NBA player Latrell Sprewell chokes his coach. Dennis Rodman kicks a courtside photographer. Baseball’s Roberto Alomar spits on an umpire. No big deal. It’s only sports, right? Wrong, says Jan Boxill, lecturer and associate chair of philosophy. Sports have an important role in our society, even for people who don’t participate. Of course, sports entertain us. But they also help shape the way we see the world.

Like theater, sports dramatize our virtues and vices,” says Boxill, who’s writing a book on the moral significance of sports. “They reflect our values and the state of society. But it’s not a passive reflection. It’s an active one. Sports tell us what’s okay, what’s not okay, and who the winners, losers, and heroes are.”

Ideally, the winners are the best players, she says, because sports are “unalienated” activities-done for their own sake. Some people might take up a sport for another reason-to improve their health, perhaps-but the true nature of sports is to push players to develop their talents and creativity.

Take basketball, for example. The game was created in 1891 to keep athletes at the International YMCA Training School motivated between the fall football season and the spring baseball season. Of course, the players could do calisthenics to keep their muscles toned. But they were getting bored.

So, one of the directors told James Naismith, a young faculty member, to find a way to challenge the athletes. They needed a team sport-one they could play indoors during the long, cold Massachusetts winter. The game would need a ball. No roughhousing, so he didn’t want the players to run with the ball, nor did he want the goals on the floor. Naismith tacked up some peach baskets-the perfect size for a ball-and a new sport was born.

Unlike calisthenics, basketball pitted players against each other. It wasn’t just physically challenging. It was competitive.

Competition is essential,” Boxill says. “Nothing drives you the way pitting your will against another person’s does.”

But rivalry is not supposed to make opponents into enemies, she says. In fact, competitors are often friends because they have a shared interest. They respect one another’s abilities. And by competing, they encourage each other to develop.

Rules also help players hone their skills, she says. By keeping a sport challenging, rules keep players striving for excellence. It’s easy enough to score a basket, for example, if a seven-foot basketball player stands under the hoop until someone throws him the ball. To force teams to develop more interesting strategies, there’s a rule against standing right by the net for more than three seconds.

The rules are set up, and changed, so that it’s never enough for players to have talent,” she says. “They have to be able to do something with the talent to make it worthwhile.”

Although sports are designed to push people toward excellence, the focus doesn’t always stay there, she says, especially when money and publicity are involved.

Athletes still want to be good, and they still have to be good,” Boxill says. “But they start doing whatever it takes to get money or fame. And if being a bad boy sells, then that’s what they do.”

For example, Dennis Rodman, infamous for his spitting, cussing, and arguing-as well as his tattoos and rainbow hair-has said he strives for bad press. It helps him, by bringing him greater notoriety.

The problem is that kids see that kind of behavior over and over and start to imitate it, Boxill says. They start putting down other players and arguing with the referees.

Why shouldn’t they?” she asks. “There’s little or no penalty when big names do that.”

Some athletes, notably NBA star Charles Barkley, have said they aren’t role models for kids. But Boxill disagrees. Because sports are public performances and because so many kids follow them, players don’t have a choice about being role models, she says. It’s part of the job, especially for the pros.

Barkley insisted that kids should look up to their parents, not athletes. But Boxill says sports are so influential they can rob parents of the power to be role models.

Suppose a kid’s parents tell him he shouldn’t push people around,” she says. “Then he watches an NBA game, and he sees Barkley and Rodman doing just that. What does he think?

He thinks that’s what winners do,” she says. “The worse you are, the more money you make. And he thinks, `If my parents are so smart, why aren’t they making millions of dollars?’”

The problem for many athletes is that they enter the limelight very young, she says. These days, players might turn professional right after high school.

Give any teenager adoring fans and huge amounts of money, and there’s potential for trouble,” Boxill says. “Most of them aren’t ready to handle it.”

The rare ones who are ready-such as NBA player Kobe Bryant-often come from strong families, she says. But even that may not be enough to prepare athletes for what they’ll face.

That’s why Boxill says there needs to be some kind of mentoring system, and not just in sports. College professors are in a position to help guide student athletes, to teach them how to set a good example once they’re in the spotlight.

Athletes are only human, of course,” she says, “and humans make mistakes. But when people take on a public role, they have a responsibility to fulfill. In sports, that responsibility is a big one, because sports are everywhere in our society.”

They’re in our language, for example. The language of politics-of power-often borrows from the language of sports, she says. When executives talk about going for the long pass or needing someone to run interference, they’re using football metaphors. Calling someone a coach or a team player is using a sports metaphor.

That’s one reason it’s so important for everyone to participate in sports,” says Boxill, herself an avid athlete, a former coach, and an announcer for the Carolina women’s basketball team. “If you don’t participate, you don’t understand all the references. Sure, you know what the words mean, but the words have more impact if you’ve had the experience. You know how it feels.”

Participating in sports also puts the “accidents”-the showmanship and the violence-in perspective, she says. It makes people less likely to value-and promote-those examples.

Most importantly, playing sports provides access to power in our society. “Like it or not, business gets done on the golf course and in the locker rooms,” she says. “If you aren’t there, you’re missing something.”

Historically, that’s been a problem for women because they’ve been excluded from many sports, Boxill says. She sees Title IX, a law that requires schools to fund women’s sports, as one way to help close the gap and give women better access to power.

While acknowledging that Title IX is controversial because it divides limited money among a larger group of people, she says the advantages are too great to ignore. Funding women’s collegiate sports means there will be role models for young girls who might want to play sports.

Boxill points to the professional women’s basketball leagues, the American Basketball League (ABL) and the Women’s NBA, as evidence that more women are starting to see professional sports as an option. And she thinks more kids do, too. At a recent ABL game, she says she saw girls wearing jerseys and hundreds of kids-boys and girls-trying to get autographs.

It’s good for girls to see these games because it tells them it’s okay to want that for themselves,” Boxill says. “It tells boys it’s okay for girls to play. And if they play together, they learn to see each other as partners. As equals.”

And to Boxill, that’s the real power and significance of sports: They not only reflect our values, they teach us how to view ourselves and everyone around us.

In April, Boxill won a Tanner Faculty Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.