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Original Issue

Do College Athletics Corrupt?

An Idaho professor finds that sports hinder athletes' moral reasoning abilities

SHARON STOLL hadbeen a physical-education professor at Idaho for six years back in 1986 whenone of her students asked her a simple question: "Do you think athletes areas morally developed as the normal population?"

"Ofcourse!" replied Stoll, a former gymnast and high school coach. "Webuild character." But after a summer spent studying moral development, shechanged her mind. When faced with a moral issue, she hypothesized, athletesrespond differently from nonathletes. Then she set out to prove herhypothesis.

In a 20-yearstudy of nearly 80,000 college, professional and high school athletes, Stollfound that she was right: Athletes score worse on tests of moral reasoning. Infact, from the moment athletes enter big-time sports, their moral reasoningnever improves and usually declines. Athletes tested as high school freshmenrarely score higher when tested at the end of college. Worse still, the culturecorrupts with staggering haste. While female athletes traditionally have gradedhigher than males, their scores have plummeted over the last decade and willlikely converge with those of male athletes in five years.

"In Americawe have a tendency when we do something nasty to say, 'I'm justcompetitive,'" says Stoll. "And in sports, gaining an advantage is whatwe do. But gaining that advantage has become an excuse to do what is morallywrong."

Stoll and herresearch team give athletes surveys that present sports scenarios, eachcontaining a proposition. Respondents are asked whether they "stronglyagree," "agree," are "neutral" about, "disagree" or"strongly disagree" with the proposition. One example: During avolleyball game, player A hits the ball over the net. The ball barely grazesoff player B's fingers and lands out-of-bounds. However, the referee does notsee player B touch the ball. Because the referee is responsible for callingrule violations, player B is not obligated to report the violation. At anincreasing rate, athletes are answering, "strongly agree." In otherwords, winning is more important than fair play.

Asked if herfindings help explain the increase in off-the-field problems involving collegeathletes over the last 25 years, Stoll is hesitant, saying, "It's a logicaljump to make, [but] we just don't have the data to support it." Her data,however, are clear on other points. Athletes from team sports--especially malecontact sports such as football, basketball and lacrosse--score lower thanthose from individual sports. Athletes from revenue-producing sports score thelowest.

To help collegesaddress the problem, Stoll has developed an educational program in conjunctionwith Winning with Character, a Marietta, Ga.--based nonprofit. Georgia andMaryland are among the universities that hold weekly group discussions withathletes about sex, drugs, alcohol, gun possession and other topics based onStoll's curriculum.

"Schools andcoaches have to see the need," says Stoll. "We spend a lot of moneydeveloping athletes' motor skills but nothing on developing their cultural ormoral skills."


Photographs by Al Tielemans


Stoll helps colleges work on their athletes' moral development.