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Are Ethics and Sport Compatible Terms?


The current ethical state of sports is volatile; marked by diverging ideas of what ethical behavior and conduct should be and the behaviors that are being demonstrated. Mixed messages about sport are sent to audiences when the value of winning is overemphasized, while sportsmanship takes a secondary role. Individuals operating within sports entities do not necessarily have clear guidelines regarding appropriate behaviors or personal conduct.

The result has been a constant stream of reported violations, legal battles and sanctions passed down to leagues, teams and athletes. The real concern is that without established standards there are subsequently no specified consequences for non-compliance. Without specific guidelines to direct sports personnel there are no precedents to measure against, which calls into question the fairness of the sanctioning body or process.

When extrinsic reward systems are coupled with win-at-all-costs attitudes, personal ethics can be challenged. The implied expectation is that all parties engaged in athletic competitions are doing so with knowledge of the rules and fairly competing to the greatest extent of their abilities. Deviance from the rules or from giving full effort leave the spectator feeling cheated of a truthful, complete sport experience. The impact of unethical behaviors reaches far beyond the playing field, and touches the lives of fans, sponsors, media, and administration. What can occur is diminished interest or emotional attachment by fans because the “product” of sport is seen as lacking worth or trustworthiness.

The college setting presents a unique situation because it is considered the only remaining major sports setting where the athletes are considered amateurs.   Ethical standards set forth for college athletes and coaches are established by basic societal norms, but without specified means to assess or monitor ethical behaviors there is little consistency or appropriate follow through. Academic institutions are more often responsible for the ethical conduct of the athletic department than outside governance structures. Not all colleges or universities have the same policies or procedures in place regarding deviant behaviors, and now more than ever they are expected to pass rulings on behaviors that occur outside the athletic department. In some instances colleges and universities are establishing codes of conduct to guide all members of an athletic department, offering both expectations and consequences. By providing guiding documents (or codes) there is an established set of standards with subsequent punishments should those standards not be met. This offers a fair and consistent means of treatment for all parties on the team and associated with the athletic staff.

There is concern about what member of an academic institution should be issuing punishment; one thought is that the Athletic Director should be the final authority, while others believe that the coach has the greatest knowledge of the player and situation, so they should be issuing punishments. When coaches are left to sanction one of their own players there is a perceived conflict of interest, especially when playing time is factored in (Lipka, 2006).  There is also a concern that the cost of maintaining compliance departments cannot be met by some institutions, whose teams will therefore be placed at a competitive disadvantage.

With media’s intense scrutiny of sports, almost every move of athletes and sport organizations become public knowledge. This serves as a means to educate fans about the game and all those that play, it also serves as an unofficial judge and jury about ethical issues and concerns. In response to the bad behaviors of athletes the National Football League started requiring all parties associated with the NFL to sign a code of conduct, which gives the league rights to punish behaviors and decisions of an athlete that are not associated with the actual game of football.

The NFL code of conduct serves as a public statement that the league does not condone bad behaviors or unethical conduct that would in any way shed negative light on the league. As a whole, the NFL markets a strong brand of football and the expectation is that those who work within the league will meet the expectations of the brand.

Is the sports profession conducting itself professionally? I believe that those members of sports organizations that are conducting themselves professionally are not receiving the attention and rewards they should. The media focuses energy and time highlighting the worst athlete and coach behaviors, making it very clear that the individual is associated with an athletic team. This type of media coverage can lead to over-generalizations about the ethical conduct and behaviors of all parties in that sport or league. Public scrutiny should prompt more organizations to establish clearly defined policies and procedures for employment.

The rating for ethical behaviors in sports organizations would be 5 out of 10. There are programs, teams, coaches, and athletes that are conducting themselves in a manner consistent with basic norms of society and the rules established for their particular sport. There is not constant vigilance by all sports entities to ensure they are setting the highest standards for professional conduct for all their employees. A simple measure like a conduct code could give more strength to the importance of good decision making in all areas of a sport professional’s life.

Sport at all levels has established rules that define how the game should be played, as well as consequences should those rules be broken. Bad behaviors outside the strictures of the game have been left for too long without full acknowledgement. Now is the time for sports professionals to take back the game, make strides to return sport to a respectable profession, because winning is not enough for the modern day fan, nor should it be.

Angela Watson is a doctoral candidate in sports management at the United States Sports Academy.  This essay was written as a class assignment for a course she is currently taking at USSA.  For more information about programs of study at USSA please go to http://ussa.edu.

Works Cited
Lipka, S. (2006).  Punishing Personal Fouls.  The Chronicle of Higher Education .   Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Punishing-Personal-Fouls/23004/.


  1. […] The current ethical state of sports is volatile; marked by diverging ideas of what ethical behavior and conduct should be and the behaviors that are being demonstrated. Mixed messages about sport are sent to audiences when the value of winning is overemphasized, while sportsmanship takes a secondary role.  […]

  2. It will be very interesting to watch what the NCAA Infractions Committee does with the Tenn. basketball and Ohio State football cases this August when both are scheduled to be heard.  Mark Emmert can talk all he wants about sending messages and tightening enforcement; but the real power lies with the Infractions Committee.  Coach Tressel has Hired Gene Marsh as his attorney in this matter.  Marsh is a former chair of the Infractions Committee and now works with a prominent Birmingham, Alabama law firm that has a sports law department.  The outcome of this case will be closely watched.  I’m not sure that the Infractions Committee is really willing to invite costly litigation with harsh penalties in these cases.  Given the gravity of what Tressel did it can be argued that he deserves a show cause order as his punishment–not an all expense paid trip to Florida for a rules compliance seminar.


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