Accepting the Rules of the Game
This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes essays on a variety of topics from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
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Accepting the Rules of the Game By John Naber
John Naber, a sports commentator and motivational speaker, won four gold medals and one silver medal in swimming at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, setting four world records in the process. During his athletic career he won 25 national college titles and a record 10 NCAA individual titles, leading his team to four undefeated seasons and winning the 1977 Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete. In Los Angeles in 1984, he carried the Olympic flag in the opening ceremonies and was elected into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame. In 1996, he was elected president of the U.S. Olympians, an association of over 6,000 American Olympic alumni, and was chosen in a USA Today poll as the male captain of a team of the country’s greatest Olympic champions.
I was a recent high school graduate competing in the U.S. National Swimming Championships, hoping to earn a berth on the 1973 World Championship Team. Other than the Olympic Games, the World Championships are the most significant competition in swimming. I was favored to win the 100-meter backstroke. The race was especially important because the fastest 100-meter backstroker would also earn the right to swim on the U.S. 4×100-meter medley relay. The U.S. relay team was so strong that I knew that if I made the team I would almost certainly win at least one gold medal at the Worlds.
I remember it all so well. The stadium lights that night were bright, casting multiple shadows on the pool deck and making wet bodies glisten in the cool night air. Moths swirled around the lamps as crickets made their nighttime music, punctuated by the crowd’s cheers and the occasional bang from the starter’s pistol. The turn judges at the far end of the pool were dressed in their snappiest volunteer whites. The crowd was buzzing with excitement.
A quick start, and I was off. I reached for the wall behind my head and initiated the spin. My feet swung around and found the wall and pushed off. I popped up to the surface in time to see the official standing over my lane raise her arm, signaling an infraction. I swam the rest of the distance angry and afraid. What had happened? Hadn’t my hand touched the wall, as it was required to on the turn? It must have! Perhaps the official was signaling something else in an adjacent lane. My mind was racing faster than I was down the pool. I swam a smooth second lap and touched the finish line well ahead of the rest of the field.
Applause from the stands washed over me as other swimmers patted me on the back and congratulated me. But I couldn’t hear a word they said. I was preoccupied by a conference that was taking place at the far end of the pool. When it was over, the head referee walked up to me and said, “I’m afraid you’ve been disqualified. The turn judge says she didn’t see you touch the wall.” A gasp came from the crowd, as my shoulders dropped and my chin hit my chest. I could hear a rumble of conversation sweep through the bleachers. They hadn’t seen anything wrong with my race. Perhaps the official had made a mistake.
My coach, Mike Hastings, ran over and pulled me aside. He asked “Do you want to fight this thing? Do you want me to protest the call?” If I wanted this title, I would have to dispute the official’s decision, and it would be her word against mine. Mike felt I could win. My head was swirling. After all, there was a potential world title at stake here. Maybe I didn’t graze the wall as I usually do, but it didn’t actually give me any material advantage over the other swimmers. Besides, shouldn’t America be represented in the Worlds by its fastest swimmer?
Even though I was a young man, I knew how I handled this situation would follow me the rest of my life. It would say something about the kind of person I was – and intended to be.
That fateful day, so many years ago in Kansas City, might very well have been a turning point in my life. The decision whether to fight the judge’s call or to accept her decision, was made in the blink of an eye. I knew what I had to do. My parents didn’t raise a cheater. With moist eyes, I looked at my coach, the man who was offering a way out of my disappointment, and I said, “Mike, I didn’t touch the wall.” Slowly I lifted myself out of the pool, and with a wet towel over my shoulder, I began a long slow march back to the team’s area beneath the bleachers. My friends gave me wide leeway. They didn’t know what to say. What can you say to a young man who just beat the field to the wall and then finds that he doesn’t even get to walk to the awards stand?
Friends and even strangers wanted me to cry foul, to claim an injustice. They wanted me to rant and rave about how I’d been robbed or how the ref was probably blind – anything that showed an attitude. But the truth was I had broken a rule. I should be held accountable.
This kind of test is repeated over and over in competitive sports. For instance, my friend, the champion swimmer Bruce Furniss, was disqualified from his final career race for missing a turn. He could have easily told the judge that he had touched the wall, and he would have been believed. His entire career (which included two Olympic gold medals and multiple world records and collegiate, national, and world titles) would be tainted by this disqualification. But his decision was simple. “The fact that you’re in the arena means you accept the rules of the game,” he says.
Bruce credits this thinking to his parents, his church, and his role models and their influence on his character – the kind of person he is as reflected in the decisions and choices he makes. There was never any misunderstanding in his mind about the rules or what they meant. “Football fields have sidelines and end zones so you know when you go out of bounds,” he says, “and it’s important that the better the athlete is, the more those rules have to be enforced. If the rules are bent for the best, what does that teach the rest?”
Lessons for us all
That’s a good question for all of us. We are living in a time where top performers are judged by different standards. It’s as if they are above the law as long as they keep winning. So we have steroid use, trash-talking, and general anarchy on the playing field. We’re seeing more and more examples of this on television and in the papers; players can assault coaches and officials, and “everybody’s doing it” is the catch-all justification for unacceptable behavior. “Winning is everything” is the rallying cry, not just in sports but in business and in life.
Now, is being a good person – what we might call a person of character – just about obeying the rules? No, of course not. Character isn’t about doing what you have a right to do (adherence to the rules), butdoing what is right. Rules and regulations exist for a reason. They may not necessarily make us better people, but they do provide some order to a given activity (say, competitive swimming or driving or paying taxes). Rules offer a measure of predictability, and therefore fairness, to human interaction. Simply put, they make civilization possible. The rest is up to us.
But even though simple adherence to rules does not make us good people, violating rules actually endangers us. Why? Because whenever we purposefully cheat – or even violate the spirit of a rule by being a bad sport – we tarnish our greatest trophy, our character. We have acted in a way that disadvantages and disrespects others – and we would not appreciate being treated similarly ourselves.
If we allow youngsters to see themselves as above or outside the rules, it should come as no surprise that they complain or even rebel when we can’t (or don’t) bend the rules later on. Raising a child isn’t easy, but it’s important to maintain both fairness and consistency when we establish rules during a time when our children so desperately seek our approval.
For Bruce Furniss, the memory of his parent’s disappointment when he was once ejected from a high school water polo match (for cussing at an official) was more than enough to teach him about citizenship and respect, two key aspects of what I would call a person of character. His relationship with others in his sport made him care about their opinion of him and reminded him to do the right thing.
To try to reach kids and athletes with the message that their character really counts, I’ve become involved in a sports group called CHARACTER COUNTS! All Stars. These former and current champions from practically every major sport promote the nonpartisan values known as the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. These values can provide meaningful guidance for our conduct as athletes, parents, wage earners, and citizens. These ethical principles should be as firm and unyielding as the marble columns used to build the ancient Olympic stadiums. Their measure should be as unchanging as the height of the basketball rim, the length between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, the distance required to earn a first down. Upon these fundamentals we can build a better society, just as a strong house can be built on a strong foundation.
I honestly didn’t think of all this back in 1973 when I chose disqualification over dishonor, but now I see how the character issues of trustworthiness (telling the truth), responsibility (being accountable for my actions), fairness (abiding by the rules), and citizenship (respect for authority) all came into play in this one instance. The right thing to do was obvious. I wish it had made it less painful.
What we can do
People often talk about how sports “build character.” Certainly, sports can help foster habits of discipline that can be applied in other areas of one’s life and thereby help make us more reliable or responsible individuals. But good character is not developed through mere participation in sport. Sports simply provide challenges. Challenges can provoke tough decisions. And it’s the tough decisions that really test one’s character, for character is revealed when the price of doing the right thing is more than we want to pay.
Failing to test character is akin to enduring tough workouts but never going to a meet. Tests measure our skills and facilitate coaching and teaching. The presence of rules and the pressure of competition will test a child and allow a coach, teacher, parent, or mentor to fix problems early. By refusing to enforce rules, we deny the child the benefit of proper development and the exercise of good judgment.
As a society, we must return to the truly valuable intention of recreational athletics: to prepare our young men and women for the real world that awaits them in adulthood. We should honor and reward those who demonstrate quality of character, even if it comes at the cost of our teams’ win‑loss records. And we should teach good character traits (such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship) rigorously in the early, formative years – in the home, at school, on the playing field, and in the church or synagogue.
When poorly chosen ends (winning, becoming rich and famous, etc.) begin to justify such means as poor sportsmanship, trash-talking, or performance-enhancing drugs, athletics will no longer prepare young people to be strong adults. The inescapable outcome will be totally selfish and unprincipled juveniles who have mastered a solitary, albeit lucrative, skill such as a smooth backswing or a quick jump shot.
Sports force us to keep score, and they usually force us to play by the rules. Children can talk about the character issues sports raise, usually with parents but often with coaches and teammates as well. By identifying problem areas early on, we can address them while the child is still in school, while the accidents are relatively innocent, and the punishments usually benign. Accidentally breaking a rule is not in itself a character flaw. The challenge is whether we can be honest about the error and accountable for it. Even though the stakes are smaller in the early years, the decision-making process is pretty much the same. As someone once wisely said: our thoughts become words, our words become actions, our actions become habits, and our habits determine our character. We must help our children focus on building good character early on.
In sports as in life, the question we put to children – and to ourselves and all other adults – should always be: What is the right thing to do? Not the expeditious thing, not the selfish thing, not the attention-getting thing, but simply the right thing.
I can still remember that night twenty-five years ago and the long walk from the stadium to the parking lot where I had left my rental car. I could hear the public announcement of the winner’s name of the 100-meter backstroke, the race I had gone there to win. I felt bad about the race, but I felt better about myself for making the decision I did. The loss of one race could never compare with the loss of my self-esteem, an abiding belief that I was an OK guy. After all, was it really all that important that I prove myself able to swim quickly while on my back? Or is the more noble pursuit the one where we all (volunteers, coaches, officials, and parents) can take pride in our sport – and ourselves? Now that I’m a father, I have an even stronger realization of the positive impact of my decision. How could I ever insist on honesty and respect from my daughter, knowing what I might have allowed to happen when I was her age? How could I teach her that it is better to be honorable than to be honored? I hope I can impress upon all the kids I work with that sports, with their high and consistent standards applicable to all participants, not only produce champions on the field of play but help produce champions in life.
*Although John Naber was denied a spot on the 1973 World Championship team in the 100–meter backstroke, he did qualify for the 200–meter backstroke where he won a bronze medal in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Three years later, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, Naber set four world records earning four gold medals. He also won one silver medal behind his teammate and friend Bruce Furniss, who set a world record with his gold medal performance.