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HEARTS of the CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

July 31, 1996

Today's question: Despite an ankle injury, U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug executed a fine second vault with the belief it would assure her team an Olympic gold medal last week. Some people wonder whether it was right to urge Strug, who is 18, to risk further injury; others admired her grit. In the Strug case or in general, do you think ethical considerations are too often ignored in the training and coaching of premier young athletes?

R. Patricia Walsh

Professor of psychology, Loyola Marymount University

It seems that ethical considerations are often ignored when dealing with young athletes. Perhaps this happens because American culture gives such extraordinary rewards to successful athletes, ranging from multimillion-dollar salaries and endorsements to college scholarships and approval from peers. These potential rewards put extreme pressure on both athletic teenagers and the adults around them to focus on the immediate goal of athletic success and ignore long-term risks such as permanent disability or lack of academic preparation to assume a career after retirement from athletics. Thus, it seems that disinterested adults (such as medical personnel or counselors) should be involved in advising young athletes.

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The Rev. Dudley Rutherford

Pastor, shepherd of the Hills/Hillcrest Christian Church, Porter Ranch

There is no doubt that undue pressure is often thrust upon our athletes to compete even when a danger exists for further injury. This is because we're striving for the gold medal, or perhaps I should say "cash medal." The goal of success transcends the goal of merely competing or simply "doing our best." Our win-at-all-cost society also adds insult to injury. The parents of these young athletes are often the ones to blame by placing unrealistic goals and expectations upon their children. However, in Kerri Strug's situation, as with most athletes, she has the final word. Athletes themselves know the limits of their own bodies. And in most cases they will make the right decisions.

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Donald E. Miller

Professor of religion, USC

I assume that some coaches violate the moral norm of treating their athletes as a "means" to an end (that is, their own prestige and glory), rather than as "ends" in themselves. On the other hand, I respect the goal of excellence that Olympic coaches uphold for their athletes. The perfection of these athletes inspires all of us to strive for the gold in our own ways. In the case of Kerri Strug, she also demonstrated another moral virtue: namely, putting her team above her own goal of an individual medal. While manipulation and coercion by coaches are always a danger, I would hesitate to regulate the choice that many athletes make--sometimes at very young ages--to live heroic rather than normal lives.

Compiled by JOHN DART, Times staff writer

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