The recent accusations aimed at the University of Miami's athletic department are just the latest example of moral failure involving educational institutions, athletics and athletes. Every scandal seems to debunk the myth that sports builds character. Instead, these stories reinforce the need for student-athletes to be taught right from wrong with the same diligence that they learn their playbooks.
Sports — at every age and on every level — seem to have become the victim of a "win-at-all-cost" culture. We are sacrificing educational integrity and the social, emotional and moral development of student-athletes. The teacher-coach has been given an implicit mandate to "win — or else," often minimizing the teaching aspect of coaching. Too many coaches and athletic administrators seem to believe that they should do whatever is necessary to get the "W."
America needs a timeout to regroup educators, policymakers, sport administrators, coaches and parents to ensure that sports reflect the educational and moral content necessary for the well-being of student-athletes and our nation. Evidence shows that social and emotional learning is effective in after-school settings for diverse students from urban, rural and suburban settings across the K-12 grade range. A well-thought-out game plan for sports could improve students' attitudes about themselves and others, their connection to school, their social behavior and their academic test scores.
Yet, in the current environment of high-stakes testing, interscholastic sports seem to have been abandoned by educators. Let me suggest three ways to address these problems.
First, athletics, from T-ball to college, should not be regarded as separate from academics. Instead, they should be a vital part of the effort to educate and equip the whole person. Sports should be viewed as co-curricular, not extra-curricular. Co-curricular means that sports are an educational activity with the potential to develop the physical, academic, social, emotional, moral and civic competency of every player. This makes the practice field the last classroom of the day. Extra-curricular sports need players and a coach; co-curricular sports require student-athletes, teacher-coaches and a curriculum that supports and enhances educational goals and lessons.
Co-curricular sports would also help address one of America's most pervasive and persistent educational problems: the "achievement gap" between many African-American and Hispanic students, and their white or Asian peers. The gap also exists between low-income and more-affluent students. It shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, attendance, dropout rates and college-completion rates. Co-curricular sports could extend academic learning by two hours a day in an environment that offers young people the opportunity to learn and reason in a different and potentially more holistic way than can be accomplished in the classroom alone. This can offer an active, physical and practical way to teach and learn.
Second, resiliency studies show that young people can overcome extremely difficult circumstances when they have someone who believes in them. Not every young person has a family that prioritizes them, but every student-athlete can and should have a coach who helps them navigate the rough waters of childhood and adolescence. Educating teacher-coaches to be transformational in players' lives should be part of every athletic department's agenda, from elementary school to Division I.
Finally, every child — whether he or she plays sports or not — consumes negative messages about masculinity and femininity, aggression, violence, race, alcohol and drug use, and sex. We need a counter-message that harnesses the power of sport and the platform of coaches for the health and wellness of young people. Co-curricular sports can serve as an educational tool to promote civil rights, human rights, diversity, inclusion, equality and fairness. Sports can and do bridge cultural divides and reduce marginalization of young people.
Imagine what could happen to standardized test scores, dropout rates and school learning environments if sports became co-curricular, and teacher-coaches were held accountable to deliver lesson plans on character, integrity, empathy, honesty and other-centered living in the context of play. Imagine if coaches taught the virtues of community and team building, and moral courage was as esteemed as physical courage. What if players were taught to overcome self-imposed limitations to optimize every player's potential? What would happen if players were coached on how to win with humility and lose with honor, on and off the field? If athletes truly learned that their sportsmanship, effort and attitude were more important than winning or losing? What would happen if educational institutions communicated a vision of transforming sports as we know it so that sports can transform young men and women, who will then transform society?
America can and must redefine sports and reframe coaching in a way that helps every student-athlete win in life and become a contributor to the moral, ethical and civic well-being of our communities and our country.
Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player who spent eight years with the Baltimore Colts, is founder of Coach for America and author of "Inside-Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.