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Sharon Stoll

Paul Steinbach Headshot

Interview with Sharon Stoll, high school gymnastics coach, founder of University of Idaho's Center for Ethics, and teacher of moral reasoning curriculum.

Once, as a 23-year-old high school gymnastics coach in Ohio, Sharon Stoll knew the springboard was out of position for an opposing vaulter, yet did nothing about it. That the athlete subsequently injured herself did little to cloud Stoll's focus on winning the meet. "It was just flat wrong," says Stoll, founder of the University of Idaho's Center for Ethics, some 30 years removed from the incident that she confesses "still bothers me." Stoll revisits that vault every time she teaches her research-based curriculum on moral reasoning to high school and college coaches who seek to improve the character of their players and the performance of their teams. Paul Steinbach asked Stoll to explain her admittedly idealistic approach, which so far has been embraced by three Division I college football programs, 25 high school football teams and Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves.

Q: Why have you focused your studies on sports?
A: Sports builds character. You hear that all the time, right? In fact, there's no data that supports the notion that sports builds character. However, I thought I might be able to capture how athletes reason about sport, how they make decisions based on universal norms of honesty, justice, responsibility and respect.

Q: In terms of sports, are we talking mostly about following rules?
A: Sport is about success and winning. We're moving so far in that direction that we've lost this whole notion of honor and integrity. It isn't the fact that you know a rule exists, you have to value the rule and reflect that through your actions. That's what moral development is about.

Q: What have you discovered while assessing the morals of athletes?
A: There is a significant difference between specific athlete populations. If you are a male in a revenue-producing team sport, you score very low. If you participate in an individual sport, you score much higher. Golfers, for example, score very high. Ice hockey players score very low.

Q: Does it take a special coach to sacrifice practice time to teach lessons about recreational sex, violence and cheating?
A: There are guys out there who really take responsibility. A coach said to us, "This is big-time sport and I make a lot of money, but my number-one job is to ensure that these young men are going to be decent human beings." Somebody like that buys into it pretty easily. And the kids want to meet, too, because they realize that somebody wants to listen to them about their real-world problems.

Q: Why do you recommend four years of moral-reasoning training?
A: In sport, there's a fine line between strategy and doing whatever you have to do to win. Athletes have to accept the notion that you hit somebody because you are trying to stop the ball, not because you are trying to take that person out. That opponent is not somebody to take out. That opponent is somebody to value. That's a long road to go down with young people. The good news is that kids are not completely hardened to the point where you can't make a difference. In our studies with football players, even with coaches doing the teaching, we see that we are making progress. These kids are growing.

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