The responsibility of being a role model, the regressing moral values of society and the media's influence on athletes' behavior were part of an intriguing two-hour panel discussion on sportsmanship Tuesday night at Disney World.
ESPN staged a nationally televised "town meeting" on the topic at the Wide World of Disney sports complex, and it drew some of the nation's top athletes and sports executives to the panel. The group included track superstar Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Cleveland Indians pitcher Orel Hershiser, Carolina Hurricanes enforcer Stu Grimson, and former basketball coach and player Quinn Buckner.
The panel fielded questions from host Bob Ley and the audience, which primarily was made up of Orlando-area athletes from middle schools, high schools and community colleges.
The meeting followed an Outside The Lines special on sportsmanship that in part showed how some athletes believe sportsmanship is dying.
"Where does it say that I beat your team, so I should show good sportsmanship by running over and shaking your hand and telling you you played a great game when actually you s---, you're terrible, and you're awful," Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe said.
In what may become a disturbing trend, the disregard for sportsmanship seems to be trickling down to high school and youth athletes, sometimes with frightening consequences. Featured in the special was a brutal high school incident in which a wrestler head-butted an official and knocked him unconscious.
The discussion proved diverse. Comments ranged from the blunt honesty of Bears linebacker Bryan Cox, who took part via satellite from his suburban Chicago home, to the age-old coaching mantras espoused by former college football coach Bil Curry.
Cox said a strictly business approach to football prompts him not to care how people perceive his actions, which have resulted in more than $100,000 in fines from the NFL.
"When I'm on the field, I think about causing as much pain as possible to the person lined up across from me," he said. "I look at it like the three hours that I have to play a game on Sunday, I can commit as many crimes as I want to in those three hours without going to jail."
Cox, the clear lightning rod of the show, said he doesn't play for the love of the game, but for the money and "to be a thorn" in the side of the NFL. He was articulate, comical, outlandish and the spark for much discussion.
Curry contradicted Cox, saying the definition of violence and the definition of winning are starkly different. He said there is an overemphasis on won-loss records and intimated that some victors don't attain their glory by ethical means.
"It's sad that we have equated winning the game with good and that we've equated losing with evil," said Curry, whose statement was interrupted by applause. "Very often that's not the case. Very often the people who get the championship rings are losers because they cheated to do it, and I think the cheaters are the gutless ones."
Although a number of topics involving sportsmanship were discussed, a recurring theme was the impact athletes have as role models and who really shares the responsibility of being a positive influence on youths.
Cox said he would like to see more attention given to career professionals because youths have a better chance of achieving those goals than becoming professional athletes. He also said his status as a family man and good citizen instead of his on-field antics should be used to define his role-model status.
Gene Washington, NFL director of football development and one of the league's top African-American executives, said Cox and other members of minorities must fully embrace their role as leaders.
"Minorities, myself and Brian included, have a greater responsibility to be role models because 20-30 percent of the young black men in this country are in the criminal justice system," Washington said.
Hershiser noted parental emphasis on being victorious can blur a child's thinking because "you have winners acting a certain way, and you have parents saying become a winner, and the kids start following the winners instead of the parents."
The panelists also criticized the media in general and ESPN in particular for focusing too often on unsportsmanlike play of athletes. However, panelist Milton Kent, Baltimore Sun sports media critic, said the media often give fans what they want by televising hockey fights and taunting.
"The public should take more responsibility," Kent said. "If an athlete steps out of line, don't buy his T-shirt."