Score 1 for the Character Team!

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Here is an inspiring example of standing up for and teaching the importance of character-building in the context of a high school football team.

A high school football coach in Utah got information from a school counselor that some of the players on the team might have been engaging in cyber-bullying behavior. The coach also learned that several players had been routinely showing disrespect to teachers, skipping out on classes, promoting negative attitudes with respect to the academic environment, and displaying attitudes of entitlement and perceived imperviousness to sanction. And, while not all members of the team were directly engaging in the most offensive behaviors, other team members were reported to be either turning a blind eye to these behaviors or encouraging them in various ways. The coach decided that the entire team’s character had suffered black eye and set out to do something significant about it: he suspended the whole team. While decades ago such an action by a coach would hardly have been shocking, many media outlets have carried this story, touting it not only as an unusual event for our times, but also as a striking example of what can happen when an authority figure at an institution charged with shaping the lives of young people takes a stand for the importance of character.

Matt Labrum has been coaching at Union High School for several years now and he’s helped guide his teams through some tough times. But ushering his team through the character-building ordeal he now plans for them will pose a most unique challenge. After suspending everyone, he told his shocked and tearful players that they would all be given a chance to re-earn their positions on the team by atoning for their acts of commission and omission (some stints of community service were planned in lieu of regular practice) and by demonstrating clearly with their behavior with teachers and classmates that they had the kind of character that merited the privilege of team membership. Citing that both he and his players needed to “focus on some other things that are more important than winning a football game,” he sent a letter to students, players, and parents about what he considers genuine “football character” to be. At first, not everyone was happy with him for doing this, or on board with his plan, but most eventually came to see both the wisdom and merits of his judgment.

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As the pendulum slowly swings back from the cultural extremes that promoted a fairly significant increase in character-related problems, I predict we’ll see more of the kind of action Coach Labrum took in Utah. People are increasingly recognizing not only the importance of character, but also the importance of taking a stand to promote it, as well as to stand in defense of it. All too many modern cultures have suffered under the weight of attitudes of indifference, entitlement, irresponsibility, and disrespect. For too long, character disturbance has been, as my book Character Disturbance asserts, “the phenomenon of our age.” But forces in nature are always with us to help ensure that imbalances in our social ecosystem simply cannot remain for long. So, the pendulum of cultural cycles inevitably swings in the opposite direction, and Coach Labrum might either be riding the wave of that swing, or perhaps even helping to ensure that swing fully takes place. The jury is out, of course, on how firm his and the school’s resolve might be in ensuring that students who want to enjoy the benefits and privileges associated with their extra-curricular activities demonstrate the integrity of character to merit participation in them. But the actions of this past week clearly indicate that they’re at least on the right track.

Long before sports became the home of highly over-paid, over-idolized, and frequently rule-defying egotists, they were regarded not only as vehicles to build a sense of sportsmanship, team-mindedness, and community awareness, but also as opportunities to forge personal character. So, while for some of the entitled and disdainful among us Coach Labrum’s actions might seem both archaic and foolish, to those of us who once played a high school team sport and owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the coaches who helped shape us: a healthy shout out to the man willing to take a stand for the things that really define a winner!

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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