As the state Board of Education demands accountability for misbehavior by student athletes, experts say there is a difference in moral views between athletes and other college students.
"We have found that athletes are significantly different than the general population," said Sharon Kay Stoll, director of the University of Idaho's Center for Ethics.The low point is the senior year of high school when athletes score 12 percent below non-athletes on a morals test administered as part of the university's continuing study into athletic morals.
Stoll says that typically people become more considerate of others as they grow older. But former Atlanta Braves all-star Dale Murphy, who is being inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame this fall, says that is not necessarily so with student athletes.
"Throughout their lives they've been put in a special place because they've been an athlete," Murphy said. "That's wrong but that's what happens and athletes start to believe it. They start to believe they're bigger than the law.
"If you're not careful, you really will start to believe you're different from everyone else," he said.
Stoll's study began at the college level, but she soon realized that the roots of moral decline were much earlier. She focused on the question, "Are athletes morally developed the same as their peer population?"
Using one of the nation's largest school districts in South Carolina, Stoll divided children entering the ninth grade into sports competitors and others and then surveyed their responses to 21 situations.
Athletes agreed more often than others that bending the rules is OK.
"They rationalize and justify," Stoll said.
And in the past five years, she has found women athletes are catching up with men in their rate of moral decline.
The study also challenges the belief that student-athletes at elite schools are more likely to be model citizens. The decline in moral behavior can be measured at both the Naval Academy and at NCAA Division III Buffalo State.
"It's nice to be smart and elite but that doesn't have anything to do with moral development," Stoll said.
The trend can be reversed, Stoll says. But it requires teaching - at the right time and in the right form. The NCAA is taking a stab at the problem by offering a model Life Skills program for college athletes.
But Murphy says by that time it may be too late. Once athletes reach the college, there is no stopping the hero worship.
"It does concern me when people of influence in the sports world don't recognize it and don't agree with it," Murphy said. "I'm not saying you have to sign every autograph in the world. Just be a good citizen."