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Sports Ethics - An Oxymoron?

Ed EtzelEdward Etzel (Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.)

What has happened to sport today? Wasn’t the golden path of opportunity in sport to develop positive values through participation when we actually played for the sake of just playing? Weren’t we supposed to pick up some sense of responsibility, fair play, honesty and persistence along the way?

Beyond being active, the idea of sport was to learn how to win and lose in the face of physical and mental challenges. The field, pool, track or court have historically been where “character” is developed from organized and informal play. 

Unfortunately, it seems that these assumptions may not be true in 2017 as the culture of sport has changed.

The ethics surrounding participation and competition appear to have eroded. Media reports of abusive coaching (verbal, physical and even sexual abuse) in youth sport have come to the forefront. The 2012 and 2016 Olympics were riddled with performance-enhancing drug use and drug testing scandals linked to the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organization entrusted with ensuring a level playing field. The stakes are so high that international intelligence agencies were tampering with drug testing results. 

Major League Baseball, too, has had its challenges, from Pete Rose’s gambling to the Barry Bonds/Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa era to Alex Rodriguez’ performance-enhancing drug use. In the world’s most popular sport — soccer — Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was hit with pervasive corruption charges involving its top administrators. There were bribes and backroom deals involving millions of euros. 

The storied National Football League had its “Deflategate” involving the New England Patriots, which raised questions about cheating by manipulating the air in playoff game footballs to provide a competitive advantage. 

Did the rules somehow fly out the window over time? No, rules and regulations abound. For example, the current, ever-expanding National Collegiate Athletics Association rulebook that guides competition, and myriad other facets of athletics administration, are now countless pages long. The content of the NCAA manual is as confusing as the tax code. There are plenty of rules out there, in every sport. 

Despite these guidelines, coaches and schools appear to frequently bend the rules to win and make money to support the ongoing athletics arms race and the industry. Inside Higher Ed reported this year that approximately 95 of the 350 NCAA Division I institutions had incurred a major rules violation, with more than half of the affluent Power 5 conference schools having incurred such violations. 

What is at the root of these ethical quandaries within the last few decades in sport? Some suggest it is the appeal of the growing, huge amounts of money involved and the power to win at nearly any cost. In fact, global sport activity has been estimated to involve at least $150 billion annually worldwide. Beyond the money, ethical sport behavior may just be linked to human nature. Inclinations to act unethically may be practical: A coach has to bend the rules to win to keep her or his job. As sport ethicist William Morgan asked: Why should we act ethically since doing so is often contrary to our self-interests? 

What to do? Some critical things must happen to get and keep people playing and interested in sport. Influential people who oversee and are responsible for the conduct of training and competition, including parents, coaches and management, need to courageously step up and emphasize honesty, the importance of the level playing field and sportsmanship.  

A financial cap needs to be put on an industry — professional and amateur — that is nearly out of control. If this happens, there is some hope. People of influence and integrity need to take on the challenge to clean up the culture and ensure consequences for those who are dishonest, exploit athletes and mislead the public. Without these changes, maybe “sport ethics” really is an oxymoron? 

Etzel signature

Edward Etzel, MS ’79, Physical Education, EdD ’89, Counseling Psychology, is a professor in the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences where he is director of the new Russell “Bud” Bolton Center for Sports Ethics. Etzel is an Olympic gold medalist in rifle and is a member of the WVU Sports Hall of Fame.

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