Which "Character" Should Sport Develop?

By Rudd, Andy | Physical Educator, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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Which "Character" Should Sport Develop?

Rudd, Andy, Physical Educator


For years, strong claims have been made that sport builds character. Despite such claims, a "winning at all cost" mentality can frequently be seen within all of sport. The reason for this paradox may relate to confusion around what it means to demonstrate character. The purpose of this article is to show that there are indeed two distinct types of character that are espoused in the sport milieu. One type is related to social values (social character) the other related to moral values (moral character). Following an explication and comparison of these types of character, a recommendation is made for a needed emphasis towards the development of moral character.


In his A Way Out of Ethical Confusion, Zeigler (2004) asks the question: "What character do we seek for people? He refers to Commager's 1966 list of 12 traits--i.e., "common denominators"--that can be attributed to Americans. In this list are many traits, some of which apply directly to the topic of sport's relationship to character. These are self-confidence; materialism; complacency bordering occasionally on arrogance; cultivation of the competitive spirit; and indifference to, and exasperation with laws, rules, and regulations" (p. 7). Zeigler believes that the situation deteriorated further by the end of the 20th century. In the dedication to this work, he states: "I believe there is an urgent need to challenge the underlying human values and norms that have determined the direction the United States is heading in the 21st century" (p. iii). This comment, if true, has significance in a search for an answer to the topic at hand. Which "character" should sport develop?

Typically when an athlete or team at any level of sport is considered to have displayed character, the word "character" is associated with a host of values such as teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice, perseverance, work ethic, and mental toughness. As a specific example, a high school athletic director defined an athlete's character as "a willingness to try no matter what the situation. An attempt to continually improve; a willingness to give all up for the cause; and sacrificing without expectations." In another example, a high school coach asserted: "Character is the belief in self-worth and your own work ethic...." (Rudd, 1999).

In professional sport, character has been defined similarly. For instance, consider a newspaper article that headlined, "The Arizona Diamondbacks Attribute Their Success to Character." Specifically, the article highlighted the Diamondbacks as players who work hard and don't complain about salaries (Heyman, 2000). Consider also an issue of Sports Illustrated in which New England Patriots', Troy Brown, commented on former teammate Drew Bledsoe's ability to play with a broken finger and lead his team to victory. Brown stated, "It showed a lot of character" (Zimmerman, 2001, p. 162).

However, in contrast to the notion that an athlete of character is one who displays values such as teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice, perseverance, work ethic, and mental toughness, sport scholars in the area of character development have defined character with a different set of values. Sport scholars, including sport philosophers and sport psychologists more commonly define an athlete of character as one who is honest, fair, responsible, respectful, and compassionate (Arnold, 1999; Beller & Stoll, 1995; Gough, 1998; Shields & Bredemeier, 1995). For example, Arnold (1999) states, "In terms of moral goodness, or what I refer to as moral character, it involves a life that complies with such virtues as justice, honesty, and compassion" (p. 42).

It does indeed seem, therefore, that there are two distinct definitions of character maintained by two camps. The first camp consists of coaches, administrators, and players who may typically define character with social values such as teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and perseverance.

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Which "Character" Should Sport Develop?


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