|"I'm just saying, if you're worried about the ball boy ratting you out about those deflated footballs...there's a way to make sure that doesn't happen."|
The empiricist in me keeps asking two questions, pretty much all the time but especially when confronted with statements such as "Sports build character." The first question is: WHAT DO YOU MEAN? As in, "What do you mean by 'character'? How are you defining it? Because you have to define it before you can measure it. You are measuring it, aren't you? Because you said that sports 'build' character. Which suggests that individuals who play sports end up with a greater amount of character than they had before they started playing sports. So, what is this character you speak of? Is it Courage? Determination? Kindness? Generosity of Spirit? Honesty? Loyalty? (To whom? Or what?). And you can't just mean that 'people who play sports have more character (whatever that is) than people who don't play sports' because, even if that was what you found, you could not attribute the greater character to the sports playing; it could be that people of greater character are more likely to choose sports playing over not playing sports. (This is the same problem we have when confronted with the assertion that "violin playing makes kids smarter"; it's true that kids who play violin get better grades than most kids who don't, but that might be simply because smarter kids choose to play the violin -- there's not necessarily any magical brain development occurring during violin practice that contributes to general intelligence.) But this gets us to the second question: HOW DO YOU KNOW? You would have to randomly assign some individuals to play sports for a certain amount of time and assign some not to play sports for the same amount of time, measuring their 'character' at Time 1 (at the beginning of the experiment) and Time 2 (at the end of the experiment).
Let's say you choose to define 'character' as not having 3 or more criminal convictions by age 25. Or graduating high school. Or not impregnating anyone you are not married to. Or working full-time. Whatever it is, let it be something you can actually measure (i.e., count). Now let's take a randomly selected sample of 1,000 14 year olds. Let's randomly assign half of these research participants to a high school where participation in sports is required every season (e.g., football, basketball, baseball). The other half goes to a high school where students are required to take four years of Latin, music (e.g., piano, theory, choir), and art (e.g., drawing, painting, drama, public speaking). The sports players can't take Latin, music, or art, and the Latin/music/art students can't play sports. The experiment begins when the participants are 14 and ends when they are 25 (remember, we have to count their criminal convictions).
Which school -- Meathead Manor or Artsy-Fartsy Academy -- is going to have graduates with more character, as defined as "fewer criminal convictions per male student"? (Sorry, but crime is overwhelmingly a guy thing -- you'll have to come up with some other way to measure character among the female students.) That, as we say, is an empirical question. We don't know the answer in advance and we can't know the answer in advance. The difference between an empiricist and everybody else is that everybody else thinks that they already know and therefore facts need not be consulted. The empiricist knows that "facts are stubborn things."*
Here are some facts about sports and character:
"Athletes, especially on team sports, tend to score lower on character tests
(Krause & Priest, 1993; Beller & Stoll, 1995; Dunn & Dunn, 1999). George Sage (personal communication, May, 2004) believes that sport in America has reached a "crisis" point and that most athletes' sports experiences are detrimental to their character development. The majority of the research reports that there is a negative relationship between participation in sports and character development (Krause & Priest, 1993; Dunn & Dunn, 1999; Silva, 1983; Beller & Stoll, 1995; Bredemeier & Shields, 1984a, 1984b; Bredemeier, 1995; Hahm, 1989).
Summary of Research on Character in Sport
A longitudinal study by Krause and Priest (1993), from 1989-1993 at the U.S. Military Academy found significant differences between individual and team sport athletes in moral reasoning and moral behavior. Their longitudinal study of the USMA Class of 1993 showed a decrease in ethical value choices over a four-year period. The results showed that on their entrance to USMA, as well as just before graduation, intercollegiate team athletes scored lower on the Hahm-Beller Values Choice Inventory (HBVCI) than other athletes, including intercollegiate individual-sport and intramural-sport participants."
[From Doty, 2006; Journal of College and Character]
*"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
-- John Adams, 1770, defending the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the "Boston Massacre."