For generations it has been one of the great American axioms, accepted truth on diamonds, courts and gridirons everywhere: Sports builds character, instilling the values of teamwork and good sportsmanship.
But amid fresh headlines of alleged cheating in auto racing, continuing controversies over steroid use in baseball, track and cycling and ugly brawls among basketball players comes a nationwide survey suggesting a decidedly darker vision of sports.
"There is reason to worry that the sports fields of America are becoming the training grounds for the next generation of corporate and political villains and thieves," says Los Angeles ethicist Michael Josephson.
The latest two-year study of high school athletes by the Josephson Institute found a higher rate of cheating in school among student-athletes than among their classmates. It also found a growing acceptance of cheating to gain advantages in competition.
Josephson's report, based on interviews across the country with 5,275 high school athletes, concluded that too many coaches are "teaching our kids to cheat and cut corners."
The provocative findings were met with strong reactions from all sides -- some acknowledging problems while others scoffed.
James Staunton, commissioner of the 565-school California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section, which governs high school sports for most of the Southland, said he "hopes" ethical deviance hasn't "gone that far."
"What this points out to me is that we still have a tremendous amount of work to do with our athletes, parents and coaches," Staunton said. "For all the good things we talk about in sports, and the wonderful things we promote, we're fighting some societal pressures."
The commissioner acknowledged finding "that kids are powerfully motivated for the wrong reasons."
Some established Southland prep coaches dismissed Josephson's conclusions, including Chino Hills Ayala High's Tom Gregory, a 27-year veteran basketball coach. "I've used basketball as a tool for my players to become better people," he said.
The survey's conclusions may be open to some dispute. Josephson found, for example, that about 25% of teen athletes considered rule-bending and aggressive behavior in competition acceptable. A substantial majority did not find it acceptable, though the percentage who considered that behavior acceptable had risen since a previous survey.
Among other notable survey results were:
* At least 65% of athletes acknowledged cheating on an exam at least once within a year, compared with a 60% rate among a general student population.
* 72% of football players acknowledged cheating.
* 48% of baseball players believe it proper for a coach to order his pitcher to throw at an opposing batter in retaliation.
* 37% of boys think it is acceptable for a coach to motivate a player using personal insults and vulgarity.
* 43% of boys endorse trash-talk and showboating during games.
* 6.4% of male athletes acknowledged using performance-enhancing drugs in the last year.
"I'm not trying to fool people, or be an alarmist," Josephson said. "But I believe in looking at these numbers; there are so many kids learning to cheat that there is cause for great concern."
He said the survey did not pinpoint "whether this enhanced propensity to cheat is due to values that put winning over honesty or a reflection of pressures to stay [academically] eligible or simply manage their time given the high demands of sports."
But Josephson said: "The fact remains that for most kids, sports promotes rather than discourages cheating."
Barbara Fiege, commissioner of the CIF City Section in Los Angeles, called the survey results "amazing to me."
She speculated that positive values of high school sports may have been diminished in recent years by a diluted pool of experienced teacher-coaches. In the City Section, for example, 40% of coaches do not teach any classes at the school, not even physical education courses.
"When your coach has not gone through four or five years of college, does not have a degree in education and is not involved in the kids' grades or classes, there's going to be an inherent amount of drop-off in the effect they have on the kids," Fiege said.
Gregory, the coach at Ayala who disputes Josephson's findings about sports, nonetheless agrees that coaches make a big difference.
"When I see problems with undisciplined teams, many times there's a young coach on the bench," he said.
Higher incidents of poor sportsmanship can also be attributed to less-than-perfect "role models like Barry Bonds, violence in professional sports, the showcasing of kids as individuals in a team game, and parents becoming much more aggressive," Gregory said.
"It's cool now to be overly aggressive, taunting, boisterous," Gregory said. "Many kids don't want to be a yes man."
But warped values are not the fault of sports, he insisted. The failure rests on parents, teachers, coaches and role models.