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Guest commentary: A case for the essential role of sports in 2020

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Mountain View goalkeeper Nic Bryant, right, consoles two Murray players after a 4A boys soccer quarterfinal game against Murray at Murray High School Friday, May 20, 2016.

Chris Samuels, Deseret News

With athletic conferences shutting down or contracting their schedules amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it begs the question: What is the value of sports? Strip away the highlight tapes, endorsements, business, entertainment, hero worship, school pride or city identity, and at its core, sports is about character development.

I believe the impact of a coach shaping a player’s jump shot or stiff-arm pales in comparison to the crafting of character in the crucible of competition. This often-overlooked character development aspect of sports is the essential component that should be considered by those in power who grapple with the competing decision-making factors of the immediate future.

Many acknowledge the crucial role of education in the development of cognitive abilities. However, fewer recognize the value of the development of noncognitive abilities or character that studies have shown are the greatest predictors of success of the rising generation. Where in our cancel culture can grit be learned? Where can young people persist in overcoming adversity, adapting to challenges, performing under pressure and responding to failure? Where can they learn to follow, lead and sacrifice for a team? This last character trait of teamwork could be the most relevant today.

Teamwork is essential in a time where fractures in the fabric of our nation are fueled by sensationalism and offense. By trolling anonymity and constant complaining. By blinding stereotypes and herd mentality. By hyperindividualism and the hair-trigger transferring to greener pastures. These influences require a powerful response that is needed now more than ever.

The antidote is a team. On a team, acceptance, respect and appreciation for one’s teammates aren’t just abstract ideals, but the DNA of success. These teams value diversity because they can’t all be tall centers or quick guards or all quarterbacks with no linemen. In all the pomp and circumstance of sports, it’s easy to miss that teamwork is the answer to our collective dilemma.

Imagine if Democrats and Republicans were on the same team. They are. What if law enforcement and protesters were on the same team? They are. Imagine if white and Black people were on the same team. They are. What if the people of privilege were on the same team as the underprivileged? They are. If teams and sports inform our character about anything it’s that differences are complementary and not contradictory. We can synergistically and collaboratively achieve beyond our individual capacities.

Certainly the 2020 worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 has real effects and our efforts of mask wearing and social distancing will hopefully make the impact we are all wanting. The losses and suffering are real and the massive efforts being made to mitigate the effects are to be applauded.

Let’s not miss the 2020 contagion of character weakness or the plague of self-centeredness for which an antidote of sports is readily available. Public health needs to be protected with the consideration of character development. The hope is that those experts wielding the decision-making power will consider how we can have a balanced approach that acknowledges the public dangers of COVID-19 with the protection of public character. Sports are as essential for character development in our country as voting is for democracy, or work is for economy or hope is for achievement.

That’s why I coach. Hopefully some principles of teamwork will be planted in the hearts of my players and produce fruit, so that they in turn can lead others. Generally, we wouldn’t withhold a vaccine for a virus, but when we cancel sports we leave ourselves, our youth, and nation vulnerable to the destructive disease of divisiveness running rampant through society. Character means the symbolic imprinting, marking or stamping of the soul and sports, at its core, is a powerful printing press that can help heal society, make it whole and make it a team.

Andrew J. May is an NCAA Division I men’s basketball assistant coach/recruiting coordinator at Dixie State University and is a husband and father of five children. You can follow him on Twitter at @coachandrewmay.