Is ‘not cheating’ enough?

During the Little League World Series a couple of weeks ago, I noticed something odd: the young players wearing the patch, "I Won't Cheat." My first thought was, why focus on the negative? Wasn't there a more positive message to live by? I immediately thought of my former tennis coach and friend Rich Johns, who is working to spread a nationwide movement called "Act with Respect Always."

Over the Labor Day weekend, I went back home to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and had breakfast with Rich and his wife, Karen. We spoke at length about Act with Respect Always. I've written before about Coach Johns' program, which is dedicated to making a positive difference in our schools, sports and lives. He's on to something big. Something that is vitally important not just for our children but for the entire nation.

Coach is calling people to their better nature. He is reminding us that in the large and small events of our daily lives we can strive to do better, be better. And that we must hold ourselves accountable for doing so.

Some people may think this is naive in our topsy-turvy world. After all, simply listen to the often nasty and acrimonious tone of our public discourse. And consider, for a moment, what some people do to ‘get ahead’ nowadays. Would it be enough if people simply didn't cheat? The short answer is no.

Act with Respect Always comes out of coach’s practical experiences. He has been one of the most successful high school tennis coaches in all of America. His "no cut" teams, which provided a place for anyone who wanted to play, routinely won championships. His approach is heralded by the United States Tennis Association as a model program. He has won the highest USTA award for coaching.

One of coach's points is that always acting with respect is not automatic. Or easy. It’s not something one achieves at a one-day workshop or by reading a book. His message, though, is simple: Each and every day we can engage with others in a more respectful way and exhibit courage in meeting the challenges we face. (See here to read about Coach Johns’ eight basic character education traits.)

The power of Act with Respect Always is that it taps into something innate in each of us, something people across this country yearn for. To genuinely re-connect and re-engage with one another. To demonstrate a deep compassion for others, especially those we might not ordinarily see and hear. To come together to get things done for the greater good. To have hope.

Act with Respect Always helps individuals, groups and entire schools put their aspirations within reach and makes their yearnings practical, real, and doable. It enables people to become their better selves. That's why this program is being adopted not only by elementary, middle and high schools throughout New York State but in Florida and other parts of the country as well. It is also used in such places as prisons, including New York’s maximum security Coxsackie prison, where coach recently gave a talk.

Years ago, in the small, upstate New York town where I grew up, I was one of those kids coach reached with his message of character-building. He taught me life lessons I use every day, and I am forever grateful to him for that. Now, I hope his efforts reach kids all across our country.