Violence in Sports: Promoting Character Development in Youth Athletics

I grew up as a hardcore competitive athlete. I learned to cultivate perseverance to run the extra mile at full speed, teamwork to pass the ball, and a disciplined work ethic to challenge myself to the next level. But it was not always pretty. I can recall bloody backyard football games, injuries in varsity basketball, and elbow checks in cross country meets. Growing up as a committed competitive athlete had its thrills but it was not easy or painless.

Sports and regular activity are great for physical and mental health, learning leadership lessons, and engendering teamwork, but many modern sports are also dangerous and prone to conflict. It is not rare for boxers to deeply injure each other, hockey players to fight, or a baseball batter to charge the mound leading to a full team vs. team brawl. There are also fights that happen among fans and spectators, such as the English "hooligans" or numerous South American melees and car burnings that mar soccer matches. Sports are becoming increasingly violent and have even led to death. We would think we have advanced as a civilization from the years of the Nika riots, in which tens of thousands were killed, but a few weeks ago, a 17-year-old soccer player in Salt Lake City punched and killed his recreation-league referee.

Professional sports have become much more of a big business in the past few decades, with ticket costs and merchandise leading to skyrocketing revenue and salaries. Unfortunately, in the competitive quest for individual and team success, unsportsmanlike practices are pervasive. In hockey, many teams have a player called an "enforcer," whose main job is to physically punish the opposing team; for example, if any of his teammates are flattened by an opposing player's check, the enforcer will retaliate with an equally brutal hit, and he will never shy away from a fight. In football, where every play features hard hits from players weighing 250 or (sometimes many) more pounds, the consequences have been more serious. Over a 3-year period, the New Orleans Saints football team players and an assistant coach awarded bounties each time an opposing player was injured, including $1,500 for each player knocked unconscious and $1,000 for each player who had to be carried off on a stretcher. Players who participated in this program earned $50,000 during the team's 2009 championship season. While the story made headlines, insiders conceded that many other teams had bounties, although they were not as lucrative as the Saints'.

A rise in injuries and attempts to reform the sport occur periodically. At the turn of the 20th century, American football was a very dangerous sport. One newspaper estimated that 18 students died and 159 were seriously injured in 1904, mostly in prep schools. At that time, the players often did not wear protection for their heads, had little padding, and formed mass formations that were closer to rugby than to modern football. Oddly, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was not known for avoiding "manly" activities, understood that something had to change, and over the next several years he successfully encouraged colleges to band together and change the rules to minimize casualties. In this century, an explosion of concussions and a trend of debilitating brain trauma is forcing professional football to act again. In March 2013, faced with litigation from about 4,000 former players who had suffered concussions, the NFL adopted a new rule in which players (in a zone outside the area where the teams line up) would be forbidden from lowering their head and crashing into opposing players with their helmets. While players and fans expressed opposition, it is believed that this will lower the number of concussions and serious injuries.

In other sports, violence is openly discouraged. In baseball, for example, it was common for pitchers to deliberately throw at opposing batters' heads (who had nothing for protection but a cloth cap), and retaliation was the norm. Today, a pitcher can be warned or ejected, fined, and suspended for doing this, and the managers also face discipline. While the "bean ball" still exists, it is less frequent, and now batters at all levels and of all ages wear protective helmets at all times. Today, children face more risk of injury from overuse or improperly throwing a ball when pitching, which has vastly increased the need for elbow ligament surgery, than from being hit by a pitch.

Sports are a great way to establish a life-long pattern of exercise, which should be 60 minutes a day for children. The U.S. Government guidelines for physical activity note that people who exercise regularly live longer, healthier lives, are less likely to be depressed, gain weight, develop hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and osteoporosis, and help maintain cognitive function and balance, which is increasingly important as we age. If we do not exercise when we are young, we may not be able to engage in the amount or strenuousness of exercise needed as we age.

Sports are a great vehicle for teaching kids collaboration, healthy competition, health, and discipline. However, too often sports teams emphasize or allow for the wrong character traits to develop (aggressiveness, unhealthy competition, bullying, violence, etc.). Parents and other adults should ensure that when sports are played, the rules are enforced with impartiality and that everyone (including the parents) behaves in a sportsmanlike way. If we do this, we can all have a lifetime benefit.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."