BY MITCH LYONS ’73
As a Santa Clara Law School graduate (J.D.,’73) and a twenty-nine year veteran basketball coach from youth sport through college, I was very pleased to read the mission of Santa Clara’s new Institute of Sports Law and Ethics and, specifically, that “the Institute will promote reflection on ethical issues as well as calls for action when appropriate, including outreach to youth athletic programs.”
There is much to laud in the statement of Ron Katz, chairman of the SC Institute of Sports Law and Ethics, who is quoted as saying about that mission, “Someone without an ax to grind has to address these issues. We’re going to put everything out there.”
It will take that kind of openness to new and visionary ideas to change the culture of sport. Peter Drucker, the late business management guru, is quoted as saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Nowhere is it truer than in sport. Unless the culture itself is changed, we can penalize the rule-breakers, mediate hot disputes, try and convict predators, but the issues will just keep coming.
Let’s try to remember that when an athlete shows up at college her freshman year, she has probably been playing sports for over 10 years. We didn’t build that athlete. Her education, family life, socio-economic status, environment, adults she knew, have all made her who she is when she walks onto campus. While we should immediately start to work on the myriad of issues obvious in college sport, let’s also look earlier to act preventatively so that all children have the best chance to succeed in living an ethical life by the time they get to college.
A long-term plan to change the culture of college sport would offer a universal education, pre-k-12, where all elements of society are supporting schools and teachers as they have children practice the hard-to-acquire attitudes and skills that make people successful in school, sport and leading ethical lives. These skills have been studied and evaluated for some time under an educational process known as “social-emotional learning (SEL)” researched extensively at Chicago’s Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. casel.org
In that science, students practice mental skills where they recognize and manage their emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions and constructively handle challenging social situations. sel4mass.org/what-is-sel/
Social-emotional learning not only increases academic scores (11% universally and 17% with at-risk students), but increases a child’s ability to accomplish those mental skills by 22%. sel4mass.org/benefits-of-sel/. Self-control behaviors like crime, substance abuse and obesity, which cost state budgets as much as 30% of state budgets, could be reduced as well, if schools taught these skills.
These same skills taught in social-emotional learning are also the skills needed to improve performance, individually or on a team and fall within the purview of another science, sport psychology. Let’s teach sport as a truly educational experience by tossing the extra-curricular 19th century approach to sports and make it 21st century, curricular-based, where sport psychology principles are learned and then tried on the team as the laboratory for this science.
Here is a simplified action plan to think about: (1) Support and make social-emotional learning (SEL) as well as academics the center of your local school district’s mission; and (2) have school and youth sports teams support that mission, focusing on sport psychology as another social-emotional science that teaches the mental skills to perform at our best. That is a plan that can change the culture of sport.
With over ten years of practice under their belt, this new student who comes to Santa Clara and every other college will have the background, the built-upon integrity, and strength of character to withstand the rigors of living, with all its challenges, on and off the field.
Mitch Lyons (J.D.,’73), after practicing law for 26 years, is the organizer of the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Alliance for Massachusetts (SAM), www.SEL4Mass.org, a collaboration of educators and concerned citizens who advocate for the embedding of SEL in every curriculum in every school.