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Ethics in Sports are Evolving

March 29
Two professionals shake hands

The best practices for ethics in sports are often debated, and ethical guidelines can vary greatly from sport to sport.

When we talk about ethics, we’re talking about a system of values that we use to make daily decisions: what we value and how we use those values in our dealings with the world. Ethics don’t just guide individuals; they also inform the missions and actions of larger organizations. In sports, ethics permeate competitive environments. Young children are taught to play fairly and adhere to the rules. In adulthood, the violation of ethical guidelines can have legal implications, as seen by cases such as the “Deflategate” controversy involving the New England Patriots in the NFL.1

Here's a look at how ethics in sport management affect the world of sports, and how ethics in sports may evolve going forward.

Ethics in Sports: An Overview

Ethics in sport management

Because ethics have been debated by philosophers since antiquity, defining them in the context of modern sport can sometimes be difficult. Because the goal of sports is winning, how morality fits into that objective can get hazy. Many organizations today strive to develop frameworks for ethics in sports, including the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport.2

One thing is clear: Ethics in sports are essential to good sportsmanship. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics states that key elements of sportsmanship include cooperation, gratitude, honor, humility and fairness—all principles that relate to ethics.3 We can see ethical behavior in sports in a multitude of spheres, including:

  • Following rules within a game, and accepting penalties when given
  • Calling games fairly as a referee
  • Compensating players fairly
  • Employing rules that keep players, fans and officials safe
  • Regulating performance-enhancing substances

As this brief list demonstrates, ethics in sports affect stakeholders at every level: athletes, coaches, managers, referees, executives and fans.

Ethics in Sport Management

If you enter the field of sport management, a range of ethical dilemmas related to players and game play will present themselves. Some of the most pressing ethical issues facing sport managers and others in the industry include:

  • Diversity. From drafting athletes to hiring coaches and front and back office personnel, it’s increasingly important to be aware of unequal treatment in employment in the field, particularly regarding race, ethnicity and gender
  • Salaries. From college to the professional level, the sports industry has been called out for not paying certain athletes equitable salaries (particularly female athletes) and not paying college athletes salaries in addition to college scholarships
  • Athlete behavior. The sport management industry has had to develop policies for ethical athlete behavior, addressing such issues as how to handle drug use or athlete altercations during, and outside of, game play

The Code of Ethics promoted by the North American Society for Sport Management is a set of guidelines that many managers throughout varying levels of athletics management follow.4 Some standards include: promoting the safety and health of all athletes, issuing public statements in an objective and truthful manner, respecting privacy of athletes and clients, and treating colleagues with respect and courtesy.

The Future of Ethical Sport Management

As new challenges arise as the field of sports develops and becomes more complex, those working in sport industries will need to be equipped to address new ethical questions. Below are some of the most pressing ethical challenges in sports that remain to be tackled:

Should sports with high brain injury risk exist? Some have argued that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting and boxing, both sports where strikes to the head are common, should be illegal.5 In addition, the NFL has been questioned thoroughly in recent years about football’s relationship to brain injury.6 Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, has been linked not only with major concussions but with the repetitive smaller hits to the head that NFL players experience every game as well.7 As new research on links between CTE and football emerges, ethical questions regarding football players' safety will also need to be addressed.

Should college athletes be paid? Recent NCAA scandals, the rise of million-dollar salaries for college coaches, and the massive entertainment industry that college sports produces have resulted in intense debate about paying college athletes.8 While college athletes do typically receive tuition scholarships, they often also have to miss classes to play, or end up dropping out of school to pursue professional opportunities. Student athletes, particularly football and basketball players, are also the engine of the college sports industry that nets universities millions of dollars in profits, which some say is reason enough to provide them with a salary. In addition to calling for a pay-for-play model for college athletes, some professional coaches have called for a measure that allows college athletes who leave school but do not get drafted to return to school.9

Should gambling be promoted by professional leagues? In January 2018, the National Basketball Association (NBA) surprised many sports fans by proposing a new set of laws for national legalized betting on basketball games.10 By becoming a partner in the gambling venture, the NBA would make one percent on every bet made on games. This raises questions about how widespread gambling might affect player effort, or players' ability to sway games. And the social problem of gambling addiction brings up other ethical issues that spread beyond the world of sports.

These are just a few hot-button ethical issues facing the industry in the years to come. Other recent news has touched on trainer abuse of athletes, the unintentional use of performance-enhancing drugs that resulted in punishment, how athletes who commit crimes outside of sports should be treated and viewed in the sports world, and the use of ethnic groups in logos and team names.

Interested in Sports Issues Like Ethics?

If topics like these interest you, pursuing an education in an athletics-related field might be a good starting place for impacting the future of sports ethics. Learn more about the online Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) in Health, Sport Management, and Exercise Science with an emphasis in Sport Management from the University of Kansas.

  1. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from indystar.com/story/sports/nfl/colts/2015/01/22/sports-ethics-deflategate-bill-belichick-new-england-patriots-indianapolis-colts/22153199/
  2. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from iaps.net/
  3. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from championsofcharacter.org/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=27910&ATCLID=205388515
  4. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from nassm.com/InfoAbout/NASSM/Creed
  5. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1070930/
  6. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17511321.2017.1342688?journalCode=rsep20
  7. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edit-cte-football-concussion-20171120-story.html
  8. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from cbssports.com/college-football/news/want-to-pay-college-athletes-start-with-allowing-legitimate-endorsement-deals/
  9. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from espn.com/nba/story/_/id/22664510/golden-state-warriors-coach-steve-kerr-thinks-undrafted-players-allowed-return-college
  10. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from.com/nba/story/_/id/22198782/nba-outlines-plan-professional-sports-leagues-pushing-national-legalized-wagering