Athletes cheat. And according to a national survey released last month, high school athletes cheat on school tests more frequently than their peers.
The poll of 12,000 high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics reported that 78 percent of students participating in varsity athletics said they cheated on at least one exam during the past year, compared with 73 percent of non-athletes. What is most alarming, of course, is that three-fourths of all high school students admit cheating, up from 61 percent a decade ago.
News of problems in athletics is no surprise. A steady stream of sordid stories has come from all levels of sports, from the T-ball fields of toddlers to the major league fields of the pros.
Unfortunately, these stories hide an equally compelling truth: For many youths, sports provide a meaningful connection to caring adults who foster and support their educational aspirations. High school students who participate in sports graduate at higher rates than their peers, earn higher grade point averages, have higher SAT scores and more often go on to college.
For many young people, sports provide a much-needed experience of community and belonging. It is on the team more than in the classroom that they feel known, needed and cared about.
And the vast majority of coaches take advantage of this fact to nurture positive relationships with their athletes. They help them with personal problems and show them how make good decisions about their future. Without that important link to the school and to a caring adult, some of these students would feel completely alienated from the academic environment.
At a time when many school districts across the country are considering cuts in athletics as a way to meet budget crises, the Josephson poll results might be used to support those who would gut these programs. That would be a mistake.
Let us remember that sports have the potential to support a sense of community within the whole school. Let us remember that childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. Let us remember that many athletes learn valuable lessons about time management, goal setting, perseverance, teamwork and leadership from their involvement in sports. While the cliche “sport builds character” is a half-truth at best, well-run sports do provide an educational experience that supports and complements the academic curriculum.
Yes, we need to improve our athletic programs. We need to restore the emphasis on striving for excellence rather than just for victory. We need to provide coaches with better training for their roles as mentors and educators of character. These are manageable goals. Let us support and improve our athletic programs, so they can educate, nurture and inspire our young people.
Shields is co-director of the Mendelson Center for Sports, Character&Community at the University of Notre Dame.