08/16/2013 06:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2013

A-Rod: The American Tragedy in Action

As unwilling as baseball icon Alex Rodriguez seems to be in dealing with the truth about his steroid-use, we Americans should be more disturbed by our unwillingness to realize the part we are playing in this tragedy, one that has been repeated in the fall of sports heroes like Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Joe Paterno and Lance Armstrong.

Our role is that as a citizenry, we have accepted -- and sometimes even acclaimed -- the practice of success at any cost.

This is now deeply embedded in our society. The American dream is built on achievement, despite how our parents and families teach us that character and doing the right thing come first. Without internalizing strong character values, those who strive to achieve the American dream often end up being pressured to live by values that discard character.

Historically, as life and progress grew more complex over the past 50 years, character values slowly got shoved into the background, and achievement (regardless of right vs. wrong,) dominated society. Increasingly, it became easy to be a hero or a leader by becoming a top achiever who could give the appearance of good character -- good interviews; supporting good causes; etc.

This emphasis on achievement leaves a deeper sense of un-fulfillment in many Americans, which leads them to transfer their dreams to supporting athletic teams. They want their teams to win at all costs, believing their teams are always "the good guys." They see in their heroes what they want to see, and their heroes respond accordingly, often offering an image over reality.

When this image is attacked, as it is now for A-Rod -- and was for icons like Armstrong and Clemens before him -- the hero fights to maintain his image, for he knows his fans want him to prevail. Why? Because to accept that A-Rod is a cheat abruptly ends their fantasy he is one of the good guys.

This separation between achievement and character ethics is deeply rooted in our educational system. For over 50 years, the vast majority of students cheat to achieve, yet the system's focus overwhelmingly remains on achievement.

So as students go into a society heavily focused on achievement, the system has unwittingly taught them an effective competitive tool is cheating. So should we be surprised by the doping and athletic cheating, the fraud and insider trading, the political scandals, the low personal standards of the entertainment industry, for example?

The reason such misguided values don't cripple our society is all these areas are supported by Americans who are firmly grounded in family values and character and who reject ethics that undermine doing the right thing. There are some very dedicated and solid individuals who make this country work.

In a recent talk, my son Malcolm told me about a college episode 40 years ago. He was nearly flunking chemistry; his roommate had taken the chem exam a day early and left a copy of the exam on his desk. Mal threw it away. Both a competitor and an achiever, Mal lives by his strong moral beliefs. There are many people out there in America like Mal, doing the right thing without fanfare. They are our true leaders and the backbone of our society. The problem is they are collectively not recognized as such.

In our schools and in our public discourse, we need to actively praise students -- and people -- for doing the right thing, as the first step in praising them for achievements. This would not only reunite our schools and families, but my experience tells me it will result in achievements that are much more meaningful than money or fame.

And as a bonus, this dramatic change will not only serve future A-Rods, but their fans as well.