TIME IDEAS
What Are American Values These Days?

The Republican strategist and the Democratic pollster reflect on which core beliefs are still central to our lives.

Penn: My hope this July 4th is that we focus as Americans on reviving our sport values — values that have made us great and can rekindle our optimism for the future as they have done many times before. From Jesse Owens’s victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid in 1980, great athletic events have crystalized our faith in the country.

These days, sports are marred by scandals that go far beyond cheating, and it seems that every feel-good sports moment has its nefarious counterpart. Sports have always represented American values of fair competition, community, hard work, and the American Dream. But Americans believe our values are in decline, and while this is most clearly attributed to a lack of faith in political and economic institutions, perhaps our athletic institutions best demonstrate why we as a nation have become pessimistic about our values.

To take one example, in the same study, Americans found the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes to be the least morally acceptable behavior in a list that included prostitution, underage drinking, human cloning, and illegal drug use. Every time a scandal hits the sports world, it shakes our trust in our athletic institutions and people who are seen as role models, especially by the Millennial generation. According to the values poll, 45% of Americans age 18–29 say that celebrities and professional athletes have a fair amount or a great deal of influence on developing their beliefs of right and wrong. This is higher than the 42% of the same group who say the same of political leaders, and only slightly lower than the 51% who say that religious leaders have the same amount of influence on their values. We need to hold athletes (as well as other public figures) to a higher moral standard if we are to reverse the pessimism and restore faith in values that American sports have in the past, and can once again, embody. The Olympics will provide our athletes a new opportunity to shine and rise above it all in our best tradition.

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