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Commentary: When Winning Is Everything, Athletes Need New Moral Compass


Somewhere deep in our cultural memory is the idea that athletic prowess is connected with virtue. For the ancient Greeks, athletic contests were religious events with social purpose: honoring the dead, preparing for war, and teaching virtues.

Contemporary sports no longer serve any moral, religious, or political purpose. Religion is not involved. Athletes are not preparing for war. And most of us gave up long ago on the idea that athletes could be looked up to as paragons of virtue. Recent scandals—at Penn State, in the Olympics, and in professional sports—haven’t helped.

We still expect “good sportsmanship.” But that is a very vague ideal. It is true that Olympic athletes salute the flag and “represent” their country. But the nationalistic competition of the Olympics feels contrived and old-fashioned. We admire Michael Phelps for his individual effort not for his service on behalf of the nation.

Athletic success leads to fame, power, and money—external rewards that have no connection with patriotism, piety, or virtue. Indeed, money and fame create a temptation for bad behavior. It also provides a motive for covering up outright evils, as at Penn State.

The sports industry is worth over $200 billion per year. Top pro athletes earn millions. Big sports programs have budgets in the tens of millions. And Olympic medalists are able to cash in their medals for lucrative endorsement deals.

With big money on the line—and no other higher values involved—there is an obvious temptation for bad behavior. One solution is to increase institutional safeguards and penalties. In this regard, institutions like the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee are doing the right thing by enforcing stiff penalties for wrongdoing.

But a long-term solution would have to involve a radical change of values. When there is no moral, religious, or political significance to sports—and millions to be earned—the temptation to cheat will continue to be significant.

Many athletes and coaches do have strong characters and personal integrity. But in a culture where winning is a path to riches, misbehavior is not surprising. Good sportsmanship is admirable—but you can’t take it to the bank.

We’ll never return to the Greek ideal of the athletic contest as a moral, political, and religious event. Nor should we: the Greeks were often brutal and ethnocentric. But it is inspiring to imagine a world in which athletic prowess could be linked to piety and patriotism rather than to profit.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

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