The influence of the sport industry on the social, moral, and economic makeup of American society and its schools has rapidly expanded in the last quarter century. From the incorporation of sport-related terminology into everyday speech to the acceptance of athletic apparel as daily wear, to the role of sports in creating school identity and conformity, the impact of the sport industry is undeniable.
Athletic programs mirror the values and beliefs of the society. In doing so, sport reflects things that are good about U.S. society, as well as its problems. In this context, it is important that those interested in social and cultural issues in education identify key issues that shape athletic policy in school settings. Three themes that are of critical interest to educational policy makers are the value of participation and competition; the state of inclusiveness in sport; and the concern for the well-being of participants in sport.
Value Of Participation
From its inception, sport participation and competition has been touted as an accelerant for the development of desirable character traits. Throughout history, governmental leaders have pointed to the inclusion of sporting activities and accompanying competition as a means of developing desirable character traits in future leaders. Previous research has been divided regarding the actual ability of sport and/or competition to foster the development of these desirable character traits.
- L. Bredemeirer and D. L. Shields found that in some cases duration of participation in sports actually impeded the development of moral reasoning skills. Further, these authors also established that continued participation at more intense levels of competition actually caused regression of these abilities. Additional studies have identified the ability of sport participation to serve as a vehicle for the acquisition of desired traits, but only to the extent that those traits are emphasized throughout the athletic program and organization. This particular finding magnifies the issue of establishing expectations regarding the value of sport participation.
In a recent series of studies, John Gillentine and his colleagues found that over 92 percent of the general public indicated that they believed sports helped foster the development of desirable character traits in participants. The establishment of this baseline expectation raises the issue of whether coaches and administrators have the ability to teach these skills. It is incorrect to assume that all coaches have the aptitude to teach and/or model the desirable traits expected by the general public, or that the schools and other educators desire.
Further, the identification of what specific traits participants are expected to develop has also been subject to debate. A 1999 study identified eight specific characteristics that the general public believed were developed through sport participation: teamwork, sportsmanship, self-discipline, self-esteem, self-sacrifice, work ethic/habits, diligence, and respect for authority. The only practical way to ensure that these traits are learned through sport participation is to ensure that the coaches and administrators of these activities are educated in the appropriate methods to teach these traits.
The United States is the only major industrialized nation that does not require the certification of athletic coaches. If coaches are expected to instruct participants in the acquisition of these traits, they must be properly prepared to teach them. The only way to adequately prepare these individuals is to establish policies detailing the educational requirements and expectations of coaches and administrators. Preliminary research studies have indicated that the general public supports the required educational certification of coaches and sport administrators.
It is therefore the duty of the federal and state regulatory bodies to establish these certification requirements and determine the implementation strategy. The resistance to this concept appears to stem from two major concerns: (1) that sport is not considered by some as an integral part of the educational process, and (2) that current coaches would not qualify for certification under new expectations and guidelines. First, sport must be recognized as having a significant influence on society, including educational systems. Failure to recognize the influence of sport will only further allow for it to grow unbridled, and then society must bear any consequences from it. The other concern regarding existing coaches can be addressed through a system that allows for the “grandfathering” of current coaches who have exhibited acceptable abilities, without additional certification. While this may slow the certification process to some extent, it is a manageable strategy through which the transition can be handled. If we are to substantiate the value of sport participation and competition, the issue of preparing those charged with its instruction must be addressed.
The appropriate preparation of coaches and sport administrators will also better prepare these groups to ensure the inclusiveness of sport participation. Sport has evolved through the years to include a wide variety of participants. Through the years of desegregation the racial barriers once prominent in our schools and our sporting activities have receded. The participation of African Americans has steadily risen through the last quarter century, as has that of other racial groups. Likewise, the number of females participating in sports has also risen significantly due to the implementation in 1972 of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination by educational institutions.
While in each of these cases it has taken federal legislation to promote change within our sport programs, the appropriate preparation of coaches and administrators may equip them to be more proactive in creating participation opportunities for groups that historically have had limited access to sport. As previously addressed, the recognition and establishment of the values of participation and competition foster additional concerns regarding the inclusiveness of sport programs.
If the positive benefits identified through previous research can be empirically verified, then the acquisition of desirable traits must be seen as a positive outcome of sport participation for any individual of any skill and ability level. From this vantage point, coaches and administrators are more likely to establish programs that focus on these positive outcomes than to overemphasize winning or losing. This focus could promote the inclusive nature of sport to include those individuals who previously may have felt uncomfortable or even inadequate while participating in sport activities. This may encourage males and females of all races to participate in sports that had previously been viewed as racially or gender biased.
Making sport more accessible to all groups would also help eliminate the misconception that particular sport opportunities are available only to certain races, well-bodied individuals, or persons with a particular sexual orientation. Either from fear of exposure or peer group pressure, some individuals have often opted out of competition rather than fight the misconceptions regarding their participation. Only through the appropriate preparation of the coaches and administrations of these programs can sport become truly accessible to all persons.
Well-Being Of Participants
Finally, the development of governing policies establishing the preparation expectations of coaches and administrators will also promote and protect the general state of well-being of participants. Through the implementation of programs that promote the acquisition of identified character traits, the concept of social justice and fairness can be promoted through sport participation. In order to help participants develop into socially conscious individuals, it is important to incorporate them into a system that promotes fairness.
Coaches and administrators may accomplish this through the development of programs in which participants have a voice in what is happening to them and a clear understanding of their role in the sport program. While this does not mean that participants will be directing the management of the programs, it does indicate that a system in which they feel empowered and invested must be established. The implication of participation in such a program could be that participants will take this understanding of social justice and fairness and apply it in other areas of their lives. This could only lead to a positive impact on all aspects of our current way of life.
This “trickle down” effect may further establish the positive benefit possible through sport participation and competition. If this is truly the desire of the general public, then it is mandatory that appropriate policies be implemented to ensure the appropriate training of coaches and sport administrators. Without such policies, sport is destined to aimlessly grow and influence society and participants in positive and negative ways.
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- Gillentine, A. (2000). Character development through sport participation. Mississippi Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Journal, 17(1), 25–28.
- Gillentine, A. (2003). An examination of the perceptions of the general public regarding the certification of coaches. Research Quarterly, 74(1), A44.
- Gillentine, A., Danna, J., & Bender, J. (2001). Coaching education revisited. Birmingham, AL: Southern District American Alliance Health, Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance.
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