The profit-at-all-costs ethos is eroding the true purpose of sport

Ken Reed

I recently chatted with a group of sports fans about the state of sports. Each of them was disillusioned by SportsWorld today.

The primary reason cited was that they see sports being driven more and more by the chase for money, even at the youth sports level. To them, the concept of sport as a cultural practice is being wiped out by profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) ethos, which negatively shapes sports policy, even at the lower levels.

That chat made me think of a conversation I had with Joe Ehrmann several years ago. Joe is a former National Football League star, playing most of his career with the Baltimore Colts. After his playing career, he became an ordained minister and social justice activist in Baltimore’s inner city. He is currently the President of the InSideOut Initiative, an evidenced-based, systems-level approach that inspires and catalyzes communities to transform the current sports culture to one that values the human growth and development of athletes. He has been called “The most important coach in America” by Parade magazine.

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During my interview, I asked him, “What should sports be about?” This was his answer:

Sports should be about the social, moral and ethical development of young people. It’s about character if done the right way. However, one of the great myths is that sports build character. That’s certainly not true in the win-at-all-costs world of sports in our culture.

Life is a team sport. Nobody goes through this world alone. It’s about a commitment to relationships and treating people with respect and dignity as you work on a cause. That’s what team sports can teach at their best. Team sports are about a set of relationships working on a cause.

Sports should be about creating good citizens and change agents. Sports should be a means to an end. Today, sports have become an end in themselves.

I also believe sports should be co-curricular, not extra-curricular. Every coach has the last classroom of the day. Coaches should be teachers and act like teachers. In a math class, we would never tolerate a teacher swearing, yelling at kids, or shaming a kid because they got a math equation wrong. Why do we allow that in sports?

We also need to look at athletic competition differently. It shouldn’t be about winning-at-all-costs. It should be viewed as a mutual quest for excellence.

Finally, sports should be about the health and well-being of every participant. We need to get more kids involved and create more alternatives so every kid can participate in team sports.

I can’t argue with anything Ehrmann said. His answer was focused on sport at the youth, high school, and college levels. To be sure, professional sports is a different animal. For pro athletes, sports participation is a job. It’s about performance, and if you don’t perform you will be out of a job.

However, whether at the youth, high school, college, or professional level, the soul of sports still exists, but it is consistently undermined by greed and all the problems that flow from greed.

One thing’s for sure: SportsWorld would be a lot healthier place if more people took the approach to sports that Joe Ehrmann does.

Ken Reed, sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader. Reed’s work involves advocating for what he sees as positive changes in the sports world, focusing on issues like safety, equity, ethics and fair play. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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