I took the announcement of Derek Jeter’s impending retirement at the end of the upcoming season as bittersweet news, even if he’s played professionally for over two decades. Baseball fans take for granted his clutch hitting and acrobatic plays in the field and his leadership as captain of the Yankees. But what really stands out is his consistently flawless character off the field and in the public eye. Whether it was his establishment of the Turn 2 Foundation to help troubled teenagers or calling (unprompted) the family of a Sandy Hook victim who was a fan of the Yankees, Jeter is the ultimate class act.  General Manager Brian Cashman summed it up best when he said that Jeter is the type of guy you’d want your daughter to marry.

But unfortunately, “whole-packages” like Jeter are a rare sight in professional sports. We’re at a point now when athletes are expected to crash and burn or erupt in scandal. There’s been half a dozen breaking scandals of one kind or another since I came up with the idea to write this column at the beginning of the academic year.  So it’s worth asking: Do character values in the American sports industry matter in this cynical age? 

While professional team sports unify many commendable aspects of the human spirit, they also represent a dark microcosm of American spirit. Athletes are encouraged and rewarded for aggression and violent behavior, starting in the Pee Wee leagues. This “bad boy” culture is condoned or even encouraged by many parents and celebrated by coaches and school administrators who want results (i.e. a winning team). Habits form and their personal lives are reshaped, which often leads to trouble later in life.  Domestic abuse, gun violence, DUIs, cheating with performance enhancing drugs and brawls are the usual ramifications.   

Sports journalist Frank Deford recently said that the “NFL is home to bullies, wife beaters, racists and, yes, some homophobes,” but he wouldn’t be far off the mark by widening his field.   The condition is made worse by the handlers and executives who look the other way when athletes go rogue. Like any corporation, professional teams strive to keep harmful information out of the public eye, but inevitably the truth rises up and breaks out. To cite one prominent example, the New England Patriots knew they had a rotten apple in star tight-end Aaron Hernandez, but it took an accusation of murder to cut him.

Yes, there are many athletes who simply are in it for the love of the game, but they are tainted by the same toxic brush that paints over their sport.  Many cyclists may be totally drug free, but anyone in that sport who does well is now looked at with a degree of skepticism that was unimaginable a decade ago. The NBA may demand that all its athletes wear a jacket and tie when seen in public, but it’s not the clothes that make the man. Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest), Gilbert Arenas, and Raymond Felton set back the entire league when they have run-ins with the law. So, if we accept as a given that a stunning, widespread lack of character and civility exists in a wide range of sports, we can also equally assume that it is only going to get worse. If we don’t start turning this around, sports at every level and age group will have all of the character depth of most pro-wrestlers. 

Fortunately, there are several actions and reforms that the sports industry can take, on every level, to stress the importance of creating athletic men and women of whom we can all be proud. Youth coaches and parents must advocate that good character behavior is as important as winning. Excessive violence on and off the field has no place and must not be tolerated under any circumstances. High school is often when bad behavior comes to light and teachers, coaches and parents must be vigilant in maintaining these standards. Some have suggested that maintaining a dress code in the classroom might instill discipline, but I don’t buy it. We have to go a lot deeper than changing what you pull out of your closet each morning. College jocks who violate the rules must no longer be tolerated. This, of course, is easy to say and hard to enforce, because the financial blood of so many schools are dependent on those jocks scoring touchdowns. The alleged sexual misconduct charges facing Jameis Winston, the 2014 Heisman winner, were swept under the rug on his way to becoming an NCAA superstar. Whether or not there was a shred of truth to those accusations, we will never know. Associate Professor Billy Hawkins in the Deptartment of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia recently stated that executives from America’s big four sports league offices must make programs to address the culture of violence that embroils athletes and reverse “character underdevelopment” that many pro athletes develop.  

The emphasis on good character in the pro sports world should extend to improved tolerance of openly gay athletes playing.  Earlier this week, Jason Collins broke barriers by becoming the first openly gay NBA player, signing a short-term contract with the Brooklyn Nets. And just last year, on a smaller scale in the U.S. sports arena, Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay player to sign with a Major League Soccer team. 

Comments by sports executives and pundits, behind a wall of anonymity, suggesting that Michael Sam (the star college football player who came out as openly gay to the public earlier this month) won’t be welcomed appropriately in the NFL because the game isn’t ready for a gay player in the locker room, are beyond preposterous. Those who defend this idea argue that the NFL is a “man’s game” and that these players don’t have a manly enough reputation to succeed. 

The color barrier, another civil right obstacle in pro sports, didn’t stop the great Jackie Robinson from becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball. Athletes and representatives from pro sports teams should take a stand and visit LGBTQIA youth groups in their communities to get the message across that a kid can be openly gay and still achieve their dream of becoming a professional athlete.

All professional sports leagues should mirror and extend the goals of the NFL’s Character Development Program. This organization prioritizes anger management and reconciliation skills.  
This will not solve all the problems, but it certainly could limit the number of domestic abuse cases and DUIs that some high-profile athletes get entangled with.  These can lead to an improvement in public perception of character value in American pro sports, a possible domino effect for changes at all levels of the game.