An old saying among coaches who expect a losing year is, “This will be a character-building season.”  We won’t win many games, but we’ll turn out some really decent kids.

The truth, though, is that sports doesn’t build character so much as it reveals character. Something about competing, about camaraderie, about performing in public brings out the athletes’ true selves.  Sports also sheds all sorts of light on our cultural character.

Herewith examples of sports revealing character.  Let’s start with the good stuff.

February 2012, and Bowdoin’s women’s basketball team leads Connecticut College in the last home game for Bowdoin’s five seniors.  It is customary, if the outcome isn’t in doubt, for the home coach to remove seniors late in their final home game so fans can recognize the seniors for their efforts through four years.

Bowdoin had the ball and led comfortably in the final minute.  Adrienne Shibles, Bowdoin’s coach, called time out so Jill Henrickson, a 1,000-point scorer and local favorite from Morse High School, could leave the floor to a standing ovation.  For reasons no one understood, the official looked right at Shibles and shook his head no.  Brian Wilson, Conn College’s coach, saw this.  When one of his players intercepted a pass, he yelled at her to step out of bounds, which stopped the clock and gave Bowdoin the ball.  More important, Shibles got the opportunity to pull Henrickson from the game.

The crowd stood and applauded Henrickson.  We might as well have been applauding Wilson. I expect every kid on the court that night learned a bit about good character.


College basketball for 2019 has about a month to go, and three Maine women’s teams reveal great character.  And, they win.  The University of Maine defends its conference championship today in Orono, Central Maine Community College on Wednesday won a second national championship in three years, and Bowdoin College is among four teams still competing for a national championship in Division III (generally smaller colleges).

Disclosure.  I follow women’s and girls’ basketball.  I have seen 21 of 30 games played this year by UMaine, 16 of 29 played by Bowdoin.  Sportsmanship is part of the allure.

But of course there is bad stuff, too, and bad actors in sports really stand out.

Ever see a professional hockey player who had all his teeth?  Dentures replace grown-in teeth that got in the way of a hockey stick.

Football is worse.  In the brains of 110 dead NFL players, Boston University docs found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by hits on the head.  They examined 111 brains.  Three players with New England ties and all with CTE, committed suicide in the past seven years. Junior Seau, Aaron Hernandez and Jovan Belcher. Docs said Hernandez’s CTE was among the worst ever seen.  Belcher, a UMaine graduate, murdered his fiancee just before killing himself.

You probably won’t recall that on Sept. 8, I wrote that I wouldn’t watch the NFL this year.  I kept the vow until Dec. 2, when I walked into a Mexican restaurant in Tomah, Wisconsin.  Green Bay Packer country.  The waiters wore Packer green and gold and spoke Spanish, except to me. Each kept an eye on the Packers’ game on any of half a dozen TVs in the joint.  I couldn’t find a seat facing away from a TV, so for 35 minutes I saw NFL football.  Other than that, though, I kept my vow to stay away.


My disgust with the NFL stems from two reasons.  The league and its owners have not properly disciplined players for domestic violence.  People rich enough to own a team should know or be able to hire people who know that football rewards violence.  They should long ago have taken on the responsibility to help players understand that the violence stops at the white lines.

Instead, the NFL has winked at players beating up wives and girlfriends.  It suspended one who was photographed dragging his unconscious girlfriend by her hair — he had knocked her out with a punch — from an elevator.  He was sat down for two games.

It suspended Tom Brady, who may have participated in deflating footballs, for four games.  Low air pressure is twice worse than assault and battery?  Can you say moral compass?

Further, the NFL owners have conspired to keep a political protester from practicing his craft. Only last month did the league settle with Colin  Kaepernick, who began the wave of kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.  Time will tell whether any of the 32 teams, all of which deny conspiring against him, will hire him to play.

Then, last month, the New England Patriots, through Robert Kraft, their owner, gave me a third reason to stay away.  Kraft was charged with soliciting a prostitute in Florida.  Kraft, whose fortune came from his late wife’s family’s paper products company, was taped leaving a “day spa.”

Sports-talk radio is agog with hope that tapes exist of Kraft and some of the other 24 men identified as “johns” removing their clothes and receiving sexual “services” from women, at least some of whom may human-trafficking victims.


Disgusting as you might find Kraft the individual — those same sports talk guys yammer constantly about Kraft’s drinking, about his interference with the team, etc. — I am more concerned about what he reveals about our culture.  The New England Patriots have a bit of a shoddy ethical record.  Illegally filming an opponent, changing the air pressure in game balls, etc.  Yet, their fans, or at least most of them, love their Patriots.

“Winning isn’t the most important thing.  It’s the only thing.” So said the lionized Vince Lombardi, coach of the wildly successful Packers, quoting a UCLA football coach 69 years ago. The logical extension of that saying is that the end justifies the means.

It is sad to think that our culture might have come to the point where only winning matters, no matter how you did it.  Is that what sports is revealing?

Maybe it’s the idea of bears.  Bob Neal’s favorite teams are the Black Bears of UMaine and the Polar Bears of Bowdoin College.  Both win a lot despite their good character.

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