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On the Edge of Sports Ethics: Professor Studies Questionable Plays


FARGO, N.D. – Should a coach order a player to “attack” a pre-existing injury of the top scorer on the other team?

In North Dakota, 5.6 percent of high school coaches in a North Dakota State University study said yes. Meanwhile, 17.6 percent of North Dakota high school athletes in a similar study say that’s fine – a twist on the adage of “no pain, no gain.”

A North Dakota State University study showed that 5.6 percent of high school coaches interviewed said they approved of attacking an opposing team's top scorer where he or she has suffered an injury.

In football, 9.6 percent of coaches surveyed say it’s OK for a lineman to deliberately try to inflict pain on an opposing player to intimidate him, while 28.9 percent of athletes said that’s acceptable.

And in ice hockey, 23.3 percent of surveyed coaches would send in a player to intimidate opponents and protect his own players, while 56 percent of athletes surveyed said that’s acceptable.

The studies done by NDSU professor Bradford Strand offer a snapshot view of the moral reasoning and ethics in high school sports today – at least, in North Dakota.

“Gamesmanship Beliefs of High School Coaches,” recently published in an international journal, surveyed 256 coaches across North Dakota on 25 sports ethics scenarios.

“Gamesmanship of High School Athletes,” published in 2010, included responses from 273 athletes in grades 9-12 at 16 schools on the same scenarios.

“All the questions we posed in there are pretty much legal, although questionable for sure,” Strand said Friday.

Gamesmanship is defined in the studies as the art or practice of winning games by questionable means without actually breaking the rules.

People take for granted the bromide that sports teaches character, but just playing football, basketball, baseball or any sport doesn’t make a young man or woman a better person, Strand said.

“You have to very intentionally coach the good attributes” and model good behavior as a coach for the worthy life lessons to take hold, he said. Otherwise, there’s a disconnect, and a moral muddle.

In almost all cases, the surveyed coaches had a much-lower tolerance for acts that some would say skate on the edge of ethical.

For example, in baseball, if a key player for Team X is hit by a pitch, only 4.4 percent of coaches said that if they were Coach X, they would order their pitcher to throw at an opposing hitter. But 16.5 percent of athletes would say that’s OK.

Less than a half percent of coaches said it would be OK for a player to do a showboat dance in front of an opponent’s bench after scoring, whereas 18.7 percent of players are fine with it.

None of the coaches said it was OK to use profanity or personal insults to motivate players, while 15 percent of players said that was acceptable.

The gap in the responses brings up the question: What are coaches actually teaching their players?

Did coaches who took the survey know the answers expected of them but perhaps act differently on the playing field or court?

Or do other factors shape young athletes’ views when they suit up to play?

Strand said “you have to trust the results,” adding that all of the coaches who completed the study were members of the state’s high school coaches association.

At the same time, knowing what to do, and actually doing something in the heat of a game can be two different things.

“The coaches may not know it, but there may be a disconnect” in what they do in trying to win, Strand said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Strand, who has served as president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said low percentages or not, some of the coaches’ answers are disturbing.

“It’s still disappointing to see that some of these coaches still think it’s OK” to go after an injured player to win a game, he said. “That still needs to be addressed.”

But coaches and players don’t operate in a vacuum.

Turn on a popular sports show almost any night of the week and a questionable play – an illegal hit in football, a bean ball in baseball or softball, a blown line call in tennis that a player can overrule – will be rerun time and again.

The media focus, particularly on top-flight college and professional athletes, can get young people to believe that cheating, or cutting corners on the rules, “happens a lot,” Strand said.

“And we haven’t even talked about parents” whose zeal to see their children win overcomes their good sense, he said.

In the surveys, just 1.2 percent of coaches felt it was acceptable for parents to scream instructions at their own child during a game, while 19.5 percent of the athletes saw it as acceptable.

No surveyed coach agreed with having a parent at a soccer game insult players if they made mistakes, while 9.1 percent of the athletes accepted it as part of the game.

“It’s the parents, it’s the media, it’s the expectations of the fans, it’s (bad behavior of some) college and professional athletes,” Strand said, that coaches have to also overcome.

He said the gap in what is acceptable for coaches and athletes presents an opportunity for coaches to look for ways to instill a better sense of sportsmanship in their young charges.

At the same time, all is not lost.

The majority of the young athletes in almost all of the scenarios knew acceptable behavior from that which is morally questionable.

And that’s a bright spot that shouldn’t be forgotten, Strand said.

“Most of athletes are morally reasoned or ethical, maybe not quite as reasoned as the coaches,” but they know right from wrong, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583.


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