Inspiring Athletes

Last week I posed the question, “Does character matter?”

In general, I think most people would probably agree that character or integrity is important in today’s society. Most people would also likely agree that the lack of character (especially at high levels of leadership and influence) has caused many problems not only here in the United States but across the globe.

So why do actors, artists and athletes tend to get a pass when it comes to character? Why do we look the other way when it comes to the people who make us laugh, inspire and entertain us or wow us with their superior athletic ability?

I don’t have an answer for that (other than straight up selfishness), but I do know that character should matter whether we admit it or not.

First of all, let me clarify that I’m not saying you shouldn’t root for a team just because someone on that team has poor character. If that were the case, no team would qualify for our support and loyalty. But when a team does have a core group of character guys (and I would argue, athletes that hold to a strong faith), it makes it so much easier to cheer them on or that much harder to cheer against them.

Also, I write about this topic at the risk of sounding self-righteous or perhaps naive about how the world works. But I truly believe that we should expect more out of our sports stars. After all, we the fans are paying those exorbitant salaries with our ticket sales, our TV viewership and our merchandise purchases.

Three years ago I was blessed with the opportunity to write a four-book series for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) based on the organization’s four core values. One of those values is integrity. In writing the book, I was able to get to know some pretty impressive people like Tony Dungy, Lorenzo Romar, Aaron Baddeley and Josh Davis. The overriding theme was that integrity (or character) does matter. It may not seem to be the case at the moment a key decision is made, but at some point, there will be some sort of consequence (good or bad) that will emerge.

One of the people that was originally interviewed for the book was Orlando center Dwight Howard. His chapter was the first I finished, but just days later it was revealed that Howard had fathered a child out of wedlock. The editorial team made the quick decision to pull him from the book. We weren’t passing judgement on Howard but it was clear that he would need some time to regroup and at some point address his transgression in a meaningful way and more importantly create a stronger system of accountability to help him get back on track.

Howard, up to that point, had been very vocal about his Christian faith. But once he suffered a moral failure, he was wide open for criticism and pot shots from the naysayers who never liked his outspoken stance in the first place. I’m reminded of the scripture in Titus 2:6-8 that says, “Likewise, encourage the young men to be sensible about everything. Set an example of good works yourself, with integrity and dignity in your teaching. Your message is to be sound beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be ashamed, having nothing bad to say about us.” (HCSB)

In that same book, former NFL MVP Shaun Alexander told me this: “It don’t matter how big the jug of water is or how small the cup of water is. It only takes a little bit of dirt to make the whole thing mud. Integrity says, ‘I’m not going to accept a pinch of that dirty.’ Every now and then we all get dirty because we’re selfish sinful people, but when you start accepting pinches of dirt, it really gets bad.”

So character first and foremost matters to the individual person striving to have influence with others and desiring to live a pleasing life before God.

The other reason character matters is because of the people who are watching our lives. This is just as true for us as a regular “non-famous” folks as it is for the pro athlete who enjoys a massive platform. Just last week PGA golfer Rickie Fowler attested to this principle.

“I’m definitely conscious that I’m being watched at all times,” Fowler told me, “I want to be a good role model. I don’t want to be a screw-up or anything like that. I want to do the right things and set the right example.”

We may not believe it, but we are influenced (even as adults) by the actions of those we admire and respect. And if that’s the case, think how much more easily influenced our kids and teens are by the sports stars that they idolize.

Again, it’s too much to expect all of our athletes to live with impeccable integrity. Even those who are known for their good character can and will make mistakes (see Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts, etc., for example). But if anything, I would like more people to take a second look at how they approach being a fan. Perhaps looking for the good guys in sports and not just looking for what athletes and teams can do to make us feel good (as we live vicariously through their exploits) will make the games we love that much more enjoyable.

This way of thinking has transformed the way I personally watch sports. I’m still brutally loyal to my Houston Astros, Dallas Cowboys, LA Lakers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, but having athletes that represent my values out there playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Bulls, Calgary Flames, New York Jets and every team in between brings a whole new level of excitement and intrigue to virtually every sports event imaginable. — cb

Tomorrow we’ll hear PGA rising star Kevin Streelman talk about what inspired the FCA Game Day program and how integrity separates golf from other sports.

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