To better understand what Americans believe about the role and significance of sport in society and to assess their views on sport ethics and values, role models, and aspirations, in 2010, USADA commissioned a survey of nearly 9,000 Americans, representing the general population, coaches, athletes, and parents of athletes involved in Olympic-path sports and non-Olympic level sports (e.g. community-based, school-based, informal). The major study highlights are as follows:
- More than three-fifths of U.S. adults—approximately 162 million Americans claim some relationship to sport-related activities
- Parents overwhelmingly cite personal and social values when describing their hopes for their children in playing sport
- Coaches rank as the #1 positive influence on today’s youth involved in sport
- Two-thirds of Americans agree that sport overemphasizes the importance of winning
- Americans rank the use of performance-enhancing drugs as the most serious problem facing sport today, closely followed by issues such as the focus on money, and the criminal behavior of well-known athletes
- Nearly 90% of U.S. adults agree that well-known athletes have a responsibility to be positive role models for young people, and by wide margins agree that the personal conduct of well-known athletes is as important as their athletic accomplishments
Important findings from the study follow.
Role and Significance of Sport in American Society
Sport plays a major role in American life. More than three-fifths of U.S. adults, approximately 162 million people, claim some relationship to sport-related activities, including 25% who are actively engaged in sport as participants, parents of children in sport, coaches, or volunteers.
Sport offers many positive benefits to society, as the majority of adults agree that sport provides a source of fun and enjoyment (88%), can reduce youth crime and delinquency (84%), can teach valuable life lessons (80%), and can bring people together in ways that strengthen communities (76%). Three-fifths of adults agree that sport overall promotes positive values.
Why We Value You Sport
Those who start a sport because they enjoy it and derive benefits from participation may be more likely to make it a life-long activity. However, many people drop out of sport—often at an early age—because they no longer perceive its value. Fun is the most common reason adults and children give for initially becoming involved in sport. Conversely, when sport is no longer fun, children and youth are more likely to stop participating.
Parents largely name positive personal and social values when describing their hopes for their children in playing sport. They hope that playing sport will teach their children to have fun, do their best, feel good about themselves, play fair, have respect for others, be part of a team, and be competitive in a good way. Parents agree that sport meets these expectations. In fact, parents so highly value sport that more than 90% of parents of children who are somewhat or very active in sports agree that sport is “fun and a reward in itself.”
However, U.S. adults are mixed as to whether sport overall is reaching its full potential in contributing to society’s values. They strongly believe that it is important for sport to reinforce wholesome values such as honesty, fair play, respect for others, doing your best, teamwork, fun, hard work, and self-discipline, and rank winning and competitiveness as the least important values sport should reinforce. However, interestingly, adults believe the top qualities that sport actually does reinforce are competitiveness and winning.
Ethics in Sport
Ethics violations and the desire to win at all costs threaten the inherent value of sport in America. A majority of adults (75%) agree that athletes’ use of performance-enhancing substances is a violation of ethics in sport. This is further underscored by the fact that Americans rank the use of performance-enhancing drugs as the most serious problem facing sport today, closely followed by the focus on money and the criminal behavior of well-known athletes.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults agree that sport overemphasizes the importance of winning and two-fifths (41%) of those who report personally bending or breaking the rules say they were motivated by their desire to be a “winner.” Children ages 8-17 who play a sport believe that the desire to be a winner is the primary motivation for cheating. As children get older (and stakes get higher) teens experience more cheating than do younger children (ages 8-10) and they become more tolerant of it. In terms of gender, boys are more likely than girls to be aware of cheating in sport and consider winning to be a more important value in sport than do girls.
There is little tolerance overall for breaking or bending the rules in sport. More than 8 in 10 U.S. adults agree that breaking or bending the rules in sport is always cheating, whether or not someone notices (83%), and that breaking or bending the rules for any reason is cheating and should not be tolerated (84%). However, more than half of adults believe that there are some sports that are accepting of unethical behavior, demonstrating the reinforcement of negative values and undercutting the ability of sport to reach its potential. Football, hockey, wrestling, and baseball were sports most frequently mentioned as accepting of unethical behavior.
Despite adults’ disdain for cheating, about 1 in 5 admit to having bent or broken the rules in a sport and nearly half say they know someone who has bent or broken the rules in a sport. Cheating is most common among sports volunteers (36%), sports participants (34%), and male parents of children ages 8-17 (31%). Furthermore, nearly all (96%) of those who have personally cheated cite knowing others who have done so as well.
The Importance of Role Models in Sport
Although 67% of spectators spend most of their time watching professional sport, adults believe that professional sport lags behind all other categories of sport in actually promoting positive values, while community-based sport is considered to have the most positive actual influence. Roughly half of U.S. adults think professional athletes have a positive influence on today’s youth, and nearly 90% of adults agree that well-known athletes have a responsibility to be positive role models for young people. By wide margins, adults agree that the personal conduct of well-known athletes is as important as their athletic accomplishments.
Children who play sport also have high expectations for well-known athletes. Despite the general intolerance for cheating of any kind, alarmingly, 41% of children in the general population who play sport and 29% of children involved in organized sport through a national governing body (NGB) [see box on page 3] agree that if a well-known athlete breaks the rules in a game, it makes children think it is acceptable to break the rules to win. In addition, children in all types of sport agree that if a well-known athlete takes drugs, it makes children think it’s acceptable to take drugs as well.
Among all audiences surveyed, coaches rank as the #1 positive influence on today’s youth, according to the majority of respondents. This makes coaches, perhaps even more so than parents and teachers, the guardians of youth sport. These adults are closest to youth sport participants (both proximally and emotionally) and are generally perceived as having a positive influence on young people.
Behind coaches, and other direct influencers, such as parents, teachers, and teammates, Americans rank Olympic, college, and professional athletes as less positive influences on young people, with college and professional sport athletes generally ranked lowest amongst these groups.
As children move into the teen years, their rankings of positive influencers shift away from direct influencers such as coaches, parents, and teachers, toward indirect influencers such as Olympic and college athletes, demonstrating a swing in focus to external public personalities as role models. Interestingly, among all respondents, Olympic athletes rank higher than college and professional athletes as having a positive indirect influence on young people. And Olympic athletes overall received the highest score in the “completely positive” category.
Based on the findings in this study, the significance of sport is reinforced as a cherished national pastime. Survey results reinforce that parents hope their children will derive value from playing sport, and that Americans recognize sport’s potential for building character and promoting necessary virtues for a greater cause.
As a society, Americans value sport and what it can offer. In general, they have a sophisticated understanding of what it means to bend or break the rules, and overwhelmingly agree that use of performance-enhancing drugs is a clear ethical violation that threatens sport today. Furthermore, Americans believe that an over-emphasis on winning threatens sport, possibly by motivating rule breaking and by taking the fun out of sport for too many people. Role models, in particular coaches, can play an important part in maintaining the integrity and value of sport.
The lessons learned by participating in sport transcend the playing field and contribute to shaping the character and culture of America’s citizens. As a nation, we should advocate for the role that sport currently plays and could play in our society, and attend to these issues that place sport in jeopardy in order to cultivate its enduring integrity and value to so many aspects of American life.