Nerbun: Sports culture needs more character focus

Notre Dame boys basketball coach JP Nerbun directs players during a prep basketball game at Boyd-Buchanan High School in Chattanooga.
Notre Dame boys basketball coach JP Nerbun directs players during a prep basketball game at Boyd-Buchanan High School in Chattanooga.

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In the wake of the reported aggravated rape incident involving Ooltewah High School's basketball team, one cannot help but recall William Golding's classic novel "Lord of the Flies." Stranded on an island, a group of schoolboys form their own civilization that quickly falls apart when the boys sodomize a pig and kill one of their own. The dark story symbolizes the breakdown of civilization as a result of the savagery of man.

A disturbing connection can be made to the Ooltewah basketball team, not only in the heinous assault that occurred in a Gatlinburg cabin but also in a clear breakdown in their lives that allowed them to perform such an act. Chattanooga and the rest of the country wait to see how this will play out.

But who, besides these boys, will be held responsible? Who will be the scapegoat? Coaches, administrators or parents? An investigation will occur, someone may lose a job and the program may be suspended. However, perhaps the more appropriate question that each of us should ask is what part does each of us personally play in a sporting culture gone awry? Yes, these boys need to be held accountable and responsible, but if the buck stops there we are going to miss a guilty party.

We as individuals, parents, coaches, administrators, sports enthusiasts and schools have created a culture of sports that tolerates and even sometimes exalts intense and undisciplined rivalry and the glorification and excusing of immoral and self-centered athletes.

Many of us claim to value sportsmanship, education and character, but it is all too evident that these values are not the focus of our sporting culture. In the last few decades, more money has been pumped into athletics with a focus on winning more championships and having more scholarship players.

We are missing the greatest opportunity athletics provides for our young people - character development. Sports provide an opportunity to instill values, develop character and prepare our young people to be future contributing citizens of society. Instead of emphasizing this, schools spend more money on improving facilities, equipment and coaching, using them and the success of their athletics as key selling points of their school. Parents spend more money on travel tournaments, individual trainers and sports gear. Fans seem to support athletics lately by spending most of their energy during games by demoralizing the other team or referees than cheering for their program. And coaches push their teams harder than ever with longer practices and longer seasons. All of this is aiding the deformation of athletes, not their integral development.

As a high school basketball coach, I both witness to and am guilty of it. Every year that passes I promise to make the personal character of my players more and more my foremost priority. I have found that team trips, like Ooltewah's trip to Gatlinburg, are great opportunities for coaches to develop their team by playing against new competition and building team camaraderie. But they are even better opportunities for a coach to teach kids, in the absence of their parents: respect for teammates, responsibility for themselves and appreciation, not entitlement, for the opportunity they have. We need to start approaching athletics differently and ask how can we lead these young men and women to be better people.

Our society does not need more championship or scholarship athletes. We need more young men and women of character, for that is what truly lasts after the season ends. It is time for us to start investing in the only thing that matters - character.

J.P. Nerbun is the boys' head basketball coach at Notre Dame High School.

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