Original Post: January 22, 2013
What is the one word that best encompasses the most talked about sports stories of the new year?
What is the one central theme linking the Lance Armstrong “apology” interview, the Manti Te’o “girlfriend hoax”, the Baseball Hall-of-Fame election shutout, and the life of baseball icon Stan Musial?
It’s the centerpiece of each of these national stories.
And, it’s at the heart of our nation’s problems.
For we don’t seem to be quite sure what we want.
We are a nation of “Winners”
We are immersed in a “results-oriented” society.
From an early age, we have been taught that winning is everything. We’ve been told we will have to compete for everything that we want in life. The message is that we should “do anything to win, whatever it takes to get ahead”.
Be a winner.
The message is drilled into us.
The most successful people in life are winners. Winners get fame, fortune, and the lifestyle that goes with it.
Losers are, well, losers.
What we haven’t heard is that “How you compete” and “How you win”, is important.
That’s a problem. For if you put winning above all else, if success is based strictly on results, you’re headed for trouble.
Measuring achievement strictly by “results” distorts values and often sends the wrong message.
If all a parent talks about with a child is making the honor role instead of doing his or her best, for instance, the child’s goal becomes getting a particular grade rather than learning.
The mindset of “the more, the better at any cost” has encouraged behavior that does not benefit the well-being of the society as a whole.
It leads to cutting corners, bending and breaking rules, and to cheating and unethical behavior in all its various forms.
This lack of values in decision-making was at the heart of the financial meltdown on Wall Street. It’s been the root cause of fraud and other unethical practices in government and business. Its impact has resulted in political ads that deliberately distort the views of opponents. In sports, it’s led to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The lack of respect for competitors and for competing honorably is clearly evident. Given a choice, a significant number of people make a conscious decision to abandon any semblance of self-regulation or personal responsibility, in the pursuit of winning.
Lance Armstrong and the Justification for Cheating
Cycling legend Lance Armstrong inspired millions with his personal battle with cancer and his Livestrong Foundation that raised many hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer awareness.
In his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, he finally admitted to blood doping and to the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) that helped him win seven straight Tour de France races. This was after years of vehement denials that he cheated.
Armstrong admitted that he bullied those who challenged his claims of innocence. He even brought lawsuits against those who accused him of cheating, though he knew the accusations to be true.
Armstrong pointed to the culture of cycling in which other rides were cheating. He wanted to win and admitted that he placed winning above everything else. And, when he found a way to cheat without getting caught, a feat he accomplished for a long period, he did it.
The baseball players who used anabolic steroids and human growth hormone without a prescription violated federal law, and in some cases, baseball rules. Those most directly connected to PED use have been by-passed by voters in the Hall-of-Fame balloting. Some players have justified PED use by the “I’m just keeping up with other cheaters” rationale. But the bottom line is that they made a decision to break the rules.
They could cheat, so they did.
Why did the perpetrators of the cruel “girlfriend hoax” keep pranking Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, even when they saw the emotional impact it was having on him?
Why did they begin such a hoax? Because they could?
Can you think of a worse reason than “because I could”?
In sports, many people grapple with what defines “cheating”. Often, it is disguised as “gamesmanship”, but the intent is clear —- to gain a competitive advantage while breaking the spirit or intent of the rule, if not the rule itself.
“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” is the cynical pushback. And we get the “everyone’s cheating” or “Why should they get ahead at my expense”, argument.
Add to it that many people see financial and other rewards derived from unethical behavior.
We Need to Change Course
So, how we we change this culture?
We start by redefining winning and success, so that these concepts are about more than won-loss records and P&L statements.
How you win, and how you compete, must be seen as equally important as the result itself. That integrity matters. That without it, victory is not achieved.
We then should devote more time to teach and practice values-based thinking, both in-school and out-of-school.
Like most everything, character is habit-forming. It’s up to all of us to promote core values that are universal in nature. We should honor these principles by putting them into practice every day and in every interaction we have with others.
We need to create environments in which we promote a culture of respect, responsibility, fairness and integrity. We should raise the expectation level of these intrinsic values so that they become the norm.
It won’t happen overnight, but a values system that creates a culture based on positive core behaviors benefits every segment of our society.
“A Man For All Seasons” is one of my favorite movies. The 1966 film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is based on Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, and while it’s not entirely accurate historically, I enjoyed Best Actor winner, Paul Scofield’s portrayal of More, as a man of conscience remaining true to his principles and religion in 16th-century England.
My favorite lines are the following, said to his family from a prison cell in the Tower of London as he faced certain death for refusing to compromise his integrity.
“If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little…”
We need a culture change. We need to talk more about the importance of character, our shared belief in respect, accountability and honor.
We need to re-establish a higher standard of conduct.
And that brings us to Stan Musial.
One of baseball’s all-time greats, Musial died Saturday at the age of 92.
And while much of the talk was about his extraordinary feats on the field, there also was much written and said about Stan Musial’s character.
Stan Musial was honored for many of the intrinsic values that every culture honors: the respect he showed toward others, the way he served his country, the values he exhibited that honored his family and community, and his humble and gentlemanly nature that served as a role model for others.
As I was on the air Saturday on ESPN Radio reporting on the Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o stories involving a lack of character, it felt good to talk about the positive character traits of Stan Musial, whose life on this earth will be remembered for far more than his exploits on the baseball field.