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Sports Ethics

Gamesmanship Crowds Out Sportsmanship

Think about it. In the last month we’ve heard that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped U.S. bicyclist Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles because of allegations that he used a performance-enhancing drug. Eight female badminton doubles players from South Korea, China, and Indonesia were disqualified from the London Olympics after trying to lose matches to receive a more favorable place in the tournament. The Badminton World Federation stated that it punished them for "not using one's best efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport." Major League baseball suspended one of its best players this year – S.F. Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera – for 50 games for using a performance-enhancing drug and attempting to cover it up by using a website to create evidence to support a claim that the outfielder inadvertently took the substance that caused a positive drug test.

This doesn’t even begin to identify the problem with ethics (or lack thereof) in sports. All of the above seem tame when viewed from the perspective of institutionally-driven unethical conduct in sports. I refer to the bounty scandal at the New Orleans Saints and the cover-up of child sexual abuse occurring at Penn State.

Ethicist Kirk O. Hanson points out that to understand the role ethics plays in sport and competition, it is important to make a distinction between gamesmanship and sportsmanship. Gamesmanship is built on the principle that winning is everything. Athletes and coaches are encouraged to bend the rules wherever possible in order to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent, and to pay less attention to the safety and welfare of the competition. Some of the key tenants of gamesmanship are:

  • Winning is everything
  • It's only cheating if you get caught
  • It is the referee's job to catch wrongdoing, and the athletes and coaches have no
  • inherent responsibility to follow the rules
  • The ends always justify the means

Some examples of gamesmanship are:

  • Faking a foul or injury
  • Attempting to get a head start in a race
  • Tampering with equipment, such as corking a baseball bat in order to hit the ball farther
  • Covert personal fouls, such as grabbing a player underwater during a water polo match
  • Inflicting pain on an opponent with the intention of knocking him or her out of the game, like the Saint's bounty scandal
  • The use of performance-enhancing drugs
  • Taunting or intimidating an opponent
  • A coach lying about an athlete's grades in order to keep him or her eligible to play

All of these examples place greater emphasis on the outcome of the game than on the manner in which it is played.

A more ethical approach to athletics is sportsmanship. Under a sportsmanship model, healthy competition is seen as a means of cultivating personal honor, virtue, and character. It contributes to a community of respect and trust between competitors and in society. The goal in sportsmanship is not simply to win, but to pursue victory with honor by giving one's best effort.

Sports are an important part of the American psyche. We cheer for our heroes and feel disillusioned when they fail us by cheating to get ahead. We root for our favorite team and feel betrayed when they don’t give it their all.

Sports have huge impact people's lives, as they create unity, promote values and community pride. We have an unstated set of ethical standards in sports including fairness, integrity, responsibility, and respect. All the athletes, administrators, coaches, officials and supporters taking part in sport, must take the personal responsibility to ensure that the sport is fun and fair for everyone.

Morals, ethics and values are more than rules or laws. These are implied on duties or actions that one should take and help judge what is right or good for a person. If someone does not perform in that way, then their behavior is contrary to sports ethics.

One of the common problems of following morals and values in sports is that these differ from one player to another. It thus becomes an obligation of coaches, team captains and leaders to instill basic sports morals and ethics to their individual players and as a team. Most important, sports leaders should serve as a role model for players and walk the talk of ethics. Clearly, this did not occur when New Orleans Saints coaches put a price on the head of a player for the opposing team.

When you come right down to it, sports are mimicking what is wrong with society today. In the last few years we’ve witnessed the irresponsible actions of financial institutions that acted out of self-interest without regard to the interests of consumers. Local government officials accept payments from lobbyist groups and give preference to their needs and wants over what is good for the community. And who can forget the ineptitude of the General Service Administration (GSA) in its defense of the job it did assessing the General Services Administration’s ethics programs in 2010, the year in which GSA hosted a conference in Las Vegas that has recently become a scandal for the agency.

We need to do something about the lack of a strong ethic in sports before it is too late. In the last few years, countless ethical issues have arisen in the world of college sports. A series of scandals involving players receiving improper benefits and coaches involved in recruiting violations have challenged the integrity of college athletics, leaving many to wonder if sports are compatible with the goals of higher education.

Sports and competition create challenges to proper behavior at the earliest of ages. As pointed out by Hanson, every year millions of young boys and girls sign up to play in local youth sports leagues across the country. From hockey to Little League Baseball, many youth dream of one day playing under the lights, in a packed stadium, in front of thousands of screaming fans. We know that for most young people, that dream will never become a reality.

That raises the question of what is the real role of youth sports in society? Is it only to recognize the select few destined for athletic greatness and to weed out the rest? Or is there an inherent value for youth in playing sports, even if a career ends in the third grade? If so, what is that value, and how can we it maximize it?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 29, 2012