Sports media: Stop sending our youth mixed messages about champions

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[Dwight Howard] wants to be a champion. He has the talent and ability and desire to be a champion. But he isn’t a champion. Because he lost.

Per usual, society is sending mixed messages to our youth. On one hand, we tell children to play for the love of the game. We preach the importance of sportsmanship, of fairness and balance over the “win at all costs” mentality, of character and resilience over numbers on a scoreboard.

On the other hand, some writers like Mike Foss, quoted above, emphasize it’s the score alone that makes a champion. A champion, they’ll claim, is only the one who hoists the trophy. “There are many players who have won the NBA championships since 1947,” Foss asserts in a post yesterday on For The Win. “Those players are champions.”

Hill Olson Hatch collageI’d counter his strict understanding of the term “champion” with a long list of players, across leagues and levels of competition, who are indeed champions, yet have never taken home championship hardware. People like Lauren Hill, the college freshman and basketball player who tragically passed away earlier this year but not before courageously fighting to play the game she loved and raising millions of dollars to fund brain cancer research. Like Jake Olson, who chose to compete rather than be sidelined by blindness, and won a spot on the University of Southern California’s football team. Like Austin Hatch, who survived two plane crashes, lost most of his immediate family, suffered horrendous injury, but still put in the excruciatingly hard work to realize his dream of playing basketball for the University of Michigan.

Lauren didn’t win a championship. Neither did Jake, and neither did Austin. But they are all champions, despite lacking a league trophy, because they’ve inspired an awareness in others to something bigger than themselves. They’ve helped lift others up, helped others aspire to more, motivated those around them, and have given freely and genuinely of themselves. These are qualities that make for a true champion on and off the court. At the Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development, we’ll always take a champion in life over a “champion” by score only.

This is obviously not a defense of Dwight Howard’s character. It is not an attempt to prove that he is, in fact, a champion (however we define the term). It is not an attempt to compare Howard to Lauren Hill, or Jake Olson, or Austin Hatch. Nor is it a defense of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that so many claim is diluting competition in youth sports.

It is, however, a call to stop sending mixed signals to children about what it takes to be a champion. A champion is not simply defined by a title bestowed upon him or her by an organized league, and one is not disqualified from champion status by losing a game. Character and sportsmanship count at every level of competition, and, most importantly, in life, where actions off the court matter far more than baskets.

Trophies tarnish. Championship character does not.


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About Jeffrey B. Eisenberg, M.A. // Coordinator, New Media, Communications and Events, ISSCD

At Neumann, Jeff works to build the Institute’s communication strategy with a focus on developing valuable resources relevant to student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and all groups the Institute strives to reach. He also serves as a co-chaplain of the Neumann Cross Country and Track & Field teams. Jeff holds a B.A. and M.A. in Strategic Communication from Villanova University.

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