A survey of more than 1,000 12 to 16-year-olds in six urban areas showed that youngsters put enjoyment, improving their performance and taking part in fair competition above winning at all costs. They also deplored cheating.
Half the sample took part in competitive sport with three-quarters of those playing team games, most for school or clubs; a quarter played at district or county level and 4 per cent at regional standard or above. All took part in at least one of six sports: athletics, badminton, tennis, football, netball or rugby.
Girls thought winning was less important than boys and supported ethical attitudes to sport more than boys. Male team players were less bothered about cheating than those playing individual games and than girls overall.
The survey found that coaches and clubs had the strongest influence on values and attitudes of young sportsmen and women, followed by teachers and schools, then friends and parents.
Schools had less influence on boys, older competitors and better performers. "This may give a message to schools and place more responsibility on clubs to play an educational role.
"The results suggest that the belief that there is a moral crisis in sport for the majority of young people is premature. The young people in this survey indicated a commitment to fair play and to keeping winning in proportion, " says the report.
However, the researchers warned against complacency. The sample largely represented youngsters who didn't aspire to become professionals and the findings showed a tendency for boys playing team sports to have "less benevolent values and attitudes".
Professional coaches, sports men and women should take care about the values they promote, concludes the report.
Nicholas Rowe, senior research manager at the ESC, who chaired the research panel, said the idea that sport, by definition, was an influence for good wasn't true; it had to be taught and coached in the right way. But teachers could build on the fact that most young people came into sport with an intuitive sense of right and wrong and the desire for enjoyment.
"Young people, sport and ethics", ESC Publications, PO Box 225, Wetherby, West Yorkshire, LS23 7LZ, Pounds 7.50 including pp.