Competition Reveals Character

On Saturday, May 7, 2005, an Associated Press sports story began with, “After…14 technical fouls, two ejections, and one suspension, it all comes down to a deciding Game 7 in Boston on Saturday night.” Not a pretty description of the current National Basketball Association. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I haven’t watched an NBA game in over five years. To me, it was very different in 1997. That was the year Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan gave each of his players a copy of my Winning Thoughts book after the Jazz lost the first two games of the NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls.

Sports writer Fran Blinebury of the Houston Chronicle wrote a pretty big story about Sloan’s gift. His column on June 7, 1997, opened with, “When the members of the Jazz arrived inside the locker room at the Delta Center on Friday night, each found a book waiting for him in his chair. Winning Thoughts by Carl Mays. Nothing about the pick-and-roll, but plenty on how to keep a positive outlook when life gets difficult. Nothing about how to stop Michael Jordan out in the open court, but a lot on how to keep going when the walls are closing in.”

Blinebury continued, “Winning thoughts. Today, at last, there are some in the state of Utah concerning the NBA Finals. Instead of Intimidation, there was inspiration. Rather than fear filling up their faces, it was competitive heat in the eyes of the Jazz that eventually burned the Bulls 104-93…” His column went on to emphasize the importance of a winning attitude and playing with character. It ended with, “Winning ways. Winning thoughts. Straight from the book.” The Jazz captured two straight games to tie what at first appeared to be a blowout series. (And many Winning Thoughts were sold worldwide as a result of that column!) Eventually, however, the Jordan-led Bulls captured another Championship.

Recent sports stories have told less of character and more of countless college and professional athletes being arrested for one thing or another. And, of course, reports of steroid use by professional athletes have proliferated in the media and forced congress to take action. The influence of these adult athletes has filtered down to high schools, where steroid and other drug use are often common. Considering that major colleges spend about $30,000 annually for drug testing of male athletes and about the same for females, it is evident that most high schools can’t afford such tests. All they can do is warn the student-athletes. The warnings often are ignored as the youth get caught up in the character displayed by their elders.

Many young athletes also display profanity, dirty play, irresponsible sex, alcohol abuse, and other characterless activities as they emulate their adult heroes. One NBA basketball player (who is now a TV commentator) once said, “I am not a role model. I am a professional ballplayer.” Well, accept it or not, every adult is a role model. And the higher the profile, the more one becomes a role model. It is as Walt Disney said, “Children look at you and me to see what they are supposed to be. If we don’t disappoint them, maybe, just maybe, they won’t disappoint us.”

Thank God, there are high-profile adult athletes in every sport who are positive role models. They have ingrained within them the character required not only to make winning plays in sports but also to make winning decisions in life. We have often heard that sports build character. I am more inclined to think that any type of competition, whether in sports, business, or society in general, actually reveals the character that has been (or is being) built.
Thank God, also, there are young athletes who are positive influences on their peers. These young people understand what the late Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry meant when he said, “We’re not looking for characters. We’re looking for players with character.”

Carl Mays, author of over a dozen books and speaker at over 3,000 events, can be contacted at 865-436-7478 or His books, including A Strategy For Winning, People of Passion, Anatomy Of A Leader, Are We Communicating Yet?


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