Academic journal article Journal of Character Education

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IN SPORT: An Ethnographic Study of Character Development in an Elite Prep-School Basketball Program

Academic journal article Journal of Character Education

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IN SPORT: An Ethnographic Study of Character Development in an Elite Prep-School Basketball Program

Article excerpt

The development of individual and team character was investigated through an ethnographic study of an elite prep-school basketball team. Data were collected over a five-month period using diverse methods, including participant observations, interviews, video recordings, and audio recordings. Content analysis of the data identified emerging themes and categories surrounding the topic of character development in a competitive performance context. Thirteen emerging themes are presented and discussed.

Sports are an important part of American culture. When one considers the sheer number of people who participate in some form of sport, the revenues generated by it, the amount of media coverage devoted to it, and the iconic cultural status of athletes, it is hard to imagine anywhere in the world where athletics assert a larger cultural influence. The sport of basketball, in particular, features prominently in the overall landscape of U.S. sports. With nearly 39 million children and adults playing, basketball is far and away America's most popular team sport (Sporting Goods Manufacturer, 2004).

Sports are not simply entertainment, however; in fact, they play a particularly prominent role in the culture of American education. From intercollegiate sports, to high school sports, on down through junior high and elementary school, there is a presumption that sports are a "co-curricular activity." More specifically, as Stevenson (1985) notes, "It is the rationale of character building, of moral development, of citizenship development, of social development that justifies the existence of physical education and athletics" (p. 287).

Implicit within the educative rationale for sport is the assumption that sport builds character; and yet, as Shields and Bredemeier (1995) note, we are unable to definitively substantiate the claim. Research suggests that sport at the high school level can contribute directly to education attainment (e.g., Jeziorski, 1994; Power, 2000), generally through the social capital and experience of community. However, research by Shulman and Bowen (2001) at the postsecondary level draws into question the educative contributions of sports. In fact, Schulman and Bowen suggest that when compared with college students at large, student-athletes are more likely to underperform and to rank in the bottom third of their class; are less likely to enter the not-for-profit sector and to work in public affairs; and have no greater tendency to be leaders of schools, religious groups, community associations, civil rights groups, museums, libraries, and soup kitchens. And so the debate regarding the educative potential of sport continues.

The past decade has witnessed a resurgent interest in character development in schools, making character education one of the fastest growing educational movements in the nation today. Character education requirements are now found at district- and state-wide levels, with at least 17 states currently addressing character education through legislation (Partnership, 2000). Since 1995, 36 states and the District of Columbia received a combined total of approximately $27.5 million through the U.S. Department of Education seed money allocated through its "Partnerships in Character Education Pilot Projects" (Partnership, 2000). National interest in sport and character education has translated into national interest in character development within the sport context. References on sports and character development abound (e.g., Beedy, 1997; Thompson, 1993; Yeager, Buxton, Baltzell, & Bzdell, 2001), and numerous organizations have dedicated themselves specifically to the development of character through sports, including several prominent national programs (e.g., Sports PLUS: Positive Learning Using Sports, The Positive Coaching Alliance, and Character Counts! Sports). Thus, while the age-old question, "Do sports build character?" has yet to be definitively answered, interest in the question has seemingly grown. …

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