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Investigating the Ethics and Values of Sports in 2011

Coaches ranked as the No. 1 positive influence on today's student-athletes, according to a recent report released by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. (That sound you just heard was the parents of AAU basketball players taking one giant collective gulp.)

The report also uncovered some troubling findings regarding young athletes, role models, and cheating. More than two-fifths of the young athletes surveyed for the report said that if a well-known athlete breaks a rule in a game, children would then think it's acceptable to break the same rule.

The report, titled "What Sport Means in America: A Study of Sport's Role in Society"Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, attempts to evaluate the impact that sport has in U.S. society, especially in terms of ethics and values.

The survey, conducted by Discovery Education on behalf of the USADA, reached out to almost 9,000 Americans—including teachers, students, coaches, and adults. Respondents were asked to answer an online questionnaire with close-ended questions about participation levels in sports, the values sport should reinforce and whether sport is meeting society's expectations, the problems facing sport today, and the impact of the emphasis on winning, among other things.

The report uncovers a number of interesting tidbits in terms of K-12 sports, especially. While coaches may rank as the top positive influence on today's youths, college and professional athletes ranked lowest among positive influences for young athletes. That said, the survey found that as student-athletes grow older and become teenagers, their rankings of positive influences shifted from coaches, parents, and teachers to Olympic and college athletes.

Among all the survey's respondents, Olympics athletes ranked higher than college and professional athletes in terms of being a positive influence on young athletes.

Other key findings from the survey for K-12 sports enthusiasts:

Sports' value to society: The survey found an overwhelming number of people who believed sports can reduce youth crime (84%) and can teach valuable life lessons (80%). Overall, three-fifths of the adults surveyed believed that sport, in general, promotes positive values, such as building character and promoting teamwork and dedication.

The value of sports to parents: Overall, parents hope their children learn personal and social values from participating in sports, such as learning to give a full effort, treating others with respect, being part of a team, and playing fair/not cheating.

The parents surveyed "strongly believe" that sports should reinforce positive values for youths, such as honesty, fairness, teamwork, and self-discipline; winning and competitiveness were ranked as the least important values that sports should promote.

On that note, however, the adults surveyed believed that competitiveness and winning were the two values sports promoted most of all—nearly two-thirds of the adults thought that sports overemphasized the importance of winning.

Impact of sports on today's youth: Around half the adults surveyed thought that professional athletes actually have a positive influence on young student-athletes, and "by wide margins," the adults said that athletes' off-the-field conduct is equally important to their athletic performance. (In other words? Sorry, Charles Barkley. If you're a professional athlete, you are a role model, like it or not.)

How cheaters affect student-athletes: This one is troubling. Forty-one percent of children in the general population who play sports responded that if a well-known athlete breaks any rules in a game, the children then think it's OK to cheat to win. Children in all types of sports also agreed that when well-known athletes take drugs, the children then think it's acceptable to follow their example and also take drugs.

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