Daron Roberts: Teaching Athletes Character is Critical


Daron Roberts, BA ’01, Life Member, is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin.

The avalanche of stories related to the misdeeds of athletes tend to focus on one actor: the player. How could Ray Rice punch his wife? Why did Adrian Peterson spank his child so severely? What made Jameis Winston stand on a table in the student union and yell obscenities?

We care about the off-the-field incidents of professional and collegiate athletes because sports are the great American melting pot. Seventy-five percent of American families with school-aged children have at least one child participating in sports, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. Despite the rise of health issues associated with some activities, kids continue to sign up for little league and high school teams across the country.

Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Northwestern University football players seeking to unionize. Consider this nugget from the judge’s ruling. Peter Ohr, regional director of the NLRB, estimated that college football players spend between 40 to 60 hours per week on their craft. Much of this time is spent under the guidance of a coach. This close relationship provides an opportunity for us to rethink how we can support the men and women who are on the front lines when it comes to character reform — the coach.

To be clear, this is not an indictment on coaches. I coached for the past seven years in the National Football League, college and high school. I have been in the trenches with coaches as they prepare for the next big matchup. I know the vast majority of them want to cultivate their players into respectable citizens. What they lack, however, is access to consistent training. Most coaching clinics offer tips on how to improve the play of a quarterback or how to devise a good red-zone defense, but not many focus on how to reform the character of the athletes they coach.

The vast majority of coaches want to cultivate their players into respectable citizens. What they lack is access to consistent training.

This needs to change.

It is critical for us to support character reform among athletes because they hold a special place in the collective psyche of our society. These larger-than-life figures exert incredible influence over the lives of countless young people. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 73 percent of boys and girls named Olympic or professional athletes as people they “look up to or want to be like.” Charles Barkley’s infamous declaration “I am not a role model” continues to ring hollow even 20 years later. Professional athletes don’t have an opt-out provision. The kids who watch them on a daily basis look up to these athletes whether the athletes want them to or not.

The need for more coaches to better help our athletes evolve into respectable citizens is [a desperate one], but some are rising to the challenges. Beginning in the summer of 2015, the newly created Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin will offer leadership and ethical training to high school coaches through a two-day certification program.

University scholars and experts on character reform from across the country will work with coaches on implementing the most effective detection and intervention methods for drug and alcohol abuse, domestic and sexual assault, concussion awareness and sound decision-making. The goal is to equip coaches with the tools to incite the character reform that many athletes need.

This intervention does not absolve the athlete of an obligation to take personal responsibility for his or her actions. Rather, the certification program injects support for the coaches who want to enhance their ability to influence young men and women.

If you question the potential impact that coaches can have on the lives of the young people they lead, consider one sentence from Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. “And to the rest of the coaches and teachers throughout my life, thank you for the countless life lessons that have shaped me into who I am today.”

It is time for us to support the key influencers of the game—the coaches.

Photo by Anna Donlan


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