Athletes making poor decisions both personally and professionally are now a common occurrence. Sports fans read about these indiscretions so often that they are almost expected behavior.
Although many of these choices have legal implications including time in prison, they also can have serious health consequences. Young athletes are now using unprescribed supplements purchased on the internet in astonishing numbers. Peer pressure to drink alcohol and use illicit drugs continues to rise.
No one will argue that things have changed for the worse over the past several decades. Recently publicized events raise many questions:
• What has changed in sports and in society that has resulted in a “leadership void?”
• How can parents, coaches and teachers help correct this and hopefully protect athletes?
• What is the role of the media?
Football has traditionally been the team sport serving as a model for leadership in the United States. No other sport is so similar to battle and requires careful coordination of many skills for success. The quarterback position is analogous to that of a field general leading troops. Bad behavior is more dramatic in football because of the team implications.
“Thirty years ago, the technology to broadcast every college football game wasn’t available,” said Tim Prendergast, director of football operations at the University of Connecticut. “The internet, 24-hour sports television and U-Tube now dramatically increase the exposure of athletes.”
This exposure also influences the behavior of young athletes who imitate their heroes’ poor sportsmanship in the end zone and at times bad health decisions. Prendergast believes that good leaders are able to identify a goal, remove any obstacles to achieving that goal and thank others for their help.
Coaches and administrators agree that leadership is best taught by example. Youth organizations and church activities provide good opportunities other than athletic events to influence young adults.
“The community now also serves as the extended family for many athletes. Many people serve a role in raising a leader,” said Jamal Davis, head coach of the Norwich Free Academy football team. This year Coach Davis is emphasizing the importance of commitment, character and courage both on and off the field with his players. He repeatedly drives home the point that after football, it is these characteristics that will be their legacy.
Dr. Michael Joyce, an orthopedist and highly-regarded team physician, along with his wife, Pam, are embarking on a large-scale effort to provide the necessary skills for athletes to become leaders. The KJ Life Foundation (www.KJLife.org) was established in 2009 in memory of their son, Kenneth, who died tragically in a ski accident.
The foundation has begun a series of seminars for athletes to serve as peer role models by setting good examples and developing character.
“There are moment-to-moment examples of good character. We need to capture those moments and use them as teaching tools,” said Dr. Joyce.
The recurring theme is that personal responsibility is crucial to getting the most out of any athletic experience and making the right decisions to stay healthy.