Ethical Issues in Sports and How Athletic Leaders Can Address Them

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A coed high school baseball team’s pregame cheer.

Working toward excellence in sports can produce incredible gratification. But what happens when the drive to win overtakes respect for the rules of the game? In January 2020, a Major League Baseball (MLB) investigation found the Houston Astros guilty of an egregious cheating scheme suggesting that the team’s desire to win at all costs had surpassed its commitment to fair play.

Astros players along with the bench coach and several other baseball operations staff participated in a scheme to illegally steal signs from opposing teams. Sign stealing (observing the catcher’s signals to the pitcher, then relaying that information to the batter so he knows what pitch to expect) is permitted by MLB rules, but not when it involves technology.

In the Astros case, conspirators set up a camera that captured the signals and sent them to a live feed in the team’s dugout. This clearly defied MLB regulations. The scandal that followed added fodder to an ongoing conversation about ethical issues in sports both on and off the playing field.

Allegations of racism and bullying by National Hockey League coaches, the New England Patriots’ illegal videotaping of opponents, and a host of other incidents highlight the ethical challenges the sports world must address. These scandals can teach important lessons about respecting others, acting with integrity, and behaving fairly.

Sports ignite people’s deeply rooted instincts to compete and succeed. Regardless of this drive for accomplishment, a love of sports must include respect for fairness. Athletic leaders in professional, college, and interscholastic sports play a key role in promoting best practices that not only support fair play, but also create environments that inspire camaraderie, encourage respect, and unite people.

Those interested in building sports programs that cultivate these core values in student-athletes must develop the right skills. Many universities offer advanced degree programs in athletic administration that prepare graduates to lead successful athletic departments.

Why Are Ethics Important in the Sports World?

How a game is played matters. Faking injuries, using steroids, altering a bat so it can hit a baseball farther, or purposefully injuring star players all compromise the integrity of competition. Sporting events are not wars, after all, although deep rivalries often exist. Instead, competitions should allow athletes equal opportunity to demonstrate who performs best within an established set of rules.

Problems in sports can arise when teams, managers, or coaches place more value on winning than on how they win. Acting ethically on the playing field—from the sidelines to administrative offices and beyond — should weigh more significantly than who wins or loses.

Sports are played by rules. When athletes, referees, coaches, or administrators attempt to circumvent the rules of the game, they undermine the foundations of sport itself.

The value of sports lies in their ability to do more than identify the best athletes. Sports can instill important values, including respect and teamwork, as well as teach lessons about perseverance and honesty. As far back as ancient Greece, athletics have been seen as an important character-building tool that encourages discipline, collaboration, and responsibility. Sports without ethics do not live up to these values.

In many ways, athletic competitions mimic other aspects of life; its disappointments, victories, and struggles. These experiences can have meaningful implications on people’s behaviors, values, and understanding of themselves and others. For example:

  • Managing a defeat in a tennis tournament can prepare a person to handle other disappointments.
  • Supporting a teammate who cannot finish a soccer season because of an injury can build greater empathy in other areas of life.
  • Battling to make a qualifying time for a swimming event can prepare a person for the rigor required to achieve professional goals.

Strong ethical principles in athletics communicate respect for everyone involved in a sport — the athletes, the fans, the coaches, and so on. Ethical behavior in sports can refer to:

  • Protecting the health of athletes
  • Following the rules
  • Respecting opponents
  • Demonstrating self-control in the face of frustration or defeat
  • Taking responsibility for one’s mistakes and not blaming others
  • Not trying to gain unfair advantages

Ethical behavior in sports can promote ethics-driven behaviors in other areas, such as helping others in need, building trust, respecting dignity, and treating others equally. Additionally, a commitment to ethical behavior can allow athletic programs and athletes at any level to form better connections with their communities.

For example, high school athletic departments that treat all sports programs equally — without showing favoritism to male or female teams or certain sports — foster greater equity and unity in the school community. Conversely, a university athletic program that turns a blind eye to hazing practices against incoming players or falsifies the academic certification of student-athletes will likely breed distrust and disunity within the community.

Dealing with Ethical Dilemmas in Sports

Situations sometimes arise that tempt people in the sports world to skirt ethically driven principles. Two often-cited reasons for engaging in unethical behavior include:

  • The desire to gain an advantage
  • The fear of competing at a disadvantage

Consider the following situations:

A college basketball coach is concerned that his student-athletes will not maintain high enough grade point averages to be eligible to compete in games. To boost their GPAs, he works out a scheme that gives some student-athletes As for classes they never have to attend. Such was the case at the University of Georgia where the head coach collaborated with his son, the assistant coach, who taught a class. Student-athletes never attended the class but still received credit and high marks.

A high school football coach discovers talented players, but then learns the players live in another district. The coach fabricates residency documents so these students can play outside of their attendance zones. Such was the case in a Dallas scandal that resulted in the firing of the athletic director of Dallas Independent School District, along with a number of other district employees.

 Ethical issues in sports do not only impact coaches, managers, and administrators. Athletes also encounter dilemmas that may test their commitment to ethical behavior, especially in environments that offer easy access to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

With rumors, speculation, and confirmation that some of the world’s most admired athletes have used PEDs, it should come as no surprise that others consider doping. When athletes suspect that “everybody’s doing it,” they may think they are putting themselves at a disadvantage by not using PEDs.

Former professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton describes the first time he decided to take a PED in the film “Effects of PEDs: Athlete Stories.” He knew most of his teammates were doping, and explains, “I thought if I said no to [the drugs] I wouldn’t be selected to ride in the Tour de France.” Ultimately, Hamilton testified in front of a grand jury nearly ten years later about the doping schemes he participated in that led to his success, but which also ravaged his mental well-being.

Unethical behavior in sports can have far-reaching consequences. In doping cases, whether offending athletes are detected or not, they can end up with a variety of health problems including:

  • Blood clots
  • Liver problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Irregular heartbeat

Beyond health problems, doping has tainted the careers of legends such as Lance Armstrong and Sammy Sosa, and ended the careers of countless others. Although athletic governing bodies such as the NCAA, professional sports leagues, and the World Anti-Doping Agency conduct drug testing, many younger athletes do not undergo testing.

Athletes confront other ethical challenges as well. What happens when referees, judges, or umpires make bad calls or fail to see violations? Athletes might feel compelled to “correct” the errors. Consider a match in which a defender inadvertently deflects a soccer ball with their hand and prevents the other team from scoring. Later in the game, a player from the opposing team might see an opportunity to make up for the lost goal and intentionally use their hand to alter a potential score.

In this case, the player may chalk up this action as nothing more than evening things out. Others might note the different intentions of each player. While both players committed a foul, the second player intentionally broke the rules to gain an advantage. Moments like this frequently happen in sports, forcing athletes to make instantaneous decisions that may, or may not, follow ethical principles.

Institutions can make unethical decisions as well — and pay the consequences. One of the heaviest penalties for rule violations was the shutdown of Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) football program in 1987. The team had repeatedly violated rules by paying its players, which led the NCAA to cancel the team’s entire 1987 season, as well as its home games in 1988. To this day, SMU has yet to recover its position as a major college football program.

Examining Ethical Issues in College Sports

College sports administrators who coordinate the athletic programs, coach teams, or manage player recruitment confront ethical decisions every day regarding:

  • Student-athlete athletic performance
  • Student-athlete behavior on and off the field
  • Equitable treatment of student-athletes
  • Student-athlete academic performance
  • Team management

Today’s colleges and universities make a great deal of money from their sports programs. They also spend large sums to maintain those programs. This can create immense pressure on administrators to deliver winning records, and sometimes engage in unethical behavior.

Two common ethical issues in college sports include:

Recruitment Practices — Recruiters must follow specific rules when contacting high school athletes. While they can offer scholarships, they cannot give gifts, money, or the like. These rules are designed to let student-athletes make informed decisions without feeling pressured or bribed. Additionally, colleges and universities cannot lower academic standards in the name of sports. If they recruit student-athletes, those recruits must have the skills to succeed academically at the school.

What happens when recruiters try to get around these rules?

In a recent case involving several top universities, assistant coaches, head coaches, and basketball directors conspired with Adidas executives to use cash payments to steer talented recruits to schools with Adidas sponsorships. This led to firings, arrests, and criminal trials.

A CNN investigation discovered that between 7% and 18% of basketball and football student-athletes read at elementary school levels, indicating their acceptance was solely based on their athletic ability. This has diminished the reputation of many programs and placed doubt on their commitment to the goals of higher education.

These types of recruiting practices not only undermine the integrity of athletic departments, they call into question the overall integrity of the university.

The Punishment of Athletes — When athletes violate rules or act unethically on or off the field, coaches, athletic directors, or other sports administrators must respond appropriately. Ignoring misbehavior can be construed as tacit endorsement. Misbehavior may include violating NCAA regulations by accepting gifts, hazing, or committing sexual assault, among other things.

A series of sexual assault scandals at Baylor University demonstrates what can happen when student-athletes do not receive appropriate punishment for their behavior.

Starting in 2012, female students at Baylor began making allegations of sexual assault against male student-athletes. These reports continued over the years, but the university appeared to let those accused off the hook. Even after indictments and convictions of Baylor athletes, the problem persisted. Multiple women accused the university of failing to take appropriate actions. Eventually, an independent law firm that was called in to investigate reported that the athletic department had failed “to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence.”

This failure to address and punish unethical and criminal behavior may have led to more sexual assaults. The scandal also resulted in a string of firings, resignations, and lawsuits. Today, Baylor University still struggles to recover its reputation as offering a safe environment for students.

Academic Integrity

Years of disheartening reports about universities sacrificing academic integrity for athletic glory have rattled intercollegiate sports programs. They have also called into question whether the goals of college sports and higher education are compatible.

Some of the worst examples of schools flagrantly disregarding academic integrity involve top universities participating in the March Madness basketball tournament.

For example:

Syracuse University created an elaborate hoax to ensure student-athletes maintained the grades needed to remain eligible to play basketball. The former director of basketball operations collected student-athlete usernames and passwords, which he gave to staffers. Those staffers then used the information to correspond with the students’ professors and turn in work that was not their own.

At the University of North Carolina, a professor and an administrator inflated student grade point averages by creating fake classes. For the phantom classes, students did not have to meet with the professor, and they received high grades for their papers regardless of content.

A Look at Ethical Issues in Youth Sports

Younger athletes require thoughtful guidance and support when they participate in sports. They not only need someone to teach them the rules and help them develop their athletic skills, but they also need adults to model positive attitudes toward competition and teach them about fair play. Sports have great potential to teach important life lessons. However, student-athletes need responsible coaches to instill values that will allow them to both enjoy sports and grow.

Ethical Coaching Practices

Applying ethical coaching practices can make a huge impact on an athletics program, especially when it involves athletes who are minors.

  • By focusing holistically on the development of minor athletes, coaches help them reach their greatest potential within the sport.
  • By setting developmentally appropriate goals and planning strategically, coaches can empower minor athletes to succeed.
  • By identifying and modeling ethical behaviors in a sport, coaches can prepare students to respond appropriately during practices and competitions.
  • By creating safe, respectful environments free of abuse, coaches create the conditions for minor athletes to learn from their mistakes and build confidence.
  • By paying attention to the wellness of minor athletes and their body structures, coaches can help prevent injuries and advise students on good nutrition and other practices that can help them stay healthy.

These practices help nurture the talents of minor athletes. Beyond helping young athletes perform well, ethical coaching can cultivate resilience, concern for others, and integrity.

Parental Interference

Even after exerting their best efforts to ethically lead and teach young athletes, coaches may face interference from parents. What happens when parents do not show the self-control, good sportsmanship, and patience that younger, more impressionable athletes need to see?

Parents who coach from the sidelines can create conflicts and stress for young athletes. Shouting instructions to their sons or daughters in the middle of a game can cause problems. What if parent instructions contradict the instructions of the coach? Young athletes then must choose who to listen to, and their choice inevitably puts them at odds with someone they are supposed to respect.

Such scenarios can put young athletes under unnecessary stress, shake their focus, and take the joy out of a game. Coaches and athletic directors must navigate a fine line in these situations. While still encouraging parent involvement, they must communicate in clear terms who should coach and who should cheer.

Social and Ethical Issues in Sports

Larger societal concerns often present themselves as ethical issues in interscholastic sports. Some of these concerns which coaches and sports administrators must address include:

Gender Equity — Some young female athletes still report having fewer opportunities to participate in the sports of their choice, and receiving less recognition for the sports they do participate in. For instance, one young female athlete writing about her high school in Buffalo, New York, described male teams receiving new uniforms while female teams had to make do with old ones.

Those who manage sports programs for minor athletes have both a legal and ethical obligation to follow Title IX rules, which ensure males and females have equal opportunities to participate in athletics.

Bullying — The prevalence of bullying has gained attention in recent years. A number of hazing incidents in interscholastic sports have highlighted the need for athletic departments to be vigilant and develop comprehensive prevention plans. One alleged incident in a Chicago suburb involved Lake Zurich high school football players who were forced to strip and were humiliated.

Such assaults require immediate consequences. In the case of Zurich High School, locker room supervision was implemented. A recent study found that 80% of college athletes reported being victims of hazing. Those responsible for interscholastic sports programs must send a strong message about these types of unethical and abusive behaviors.

What Is an Action Plan in Sports Ethics?

Conscientious coaches, athletic directors, and other administrators can promote ethically driven sports programs by adopting action plans. These plans lay out frameworks to help teams demonstrate positive ethical and social behaviors.

Action plans:

  1.     Identify goals
  2.     Identify tasks to reach those goals
  3.     Set timelines
  4.     Provide ways to monitor progress

Strategies such as action plans can help coaches and administrators effectively address ethical issues. They also help program leaders respond proactively instead of reactively.

The most effective strategies for addressing ethical issues in sports center around building community values. Community values focus on unity and cooperation, and cultivate a sense of responsibility to others. When athletes feel responsible to others, they may also feel less inclined to act dishonestly or engage in unfair behaviors. Setting goals also strategically fits into running ethical sports programs, because goals provide clear expectations for students.

Another important component of action plans involves setting goals. Goals should specifically address relevant ethical issues in sports and be broken down into small, actionable steps. The plan should also provide for ways to measure whether its goals are being achieved.

The Society of Health and Physical Educators has developed national standards that can help coaches and sport administrators build more ethical sports programs. Some recommended strategies include:

  • Embrace a philosophy that focuses on developing the whole athlete
  • Create goals that address the physical, behavioral, and social development of student-athletes
  • Ensure the sports program matches community needs, athlete needs, and established rules and regulations
  • Teach and model established codes of conduct
  • Cultivate an environment that rewards effort and learning
  • Encourage the participation of all athletes regardless of their backgrounds

By using these strategies, athletic programs can:

  • Improve the quality of student performance
  • Reduce violence
  • Lower the number of injuries
  • Build a greater sense of community
  • Strengthen teamwork

Just as sports can promote ethical values, they can also promote the opposite. Coaches can expect their athletes to mimic the behaviors they teach or reward. If coaches teach players that they can benefit from disrespecting rules, athletes will commit more violations. However, if coaches reward athletes for fair play and good sportsmanship, players are more likely to respect themselves, other players, officials, and the rules of the game.

Through thoughtful planning and action, leaders in sports can help ensure athletics serve as a vehicle for ethical behavior and positive values.

Be an Ethical Leader in Interscholastic Sports

The field of athletic leadership delivers many challenges, but it also offers great opportunities to those who are passionate about sports and committed to ethical practices and fair play. To gain the necessary skills and expertise, aspiring sports leaders can benefit from degree programs that specialize in athletic administration.

Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration trains interscholastic athletic directors through a comprehensive curriculum. It also prepares graduates to receive National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification.

The program covers subjects including decision-making and ethical issues in sports, human resources management, legal aspects of interscholastic sports, and the application of leadership theories in interscholastic sports. Courses such as Ethics in Sports teach crucial strategies for promoting ethical behaviors and character development, while Management and Leadership in Sport focuses on managing conflicts, building teamwork, and developing a leadership philosophy.

Success in interscholastic sports requires building a professional philosophy that is grounded in ethical principles. Discover how Ohio University’s online program deepens the knowledge to become an ethical sports leader and run a healthy, thriving athletic department.


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