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ISSUE 117 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/14/2004

Athletes with character? Yes!

By Joel Stjernholm
Sports Editor

Friday, May 14, 2004

I was recently umpiring a baseball game in the fifth and sixth grade league at Sechlar Park for the Northfield Youth Baseball Association. With runners on first and second base, the batter hit a ground ball sharply to the shortstop. I positioned myself half-way down the third baseline, enabling myself to make a call should the shortstop throw to first or second, or tag the runner advancing to third.

As I was positioned to view any of these potential plays, I could not view any of them optimally; the shortstop attempted to tag the runner advancing to third, and appeared to miss the tag. I called the runner safe. Ten seconds later, as I was dusting off home plate for the next batter, the third base coach informed me, The runner says hes out.

Initially, I was shocked. An honest athlete? A coach interested in encouraging character in his players? Hardly believing what I had just witnessed, I managed to respond, Then hes out! pumping my fist to indicate the out.

The players honesty and the coachs encouragement of character do not trouble me; in fact, I applaud them both, and I encourage the integrity which character of that kind brings to athletics. Discouraging, however, is the apparent absence of such honesty and character which plagues American amateur competition at the highest levels, especially Division I athletics.

Unfortunately, contemporary Division I athletes are all too often associated with financial scandal, sexual impropriety, possession and consumption of prohibited substances and underage strip club attendance.

Characterized as a business for colleges and a ticket to improved draft status for athletes, Division I athletics are no longer about rivalry, competition, and tradition, but focus instead upon economic gain.

As Division I athletics have developed as a business, more emphasis has been placed on winning, since wins and losses are often the bottom line with more victories equaling more zeroes following cash signs. As a result, character has become a secondary concern, one placed on the back burner in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar.

Often, winning and character are viewed as mutually exclusive entities.

Athletic programs literally can no longer afford to lose top talent to competing programs, and competition for top high school recruits has consequently increased. Colleges have adopted many questionable methods of recruiting and pampering top talent. Like negative campaigning in politics, such methods are immoral, appalling and, above all, effective.

In contrast, few Division III athletic programs have chosen to adopt questionable policies to attract and pamper top athletes. While this trend may be attributed in large part to the fact that athletics at the Division III level are not nearly as lucrative as are their Division I complements, there are also fundamental differences between Division III athletes and coaches and their Division I counterparts.

Division III players tend to be student athletes  students who enjoy athletic competition, St. Olaf football head coach Chris Meidt said.

St. Olafs philosophy, according to coach Meidt, is relatively universal in Division III athletics. Our coaches never talk about winning, but we always emphasize character.

Coach Meidt also disputed the common assertion that winning and character are mutually exclusive, saying, Ive never been in a program that emphasized winning, but Ive been with a lot of winning programs.

Empirical data supports Coach Meidts opinion: outside of St. Olaf, St. Johns, Wheaton (Ill.), Bethel, Gustavus, and St. Thomas all emphasize the development of character through athletic competition; each school annually fields a myriad of successful athletic teams.

Can Division I sports be transformed? Can the virtues of honesty, integrity, and character prevalent in Division III sports and amateur competition be restored in the top ranks of collegiate athletics?

Probably not.

With multi-million dollar television deals and bowl payouts, Division I schools enjoying the benefits of the lucrative system have economic incentive to resist change, while institutions seeking a piece of the pie have, perhaps, an even greater reason to win at all costs. Even if it means taking less than ethical routes to achieve on-field and on-court success.

However, we can continue to encourage integrity in athletics in other venues.

Division III athletics, high school competition, traveling sports, and in-house youth leagues should continue to preserve the character and integrity that have made them sole guardians of virtue in amateur sport.

Rivalry, competition and tradition should still be the measure of greatness in collegiate competition, and character should still be an emphasized principle in amateur competition.

When the next big Division I athletic scandal breaks, dont despair. It may be too late to preserve virtue in the highest levels of collegiate competition, but character and integrity can be found on the sidelines of St. Olaf and in the dugouts of Sechlar.

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