In the wake of the infamous 1919 scandal that alleged the Chicago ‘Black Sox’ had conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series, legend has it that Sox star Shoeless Joe Jackson was stopped by an innocent young fan outside a courtroom. The desperate boy pleaded with his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”
Whether or not that iconic exchange ever actually happened is still not clear. But I would venture to say that all of us can imagine how that disillusioned child must have felt. In fact, more than a few of us may be feeling that way today in the wake of another sports hero’s dizzying fall from his pedestal.
Lance Armstrong, the world’s greatest cyclist and inspirational cancer survivor—a man his own website touts as “one of the most recognizable and admired people of this era”—this month was forced to step down as chairman of his own charitable foundation. That stunning move came in the wake of a scathing report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that labeled him a “serial cheater.” USADA found that Armstrong not only had used performance-enhancing drugs to win races, but that he had pressured cycling teammates to do so, as well. Accepting the findings, the International Cycling Union abruptly stripped him of his record seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life from future competition. Said the group’s president, “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling… He deserves to be forgotten.”
Forgotten? That certainly is a task easier said than done. What has happened to the role of sports in our society? From Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire to Tonya Harding and Penn State football—just to name a few—scandal after scandal has continued to erode our faith in athletic competition as a way to school our young people in the virtues of hard work, preparation and sportsmanship (aka character). Are lying, cheating and covering for each other just to get ahead now the standard in our nation?
A lifetime ago when I was a high school senior, I was fortunate enough to win the NJ State Gymnastics Pommel Horse competition. I was not the best gymnast in the building that day, but when my turn came, I managed to hit my routine perfectly and that was good enough to win. The harder I worked, I realized, the luckier I seemed to get. I trusted my coach and his sage advice to this day has helped me to give everything I’ve got to everything I do.
But nowadays, not all coaches, parents or athletes are satisfied with that. If you don’t win, what’s the point? Why even try? “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing,” they say.
We all remember our first “say-it-ain’t-so” moment. For me, it came in the late 1990s when the U.S. Women’s soccer team defeated China in a shootout to decide a scoreless tie. Afterward, the U.S. team and our entire nation rejoiced. But how many of us then knew that our victory was tainted?
One Chinese newspaper ran the headline: “United States Cheats to Win”. In the U.S., only the Los Angeles Times seemed to care enough about the claim to ask our team some uncomfortable questions. In an interview, the U.S. goalie conceded that she had broken the rules to block the opponents’ shots, sometimes straying as much as 10 ft. beyond the line to stop a Chinese shot on goal. The referee never called her on it. No harm, no foul. That was bad enough, but what bothered me most was the goalie’s explanation: “We’re taught to do that… If you don’t get caught, it’s not cheating”.
I have a problem with that. Millions of young women and men are still being taught these same lessons today. And when our sports “heroes” lie, cheat and steal to win, and then are rewarded for it—often obscenely—is it really any wonder that we see cheating rampant in academics, business, politics and our personal lives? It’s only cheating if you get caught? Say it ain’t so.
At Character Education Partnership, we like to say that “character is what you do when no one is watching.” So how can we combat this win-at-all-costs mentality, especially in our schools?
For starters, I’d suggest that coaches and parents everywhere should ask young people to live to high moral and ethical standards. And they should lead by example. When we fail—we should view the failure as what it is, an opportunity to improve. If parents, teachers, coaches, religious and government leaders all will make the commitment to communicate this message, then we may have a chance. If we ask every child to commit to living an honorable life and when they fail—to use it as a chance to learn how to do better next time—then we can start making the generational change toward a better society. And at the end of the day, when all the games are over and the scoreboards are turned off, that is the time when we all can be winners.