Ethics & Sports

FoulPlay.jpgWhat Role Does Ethics Play in Sports?

by Kirk O. Hanson and Matt Savage, Aug 2012.
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

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. Ethics in sport requires four key virtues: fairness, integrity, responsibility, and respect.

  • All athletes and coaches must follow established rules and guidelines of their respective sport.
  • Teams that seek an unfair competitive advantage over their opponent create an uneven playing field which violates the integrity of the sport.
  • Athletes and coaches are not discriminated against or excluded from participating in a sport based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Referees must apply the rules equally to both teams and cannot show bias or personal interest in the outcome.
  • Similar to fairness, in that any athlete who seeks to gain an advantage over his or her opponent by means of a skill that the game itself was not designed to test demonstrates a lack of personal integrity and violates the integrity of the game. For example, when a player fakes being injured or fouled in soccer, he or she is not acting in a sportsmanlike manner because the game of soccer is not designed to measure an athlete's ability to flop. Faking is a way of intentionally deceiving an official into making a bad call, which only hurts the credibility of the officiating and ultimately undermines the integrity of the game.
  • To be sportsmanlike requires players and coaches to take responsibility for their performance, as well as their actions on the field. This includes their emotions.
  • Many times athletes and coaches will make excuses as to why they lost the game. The most popular excuse is to blame the officiating. The honorable thing to do instead is to focus only on the aspects of the game that you can control, i.e. your performance, and to question yourself about where you could have done better.
  • Responsibility requires that players and coaches be up to date on the rules and regulations governing their sport.
  • Responsibility demands that players and coaches conduct themselves in an honorable way off the field, as well as on it.
  • All athletes should show respect for teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials.
  • All coaches should show respect for their players, opponents, and officials.
  • All fans, especially parents, should show respect for other fans, as well as both teams and officials.

The sportsmanship model is built on the idea that sport both demonstrates and encourages character development, which then influences the moral character of the broader community. How we each compete in sports can have an effect on our personal moral and ethical behavior outside of the competition.

Some argue for a "bracketed morality" within sports. This approach holds that sport and competition are set apart from real life, and occupy a realm where ethics and moral codes do not apply. Instead, some argue, sports serves as an outlet for our primal aggression and a selfish need for recognition and respect gained through the conquering of an opponent. In this view, aggression and victory are the only virtues. For example, a football player may be described as mean and nasty on the field, but kind and gentle in everyday life. His violent disposition on the field is not wrong because when he is playing the game he is part of an amoral reality that is dictated only by the principle of winning.

An ethical approach to sport rejects this bracketed morality and honors the game and one's opponent through tough but fair play. This means understanding the rules and their importance in encouraging respect for your opponent, which pushes you to be your best.


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Lance Armstrong


To Baseball’s Chagrin, Steroid Era Goes On

The New York Times


Published: August 24, 2012

steroid-baseball.jpgIt came to be called the steroid era, an inglorious decade or so of cheating by major league baseball players and a lack of action by baseball owners. But the attempt to establish start and end dates for all the dishonesty was always a bit naïve. Athletes just don’t stop cheating. Performance-enhancing drugs just don’t go away. The steroid era, as baseball has learned anew this month, is more likely to be a permanent state of affairs than an ugly chapter that can be closed.

Barry Bonds is convicted in 2011 for being evasive about his links to illegal performance enhancers, and Roger Clemens is acquitted in 2012, and perhaps many people conclude that the drug issue is finally behind the sport. But meanwhile, Ryan Braun, the fresh-faced most valuable player of the National League, tests positive for elevated testosterone last fall. Then, last week, Melky Cabrera is suspended for 50 games for a positive testosterone test, although his suspension may not keep him from a big award of his own — the National League batting title.

The asterisks multiply, the positive tests keep emerging, with five so far this season, the latest being the 39-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon, who was given his own 50-game suspension on Wednesday for testing positive for an elevated level of testosterone, the same offense committed by Cabrera.The testing program that baseball has put in place over the last decade, late in coming and only gradually toughened, now appears to serve less as a real solution and more as a vehicle for reminding everyone that drug use manages to endure, sowing mistrust, ruining careers and embarrassing the national pastime.

It was on Jan. 11, 2010, that baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig, felt emboldened enough to declare the essential end of steroid use in the sport. Selig spoke out immediately after Mark McGwire, the retired slugger, belatedly admitted that he had used performance enhancers to help him hit all those home runs. “The use of steroids and amphetamines amongst today’s players has greatly subsided and is virtually nonexistent, as our testing results have shown,” Selig said that day. “The so-called steroid era — a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances — is clearly a thing of the past.”

Indeed, in 2010, only two major leaguers were suspended for using performance enhancers, and there were only two suspensions in 2011. But the five this season, along with the uneasiness created by the Braun case — he avoided a suspension only because of the disputed manner in which his test sample was handled — has undermined Selig’s assertion. “What you realize is that no matter what the risks of cheating, no matter what the odds of getting caught, some percentage of athletes are still going to cheat,” said Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Although Tygart and other anti-doping experts used to criticize baseball consistently for essentially ignoring the issue of performance enhancers, that is no longer the case. When baseball and its players union agreed last November to begin blood testing for human growth hormone, making it the first major professional sports league in North America to do so, praise came from former critics. “This is very significant,” David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said at the time. “At last we are in a position where we can say that Major League Baseball is taking a leading role.”

Tygart echoed that sentiment on Thursday, saying baseball had “made great strides, compared to where they started in 2003,” even moving to increase what had been considered a relatively meager number of drug tests conducted out of season. Tygart speculated that the recent positive tests could even be a response to baseball’s more aggressive approach to drug use in recent years because testosterone cream has a reputation as something that leaves the system quickly and is thus harder to detect.“It’s a potent performance enhancer, it’s not that expensive and it’s relatively easy to obtain,” Tygart said. “For the players willing to take that risk, it’s something that has a lot of bang for the buck.”

In the recently completed Summer Olympics in London, 11 athletes were barred from the Games for illegal drug use. That is more than twice the number of suspensions in baseball this season, and drug testing in the Olympics substantially predates testing in baseball. That suggests that no testing system, as tough as it may try to be, is ever going to scare an entire sport straight. And that leaves Selig, who has been commissioner for two decades and will be 80 years old when his current term of office expires in 2014, likely to look more and more foolish if positive tests continue to emerge.

He has long been concerned that his legacy as commissioner not be subsumed by the drug use that occurred on his watch, that people remember that he introduced interleague play and the wild card, and that the sport’s revenue has grown immensely during his reign. He began counterattacking on drugs in the middle of the last decade, pushing for tougher testing and authorizing the former senator George Mitchell to produce a report on drug use in the sport. That report, issued in December 2007, linked dozens of current and former players to performance enhancers, including Clemens, who challenged the assertions before Congress and was ultimately tried and found not guilty of lying in his testimony.

Bonds, baseball’s home run king, had also been charged with lying — to a federal grand jury investigating the distribution of steroids. He was ultimately found guilty of obstruction of justice. Selig endured all this. The drug suspensions in the sport, meanwhile, kept descending from a high of 12 in 2005. There were six in 2007, four in 2009, and then the two years in which there were just two. But now they are climbing again.
Selig was not available for comment Thursday. Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said: “We’re upset any time a player tests positive. But it means we have a good testing program in place.”

Some think baseball, and Selig, would have been better off if it had decided years ago to farm out its drug testing to an independent agency like Usada or WADA. Conflicts of interest would have been removed, the thinking holds, and the testing regimen would have been upgraded. But Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus at Penn State and a widely known antidoping expert, said he was not convinced that WADA or Usada was doing a better job than baseball when it came to testing and that cheats were usually far ahead of the testers.

“I’ve said for decades only the stupid and lazy people get caught,” he said. “I really don’t think baseball is any cleaner or dirtier than Olympic sports, and they have the so-called gold standard of testing.”