team; and Holding back an athlete in school.


Like anything else, we have to be careful about generalising, but these data show that we shouldn’t take for granted that all team sports teach good socialisation skills.

12 thoughts on “Team Sports and Ethics”

  1. I keep trying to respond to this in a calm, intelligent manner. However, each attempt is quashed by an overwhelming desire to yell “BULLSHIT!”

    I have been involved in sports and other organized activities as a participant, a parent and a coach/leader. I know that, sometimes, bad things happen. And, sometimes, the wrong people with the wrong attitudes (kids, coaches and parents) become involved. But, from my experience, these are the exceptions and not the rule.

    There are many more positive aspects and benefits from sports and other organized activities than there are negatives. It’s unfortunate the authors of the report chose to dwell solely the negatives.

  2. I’m not sure what to think about these findings. Some of them may be BS, as you say. I do know that the concept of team sports is not a panacea and I also know that some teams & coaches are a positive influence while others are not. For me, the lesson is not to take any of it for granted and look at each case in context. As I noted, missing out on team sports may not be as bad as many people tell me it is.

  3. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear me agreeing that there is a grave danger of the things you mention and there needs to be a push for a return to ethics in sport. Watching the world class soccer, children are given more than enough bad role models.

    However, I have to say that I have seen some examples of pretty poor sportsmanship/integrity/honesty at chess tournaments, at drama auditions, during exams and during job applications/interviews. I don’t think sport is the real culprit, here…

  4. I was already suspicious of team sports before this post, now I’ve gone over the top. I also enjoyed those sports you list as less involved in cheating — not the classic team sports. Alfie Kohn (No Contest) makes great arguments against “competing as valuable lesson”. Murray Sperber (Beer and Circus) nearly condemns NCAA sports in college for its effect on students, scholastics, recruitment, scholarships, spending, alumni and press coverage of a university. Add the micro-level horrors you mention here, and there’s more “preventative care” in home schooling than most people realize. Great post Harold!

  5. I don’t think anyone would deny that playing for a team can be a beneficial experience in terms of building character. Unfortunately, throughout Canada, team sports at the youth level, hockey especially, have been infested with over-stimulated parents, and potentiated with almost fanatical hype about Canada’s Game(R) by the likes of Ron MacLean and neanderthals like Don Cherry. Meanwhile we hear little of the puck bunnies, the university hockey teams whose initiates are sexually assaulted with broomhandles, and of course all the fighting to the delight of fans only too willing to tell you it’s part of the game and if you don’t understand it’s because you haven’t played the game, so suck it up you wimp. None of this looks like character-building to me. When I played bamtam and midget hockey in NDG in Montreal no parents ever came out to the games because the games were were outside and it was cold as hell. Also tv had just been invented and our parents were all inside watching Our Pet Juliette. We had it all to ourselves, including ploughing the ice. We didn’t have coaches to teach us little cheap clutch and grab tricks or television to show us in colour dirty play being exalted by screaming fans. Today’s professional team sports don’t build character, they devalue and deface it, while the fans roar their approval. Today, every goal or touchdown scored is showboated as if the player had cured cancer. What kind of character-building is this?
    It’s time we realized that the character-building myth of sports teams is just that, and left it alone. It’s fun for kids to work together and to play together because of the camaraderie. Surely that’s enough justification.
    Hockey is a wonderful game, a miraculous expression of our existence in a cold country, a graceful telling of little physical stories with the occasional
    Mozartian move, seen and gone in a flash. I don’t care whose kid did it on
    what team. But I’ll leave it to her or his parents to daily try to instill a sterling ethical character to go with the joyful skill of playing hockey.

  6. Hi Harold,

    I want to highlight something in the first paragraph. I don’t see that home-schooling your kids would prevent them from participating in team sports. There are many opportunties within the community for kids to participate in team sports (and Steven Harper gives you a tax credit for it!).

    So I don’t think that is a valid argument against home schooling.

    However, I do believe you need to check out any organization that provides team sports and ensure the coaches are qualified and understand good sportsmanship. The good thing about going outside the school system is that you, as a parent and paying client, have a choice in which sports and teams your child participates. So you can make an attempt to ensure that they aren’t learning negative lessons.

    It’s all about choice isn’t it?


  7. As far as I know, it isn’t just team sports which qualify for the Harper
    bribe. I think any swimming program or nordic skiing program like JackRabbit would be eligible.

  8. Well I can only speak from experience, like yourself Harold, which I believe to be the best way to react or respond about anything.

    I know that if I did not play hockey growing up, I would not be where I am today. Now if I did not play hockey, that does not mean I would not be successful either, but for me I did and I attribute a large part of my success to playing hockey, being apart of a team and facing adversity, which builds character.

    Yes there are some horror stories out there, but what about all the great role models out there volunteering their time for the good of our children. We only here about the negative in the media and not enough of the positive.

    Either way I think it is important that children have different role models, which in turn helps them make their own decisions.

    Good post!

  9. I often describe myself as a-sportsic — I’m not a sport fan at all. At the same time, I’m justing finishing Carol Dweck’s Mindset, a book for the general reader based on her research into self-concept. (Search for “Dweck” on my blog.)

    In her framework, the “growth mindset” believes that you can learn from your experience and increase your ability. You don’t worry about whether you’re a born athlete (or a born instructional designer…); effort, practice, and feedback can lead to improvement.

    (What I like about Dweck is that she underscores what might seem like motivational nostrums with studies related to actual performance.)

    The “fixed mindset” tends to believe the opposite: athletes, instructional designers, CEOs, are made, not born.

    In the area of athletics, she contrasts people like John McEnroe with people like Maury Wills (who spent nine years in baseball’s minor laugues before breaking Ty Cobb’s record for stolen bases).

    I was astounded to read McEnroe’s statement, “Many athletes seem truly to love to play their sport. I don’t think I ever felt that way about tennis.”

    Both individual and team sports have the potential to bring value to a child’s life, but that value is a function of the child’s view of himself and the messages he receives from parents and from coaches. If the coach believes that anything the ref doesn’t see is legal, that shapes the attitude of the athlete.

    Dweck quotes one of Bobby Knight’s basketball players as saying “Coach’s Holy Grail was the mistake-free game.” Freedom from mistakes is the goal of a fixed mindset. Contrast that with John Wooden: “Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort?” If so, he said, you may be outscored, but you will never lose.”

  10. If you are worried about the message that you kid gets from a coach. Then maybe you should become involved yourself.

    All sports that my kids have done over the years are run by volunteers who all are doing the best that they can. Some are better than others.

    My kids have all benefitted from their involvement in sport. Especially my girls.

    If you don’t like the direction your kid’s team or sport is going then get off of your butt, quit complaining, get involved and make it better.

  11. Good advice, Doug, and I’m sure that many parents, including ourselves, are involved in their children’s sports. However, the findings of this report indicate that there are systemic problems.


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