Academic leaders at the United States Sports Academy say that enhanced education and raising public awareness of the need for change are two important contributions they plan to make toward addressing highly visible ethical lapses, governance issues and outright corruption that have recently rocked the world of sport.
Whether it is financial corruption in international soccer, bribery related to the awarding of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs by Russia in the Olympic Games, or, closer to home, the vast recruiting bribery and fraud case in college basketball, sport recently has seen some of its greatest scandals, stretching from the local and college levels to the pinnacles of international competition.
As America’s first and only accredited freestanding sports university, the Academy over the past half-century has played a significant role in educating coaches, managers, administrators and other sport professionals through its degree programs and its post-secondary non-degree programs.
The Academy has advanced the cause of sport and has had a global impact on sport education around the world. The Academy also has been a long-time and important source of scholarly thought and writing on key themes in sport, as well as a source of information about sport for audiences at all levels.
Academy Dean of Academic Affairs Dr. Stephen Butler says the Academy faculty is committed to playing an even greater role in advancing sport ethics and combatting corruption in sport by training tomorrow’s leaders to be better prepared to address the complex issue.
“What can we do at the Academy to help get things under control? I think, first, we have to make sure our students are aware that there is a problem,” Butler said. “We can’t fix a problem until we admit that there is one. Then, we must educate our students that the problem can only be fixed at the grassroots level, from the bottom up.
“I think we are at that point with sports corruption. If we can get students to fight corruption and push for ethical virtue, that’s a victory. We can educate our students and we can hope they will then go out into the sports world and make a difference wherever they go.
“One of the things we teach at the Academy is that sports is a microcosm of society,” Butler said. “I don’t think ethics in sports are much different from the ethics in the business world, or the restaurant world, or in the banking world. They are all industries that make a lot of money, but sports get more publicity. Everyone knows who the famous coach is who gets in trouble, but if your neighbor down the street gets in trouble you may never know about it.”
Butler said it will be difficult to solve the problems of Olympic bid rigging, corruption in global soccer leagues and other ethical problems on a global scale. However, the Academy can train its students to make good individual decisions and contribute to the betterment of sport as they progress through their careers.
“I think the real key is to get students thinking about ethics,” Butler said. “If our students leave here and stop and think, before they do something, ‘is this the right thing to do?’ then I think we are on the right path. If they leave here well educated, with experience in the field, and they really make decisions based on what they think is right, they are acting ethically.
“For the Academy, it is about planting the seed in a student’s mind that they should always try to do the right thing and also to always understand that others may not always perceive it to be the right thing.”
Butler believes there has always been some element of corruption in sports, but that is has never been more prominent than today because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
He agrees that should sport continue on a path where public trust is eroded, confidence is lost, interest wanes and engagement falters, sport risks being diminished to the point that it is no longer a societal priority or even relevant. And should sport be diminished, along with it would go its many positive attributes, including its ability to foster goodwill around the world.
“I’m not a doomsday person who thinks sports will die as a result of all this,” Butler said. “I think sports are here to stay, but we definitely must train tomorrow’s leaders today. Because there could come a point one day where sport really is threatened.
“There’s a theme of ethical and effective leadership in many of our courses. I think one of the biggest things that make you an effective leader is being able to avoid doing things that get your name in the newspaper for the wrong reasons.”
Within its degree programs, the Academy offers courses at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels that cover ethical behavior in sport, focusing on such topics as sports ethics, NCAA compliance, sports agents and sports leadership, to name a few. The Academy faculty recently took this one step further, voting to recommend the creation of a sport ethics specialization within the doctoral program.
In addition to the enhanced focus on sports ethics and corruption issue in the education of its students, the Academy in the coming year will focus on raising public visibility and dialogue on these issues as well. This will be accomplished through the Academy’s popular blog, The Sport Digest, as well as The Sport Journal, the Academy’s peer-reviewed online academic journal, which it provides as a free public service. These combined are accessed more than 840,000 times per year. In the coming year, both publications are placing a special focus on sport ethics and corruption by bolstering the number of articles on the subjects written by Academy faculty and contributors around the world. Visit them at www.thesportdigest.com and www.sportjournal.org.
International dialogue and concern over sport corruption seem to be giving traction to a movement toward reform. Just this week, the International Partnership Against Corruption in Sport (IPACS) — which includes the International Olympic Committee, international sports organizations and governmental/intergovernmental sports organizations — has set up three new special task forces to address ethics, corruption and governance issues in sport. The task forces will focus on reducing the risk of corruption in procurement relating to sporting events and infrastructure; ensuring integrity in the selection of major sporting events, with a focus on managing conflicts of interest; and optimizing the processes of compliance with good governance principles to mitigate the risk of corruption.
“We know intuitively that we cannot completely eliminate corruption in sport, but we should always try as hard as we can to do it,” Butler said.
The United States Sports Academy is an independent, non-profit, accredited, special mission sports university created to serve the nation and world with programs in instruction, research and service. The role of the Academy is to prepare men and women for careers in the profession of sports.
The Academy is based in Daphne, Ala. For more information, call (251) 626-3303 or visit www.ussa.edu.
By Eric Mann
Eric Mann is the communications assistant at the United States Sports Academy.