Tim Barto: Sports and character



When I was a young boy and budding athlete, the phrase we often heard about why young people should get involved in sports was “sports builds character.” By the time I was a young man and a budding coach, that phrase was turned around and became, “sports reveals character.”  

The debate continues as I head towards becoming an old man and a budding crank, I, for one, tend to side with the more recent theorem: Sports reveals character.  

The simplest argument against sports being a character builder is to point to the popular athletes of our time. If one can look at the cacophony of bat flippers, trash talkers, flag kneelers, and wife beaters that pervade our games and still argue that sports builds character, then it would prove nothing more than character being a wholly subjective concept.  

The recent tragic – and simultaneously beautiful – story of the East High Thunderbirds baseball team provides a revelation of character that we would all love to see in teenage boys, regardless of whether they play sports or not.  

The idea that a high school team could find out mid-game, a game in which they were getting thumped pretty handily, that their coach did not show up for the game because he passed away in his sleep, and then continue to play the game and stage a comeback of Hollywood proportions to win it, brings goosebumps to the arms and tears to the eyes. Add to that the fact that the coach’s son was one of the players and the whole situation becomes surreal.  

Read For Coach Barnhart, East High Thunderbirds roar back for a win following shocking death

How that young man and his teammates were able to concentrate enough to continue playing that game, let alone staging a double digit rally to win it, is incomprehensible and inspiring. 

This was a genuine display of character on more levels than is possible to count, especially for a group of teenage athletes.

Speaking of teenage athletes, my fellow Alaskans, how incredibly fun was it watching 17-year-old Seward citizen Lydia Jacoby win a gold medal?

The medal was supposed to belong to her American teammate, Lilly King, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder, but the experts did not count on a tenacious Alaska gal who took to training in Resurrection Bay (average temperature 54 degrees) when her local pool was closed due to the pandemic.

The only thing better than watching Lydia come from behind to win gold was watching her fellow Sewardians (copyright pending) go completely crazy watching her do it. 

Afterwards, Olympic champion Lydia addressed the media and put on a display of poise and maturity as impressive as her gold medal swim. She spoke of proud she was to represent her country and state, and she reveled in how her hometown celebrated.

What a display of character.

These two sports stories, one tragic and one zany, but both immensely inspiring, reveal the full spectrum of human emotions, and that is what sports does best. It brings us highs and lows, all within a few hours . . . or in Lydia’s case, one minute and 4.95 seconds.  

The stories also have a purity to them. No political statements. No attempts to divide us. Just young athletes doing their best while competing in the sports they love. 

They are beautiful displays of character.

Tim Barto is vice president at Alaska Policy Forum, and president of Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Baseball Boosters.


  1. Thank you for this article and reminding me there is still good in this world. Congrats to our Alaskan athletes !!!!

  2. Agreed.
    That was a good read.
    We can all be incredibly proud of Lydia. She is the best of Alaska.

  3. Thank you, Tim, for recognizing and bringing to light hope for us all. Sports used to be the politically neutral zone. Nothing like “apple pie and baseball.” Remember? That was America, no matter what color or political leaning. We went the game and rooted for our team for all we were worth. It was energy well spent that didn’t depend on who was president or what war we were in. And then we all shared some beers and ribbing each other and recognizing good plays as they were, no matter the team.
    The Olympics used to be that on a larger scale. It was “us against the world” if you will.
    Pride well directed.

  4. Excellent and uplifting article. These athletes did both–they revealed the fine character they have built. Well done!

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