If any student-athletes in the audience during the “Ethics in Sports” conference at Indiana University Northwest on April 20 came in dreaming of high draft picks and fat professional contracts, those notions were curtailed within the first five minutes of the morning presentation.
Keynote speaker Rob Miller, director of the Champions in Character Initiatives for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, spoke frankly to the crowd of students, coaches and athletic directors about the odds that athletes from NAIA schools will someday make the big leagues.
“Very few of our kids are going pro,” Miller said, with no trace of apology for it. “If they go into professional sports, they generally go into the front office, into administration.”
If Miller didn’t seem reluctant to place the athletes’ dreams of stardom into the proper perspective, that was probably because he didn’t go to IU Northwest to talk about pro sports. Nor did he show up to pitch the NAIA to prospective student-athletes or to talk up the four local colleges and universities – IU Northwest, Purdue University Calumet, Purdue University North Central, and Calumet College of St. Joseph - that participated in the event.
Instead, Miller spoke about how students, coaches and even parents can help any team of which they are part – whether it’s a sports team, a work team, or even a family team – reach its greatest potential. That’s what great teams do, Miller said; they put forth their absolute best effort and achieve as much as they are able.
Winning championships or signing contracts is beside the point, he said. What matters is that team participation can teach each team member important lessons about how to interact positively with others while maximizing individual potential.
“Teams are the greatest things in our lives,” Miller said. “A great team is a team that stays with you all of your life.”
Miller is a former men’s basketball coach at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University who now heads up the NAIA’s Champions of Character Initiatives, a program that aims to promote character development among young athletes. Athletes at participating NAIA schools are asked to sign an agreement stating that they will abide by the principles of respect, responsibility, integrity, servant leadership, and sportsmanship.
Much of Miller’s job involves visiting schools to speak with student-athletes, coaches and administrators about how they can help improve today’s culture of sport by instilling those core values into their players and teammates. Miller said that, contrary to popular perception, merely participating in sports does not teach sportsmanship.
“Too many people think that sport teaches character,” he said. “I have to tell you, it’s not true. You know what teaches character? Having coaches who teach character and players who embrace character. That’s what makes a team great.”
During his hour-plus morning presentation, Miller discussed player-focused concepts like “teachable spirit,” which he said is demonstrated by how students take correction from coaches, by how they react to discipline, and even by how much they pay attention during timeouts. He illustrated this last point by telling a story about retired San Antonio Spurs superstar David Robinson, who fouled out with three minutes to play in the last game of his career.
“He went into that next timeout knowing that he was never going to play again, that he had three minutes left in his career,” Miller said. “But is he looking up to wave at all his fans? No. He’s down in the huddle, paying attention. Why? Because he’s a smart player, and he has a teachable spirit and attentiveness.”
Miller also discussed the notion of “competitiveness,” a word that he said has come to be used in the sports world as an excuse for bad behavior.
Miller pointed to Kobe Bryant’s suspension-earning flagrant fouls earlier this NBA season as the kind of actions that often are attributed to a player’s competitive spirit, even though in reality they reflect a self-centered attitude that undermines the team.
“The Lakers could’ve been the sixth seed in the playoffs, but instead they’re the seventh seed,” Miller said. “Because they lost two games (in which Bryant was suspended). And they called him competitive.
“Any time you hurt your team, you’re not being competitive. You’re being anti-competitive,” he added. “A competitive player is someone who quickly recovers from a mistake.”
As for the vaunted quality of “mental toughness” that coaches like to see, Miller said it’s a trait that is reflected in a team’s unity and positive attitude. Discord, he insisted, is the mark of a team at cross-purposes with itself.
“A mentally tough team is unified. A non-mentally tough team has cliques,” Miller explained. “Teams don’t need to have drama. Teams need to be positive and consistent no matter what happens.”
Miller challenged the coaches who were present to make a greater effort to reward sportsmanship and team play instead of focusing only on star players and individual performances.
“Don’t talk all year about team, and then, at the end of the year, award individual accomplishments,” Miller said. “Don’t give an MVP Award. Give a Most Valuable Teammate Award. Reward the behavior you want to see.”
Reaction to Miller’s presentation among local coaches and players was enthusiastic. Jordan Penman, 16, a sophomore on the Hammond Gavit softball team, said Miller’s comments made her consider how her actions affect her teammates.
“It made me think about what it means to be trustworthy and to let your teammates know that they can count on you,” Penman said. “I thought it was inspirational. It motivated me.”
“I thought he got down to the point and really connected with students instead of just talking to the adults,” said Megan Davis, 17, a junior on the Calumet High School golf team. “He gave me a different perspective about what it means to be competitive versus being non-competitive.”
“He’s a wonderful speaker,” said Larry Vaznonis, a Purdue Calumet alumnus who is the head softball coach at Calumet High. “I can relate to a lot of what he said. He talked a lot about character and how to instill character in your players.”
This was the first year that Northwest Indiana’s NAIA schools collaborated on a regional conference, according to Linda Anderson, director of the Office of Student Life & Athletics at IU Northwest. She said the initial idea was to host a conference that would focus on eligibility issues for incoming players, a topic that was addressed in the day’s later sessions.
“We often find that students think that, when they’re admitted to the university, that is the only hurdle they have to cross in order to play,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of students who are disappointed when they find out that it’s not like that.”
The ethics issue, Anderson said, seemed like a good way to tie the conference into a relevant keynote theme. She said sportsmanship issues affect every collegiate program in some way.
Calumet Athletic Director Woody Feeler said he was impressed with Friday’s conference and with Miller’s presentation.
“I wish he could come to Calumet and talk to our students,” Feeler said. “A lot of what he talked about, it all comes down to commitment. It’s about showing commitment in sports and in your life.”
Miller urged student-athletes to consider his words carefully and to determine whether his message applied to them.
“If I talk about something and you think, ‘Wow, that’s me,’ you can make the decision to change before you ever leave the room,” Miller insisted. “And when you make that change, your team becomes instantly better.”