The University of Texas at Austin announced the creation of a Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation this year. Part of the Center’s mission, as currently envisioned, is to teach high school athletics coaches how to deal with various behavioral and other off-field matters involving their student athletes. Helping coaches “develop their students as people,” not just as athletes, is an ambitious goal, but it strikes me as a good idea.

Too frequently professional athletes have been making headlines in sections of the newspaper other than the sports pages. From the murders allegedly committed by Aaron Hernandez and Jovan Belcher to the domestic abuse by Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson to the sex scandals involving Tiger Woods and Brett Favre to the PED indiscretions of Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and so many others, professional athletes have often starkly demonstrated an inability to serve as the right kind of role model. Because pro athletes enjoy such a high public profile, their bad examples have an outsized impact upon younger athletes in college and high school. No wonder, then, that there are often similar scandals involving college and high school athletes.

The NFL and NCAA have signed on to the White House’s “It’s on Us” anti-domestic abuse campaign, which I hope will prove to be more than just public relations gestures aimed at fending off increasingly bitter criticism of these two sports organizations.

To develop student athletes “as people” is an aggressive target, especially because many youngsters are ill-prepared to be moral actors in our modern world. Two recent studies, one a general look at “emerging adults” and another a specific look at online morality among tweens and teens, reported some generally discouraging news. Christian Smith and colleagues’ Lost in Transition reported that few people in their late teens and early twenties are able to think coherently about moral beliefs and problems. Smith concluded, quite plausibly, that “most of the problems in the lives of youth have their origins in the larger adult world into which the youth are being socialized.”  The authors indicate:

Some emerging adults claim not only that adults in society regularly lie and cheat, but report that some of those adults also explicitly teach and encourage them to do the same. Consider, for example, the following interview exchange with an emerging adult who said he would sometimes break moral rules:

I: Okay, so what is an example of a moral rule that it wouldn’t be wrong to break?

R: Cheating. If you cheat on a test. My high school football coach used to tell me that “if you ain’t cheating, you’re not trying.”

I: He said what?

R: “Not cheating, not trying.”

I: So he was encouraging you to cheat?

R: Yeah. Because he knows we probably didn’t study, and it was his class he was teaching, so.

I: Okay. So you think that’s okay if you can get away with it?

R: Yep, I mean it’s bad, but if you can get away with that, use it to your advantage.

Blaming parents, schools, religious organizations, and sports teams for coming up short in inculcating an ethical sense in our nation’s youngsters, Smith et al. admit that their findings are discouraging. So does Carrie James in her 2014 book on online morality, Disconnected. She finds the glass half-empty. Her many interviews found that discouraging percentages of young people considered only their own interests in deciding what they thought was permissible behavior in the online world. “The narrow sense of responsibility many young people reported in relation to the Internet reflects an ethical blind spot: a failure to consider how their own participation, as well as their responses (or lack thereof) to the acts of others, inform the norms, integrity, and character of larger communities on the Web.”

To successfully improve student athletes as people, the Texas program will have to improve their moral awareness, moral decision making, moral intent, and moral action. This will be a challenge.

It will be difficult for many student athletes to be aware of moral challenges they face when Smith found that 34% of young adults “said that they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong.

It will be difficult to improve youngsters’ moral decision making when they have generally not been trained in moral reasoning. Furthermore, in deciding the right thing to do, youngsters tend to default to what makes them happy (Smith) and/or to what seems to be in their own personal best interest (James). Also, “everybody’s doing it” turns out to be a particularly persuasive argument for youngsters, consistent with the teachings of our Ethics Unwrapped video on the Conformity Bias.

It will be difficult to improve moral intent because the empathy emotion is key to the development of an intention to engage in prosocial rather than selfish behavior [Lieberman], and although that sense manifests itself in most people at a very young age [van Shaik et al.], it is still developing as teens mature. Efforts to instill empathy in people have not met with great success [Bunge & Skulmowski], and the younger an athlete is, the harder it will be to cultivate the desire to do anything beyond what is best for the student and his or her close friends and family.

Finally, it is difficult for everyone, adults as well as children, to improve moral action, to do what they know is right in the face of conflicting forces, such as the desire to please the coach, to fit in with teammates, and/or to win a competitive match.

Our four-part video, Being Your Best Self, can help people improve their moral awareness, moral decision making, moral intent and moral action, but these videos are not a magic wand that can make a vexing problem simply disappear. Figuring out the best way to improve the developing moral minds of young athletes will be a real challenge, but one well worth tackling given how much is at stake.


Additional Resources

Announcement of creation of Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation, at

Andreas Bunge & Alexander Skulmowski, Descriptive and Pragmatic Levels of Empirical Ethics: Utilizing the Situated Character of Moral Concepts, Judgment, and Decision-Making, in Experimental Ethics: Toward an Empirical Moral Philosophy 175 (Christoph Luetge, Hannes Rusch & Matthias Uhl, eds.) (2014).

Carrie James, Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (2014).

Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013).

Christian Smith et al., Lost in Translation: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011).

Carel van Schaik, et al., Morality as a Biological Adaptation—An Evolutionary Model Based on the Lifestyle of Human Foragers, in Empirically Informed Ethics: Morality between Facts and Norms 65 (Markus Christen et al., eds.) (2014).