What Ethics is and is Not
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What is the Role of Ethics in College Sports?

Can Civility be Brought Back to Sports?

It’s March madness once again. Once a year college sports fans turn their attention to filling out brackets and selecting the winner of the NCAA championship. For what it’s worth I’m picking Duke.

I recently read that Duke’s 2006 national player of the year, J.J. Redick, has begun an effort to bring civility back to college sports. J.J. vividly recalled how it began, with some hecklers at his first road game for Duke. Over time, Redick remembers the chants turning into vulgar jeers and crude messages about his siblings.

Today, Redick's goal is to prevent other college athletes from facing similar experiences. J.J. is urging athletes and fans to put civility back in college basketball as much of the nation turns its attention to the NCAA Tournament.

So, last week, Dove Men+Care asked fans to take a pledge that will keep them on their best behavior during March Madness. Dozens of coaches and former players, including Redick, have signed on. Good luck with that, I say. That shipped has sailed.

Three years ago, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart was suspended three games for shoving a fan after the two exchanged words. Smart, who initially claimed the fan used a racial slur, later apologized for the incident. In December, Arkansas receiver Drew Morgan was ejected from the Belk Bowl after allegedly spitting in the face of a Virginia Tech player. He, too, apologized. Sports figures are always apologetic – after they get caught.

So, what’s the cause of increased incivility in sports? Butler coach Chris Holtmann said he believes some of these scenes are a result of the stress associated with playing for postseason bids or a job. And some are a result of more scrutiny. That’s nice but what about personal responsibility?

The best answer is rude behavior on the court is simply a reflection of society losing its moral compass. No doubt increased scrutiny from social media has heightened our awareness to these events. Perhaps it’s just cameras are everywhere so bad behavior is more likely to appear online than ever before.

The Markkula Center for Ethics at Santa Clara University points out that sports have the power to bring a community together. Rooting for our favorite teams has a way of uniting people with different backgrounds and experiences under one common symbol. People often say that a sports team reflects the character of its hometown and the people who live in it. Some, though, take it a step further and argue that a city's professional sports teams play a significant role in shaping the values and character of society in general. For instance, if a player were to break the law during the off-season, but then come back and lead his or her team to a championship, most people would quickly dismiss the transgression and celebrate the player as a hero.

Then there are “game ethics” from New England Patriots, with Tom Brady’s Deflategate, to the Pats allegedly videotaping opposing coaches in 40 games, to New Orleans Saints players and at least one assistant coach maintaining a bounty pool of up to $50,000 for rewarding game-ending injuries inflicted on opposing players. The temptation to game the system is high given the cult-like following of college players, especially in basketball, and instant social media stardom that can lead to fat contracts in professional sports.

A large part of ethics is defining a person's moral responsibilities to others. What does it say about a society when the success of its athletes causes it to suspend or lower the standards of behavior? Is it right to give our most prominent athletes a free pass when it comes to their actions? Is it fair to the average citizen? Do professional athletes have an ethical responsibility to set an example for the people living in their communities? Or are they simply entertainers, providing a service?

Professional athletes are often treated like rock stars and worshipped by countless fans. But, for those who think ethics plays a role in sports, professional athletes are held to a higher standard. They are role models responsible for setting an example for others to follow, especially young people.

Kids learn about ethics: fair play, teamwork, integrity from professional athletes.

In The Sport Behavior of Youth, Parents, and Coaches, authors David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier evaluated responses to a survey of 803 athletes ranging in age from 9 to 15, as well as 189 parents and 61 youth sports coaches. They found:

  • Almost one in 10 acknowledged cheating
  • 13 percent tried to injure an opponent
  • 31 percent argued with an official
  • 13 percent made fun of a less-skilled teammate
  • 27 percent admitted to acting like a bad sport

This is scary stuff. As the current generation increasingly learns uncivil behavior in sports from their role models, I can only worry about the long-lasting effects on today’s youth rising stars and the next generation of “rock star athletes.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 14, 2017. Follow me on Twitter. “Like” my Facebook page.