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Ethics in Sports are Evolving

November 02
Two professionals shake hands

The best practices for ethical behavior in sports are often debated, and codes of ethics 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. Ethics in sport permeate competitive environments. Young children are taught to play fairly and adhere to the rules, which teaches them appropriate life lessons from sports.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

Smiling coach writing on clipboard in the basketball court.

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, including the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, strive to develop codes of ethics in sports.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 ethical actions in sports.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 illustrates, ethical decisions and ethical actions in sports affect stakeholders at every level: athletes, coaches, managers, referees, executives and fans.

Ethics in Sport Management

Concentrated employees listening to professional coach at workshop.

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:


From drafting athletes to hiring coaches with different management styles, it's increasingly important to be aware of unequal treatment.


From college to the professional level, the sports industry has been called out for not paying certain athletes (particularly female athletes) equitable salaries and not paying college athletes salaries in addition to college scholarships

Athlete Behavior

Rugby players and their coach gathering before a match.

The sport management industry has had to develop policies for ethical behavior on the part of the athletes, 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.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas in Today’s Sports World

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. Some of the most pressing ethical dilemmas in sports include these:

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 has emerged on links between CTE and football, leaders in sport management have had to address ethical decisions regarding football players' safety.

Coaching staff meeting in sports office to discuss employee training.

During play on December 8, 2011, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy took a helmet-to-helmet hit and was sent back into the game without being tested for a concussion. After the game, he was diagnosed with a concussion. According to the Browns, their trainers didn’t see the hit because they were tending to other players … and no one told them about it.

Within two weeks, the NFL placed independent certified athletic trainers (ATC spotters) in stadium booths at every game. They serve as additional sets of eyes, watching for potential injuries. ATC spotters may use a medical timeout to stop a game to remove a player for medical examination; teams aren’t charged for those timeouts.

Taking this ethical decision a step further, the league added a video component to the new surveillance system before the playoff games on January 7 and 8, 2012.

During the playoffs, a player was hit in the head (helmet) by another player’s knee. Though he was back on his feet quickly and got to the sideline, his teammates urged trainers to evaluate him for a concussion. He was almost cleared to keep playing when the head athletic trainer checked the video, which confirmed that the player had collapsed from wooziness before standing up.

Recognizing the benefit to player safety, the NFL permanently implemented a more sophisticated observation system before the 2012 season began.8

While these additions are designed to identify head injuries quickly, the NFL has taken more recent action to help prevent them and reduce their severity. As of 2022, the league requires all offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers to wear pillowy, padded caps, called Guardian Caps, on top of their helmets during training. According to the league, Guardian Caps reduce impact severity by at least 10% if a player involved in an on-field collision is wearing one; by at least 20% if both players involved wear them. Speaking to the Washington Post, NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills said, “The training camps, that period up to that first preseason game, that’s the highest period for the density of contact, meaning there’s more contact practices during that time than there are any other times during the year. So it makes sense to start with the most vulnerable players in terms of numbers of impacts and also the most vulnerable time of the year.”9

Should college athletes be paid?

Young coach explaining training rules to children school soccer team.

Scandals in the NCAA, 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.10 While college athletes do typically receive tuition scholarships, they often also have had to miss classes to play, or they ended up dropping out of school to pursue professional opportunities. Student athletes, particularly football and basketball players, are the engine of a college sports industry that nets universities millions of dollars in profits; some have said that’s 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.11

In 2021, the NCAA adopted guidelines that allow college athletes to profit off of their names, images and likenesses. According to NBC News, this decision affected nearly a half million college athletes, who became enfranchised to pursue sponsorship deals, online endorsements and personal appearances.12

The new guidelines, however, open the door to further ethical dilemmas in sport, including these:

  • What impact will the guidelines have on the future of amateur competition?
  • In what way(s) do they create a less equitable environment, especially for female athletes?
  • Colleges are still not paying their athletes, despite profiting from their names, images and likenesses for many years

Should professional leagues promote gambling?

In 1992, citing the potential of money laundering schemes and other activities of questionable ethics, Congress enacted the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which prevented the expansion of sports wagering beyond Nevada. According to Forbes, this effectively gave Nevada a national monopoly on single-game wagering. The prohibition stood for roughly 30 years, despite the proliferation of illicit sports gambling.13

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.14 By becoming a partner in the gambling venture, the NBA stood to make one percent on every bet made on games. This raised ethical dilemmas about how widespread gambling might affect player effort, or players' ability to sway games. Further, the social problem of gambling addiction brought up other ethical issues extending beyond the world of sport.

Happy female coach is consulting young woman.

In its May 2018 ruling of Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, the United States Supreme Court declared PASPA unconstitutional, paving the way for sports gambling expansion. Since then, roughly 30 states have legalized sports betting, including 21 that allow online betting. Five more states appear poised to legalize it within the year.13 As of early October 2022, total wagers nationwide exceed $152 billion.15

Writing for The Atlantic, Matthew Walther examined ethical issues brought to the fore by the 2018 ruling:

“Before the legalization of online gambling, the great majority of Americans would go their entire [lives] without being tempted to seek out a bookie or fly to the handful of jurisdictions in which in-person sports betting was permitted. What millions now face are endless deceptive advertisements aired during the most-watched television broadcasts in America, inviting them to risk their money on platforms funded by venture capitalists rather than by organized crime. Many of the commercials I see while watching football promote what are called “risk free” bets, a phrase that should probably fall afoul of various truth-in-advertising statutes. What they mean is that if you bet $300 and win, you will be able to withdraw your winnings (in five to seven days via bank wire or instantaneously if you opt for the platform’s branded prepaid card); if you lose, your forfeited wagers become credits that can be used for future bets. Risk-free bets serve one purpose: ensuring that you continue to make use of the platform … To shield a tiny portion of the population who engaged in behavior that might once have been considered immoral (or ‘harmful’ as many prefer to put it now) from the worst consequences of their actions, we have exposed many millions of others to an apparently mitigated version of the same hazards, and enriched powerful corporate interests in the bargain.”16

Influence the Future of Ethics in Sport

Numerous ethical dilemmas confront the sports industry today. Issues in recent years have included 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, the rights of transgender athletes and athletes with variations in sex characteristics, and institutional racism and exclusionary practices in sport teams and clubs.

Make your mark on the next generation of sport and sport leadership. With the KU online master’s degree in sport management,* you’ll be ready when the right opportunities arise. Study online and maintain your career momentum as you look to build the expertise you need to lead sports organizations. Explore the curriculum, including our internship opportunity, and schedule a call with an admissions advisor today.

*This program is a Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) degree in health, sport management, and exercise science with an emphasis in sport management.

  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
  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 October 3, 2022, from operations.nfl.com/gameday/behind-the-scenes/atc-spotters/
  9. Retrieved on October 3, 2022, from washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/08/19/nfl-guardian-caps-concussions/
  10. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from cbssports.com/college-football/news/want-to-pay-college-athletes-start-with-allowing-legitimate-endorsement-deals/
  11. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from espn.com/nba/story/_/id/22664510/golden-state-warriors-coach-steve-kerr-thinks-undrafted-players-allowed-return-college
  12. Retrieved on October 3, 2022, from nbcnews.com/news/sports/ncaa-allows-college-athletes-profit-their-name-image-major-policy-n1272861
  13. Retrieved on October 3, 2022, from forbes.com/betting/sports-betting/legal-states/
  14. Retrieved on March 6, 2018, from espn.com/nba/story/_/id/22198782/nba-outlines-plan-professional-sports-leagues-pushing-national-legalized-wagering
  15. Retrieved on October 3, 2022, from legalsportsreport.com/sports-betting/revenue/
  16. Retrieved on October 3, 2022, from theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/online-gambling-sports-betting/629790/