Character in Sport – a virtuous act, or mere bouncebackability?

In the Flourishing From the Margins research report published by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues last week, one of the less notable findings deserves some greater attention. In Stage One of the study, nearly 3,000 young people (aged 11-19 years) were asked to quantify the level of influence that thirteen different factors had on their perception of living a ‘good life’. Whilst unsurprisingly close family and friends scored across all age groups as the factors having the greatest influence on young people, the influence of sport was the highest scoring ‘tertiary’ factor.  In aggregating the 13 factors, ‘tertiary’ factors included the perceived influence of sport, music, the news, television, celebrities, and social media. Overall, participants scored the influence of sport on their perception of living a ‘good life’ at 66.2 out of 100; higher than social media (55.4), television (53.8), music (53.2), celebrities (50.2) and the news (48.4).

This score was higher than secondary factors such as teachers or youth workers (59.0) and the people in your community (45.0). The Aristotelian concept of living a ‘good life’ in terms of both individual and societal flourishing was the lens through which the Flourishing From the Margins project brought the language of character into the worlds of marginalised young people.

Sport is performance, so it makes sense that character is viewed through this lens. However, drama, spoken word, and dance are all equally performance-driven, and yet the language of character is almost completely absent in reference to them. In the Jubilee Centre’s A Framework for Character Education in Schools, performance virtues are defined as ‘character traits that have an instrumental value in enabling the intellectual, moral and civic virtues.’  Whilst ‘performance’ can be defined outside of virtue, what the above definition suggests is that viewing ‘character’ only from a performance perspective is limited, and therefore insufficient.

The Jubilee Centre successfully debunked the myth that ‘character is borne on the sports field’ in its 2015 publication Character Education in UK Schools. In that report, findings suggested that young people who engaged in extra-curricular activities in drama and choir were better equipped to answer moral dilemmas from a virtue-based perspective than those who engaged in sport. Why is the language of character so prevalent in professional sport, then, particularly in the mainstream media?

‘He demonstrated his work ethic and character’; ‘I’ve never doubted the character of the players’; ‘the performance seemed very much out of character’; all direct quotes from articles on skysports.com posted over a 72h period (21st – 23rd October 2017). In fact, at the time of writing, there are 6,704 articles containing the term ‘character’ on skysports.com (correct to 23/10/17). But what does ‘character’ mean, in a professional sporting context? Or at least what do those who use the term so freely really mean by it?

A quick analysis of the use of ‘character’ in the most recent of the 6,704 articles suggests that it is used either by professional sportsmen across sport (footballers, rugby players, American footballers, Formula 1 drivers) to indicate a resilience, or a ‘bouncebackability’, from a recent poor run of form, or in a match where a team was losing at half-time, and came back to win.

Is that what the media wishes to present to their audiences, then? That character is demonstrated, lived, and presented in the sporting arena as resilience, being tough to beat, or coming back to take the lead, or hold on in the face of adversity? All are worthy concepts, and ones that can be used to influence the character formation of young people in a positive manner. However, should we, the viewing public, be demanding more from both our interviewers and pundits, and our sports stars themselves? Where there is talk of ‘the lads showing character’, should we challenge this, or qualify it. Is it good character? Is there a way to combine good citizenship, moral action, and critical thinking with a resilient performance to encompass the four types of virtue that the Jubilee Centre advocates for? Not diving to win a free kick, helping an opponent back to their feet, and restraining oneself from berating a referee when you disagree with a decision are quick and easy examples of demonstrating the moral, civic, and intellectual virtues on a sports pitch. They are not always the ones that come to the mind when the players are asked ‘if that was a performance of character?’ Maybe, given the perceived influence that sport does have on the character formation of young people generally, and the educationally marginalised as demonstrated by this study, there is scope for change. Phronesis in football; the discerning derby. Stay tuned.

Aidan Thompson

Director of Strategy and Integration

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

 

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