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Sport Ethics

Gamesmanship versus Sportsmanship

Now that the post-season playoffs have started in professional football I thought it would be a good time to discuss sport ethics. The past year has seen several instances of bad sportsmanship and some of these are discussed below. I look at sports from an ethical perspective and give examples of the rightness or wrongness of actions on the field.

Two high-profile examples of treating a player differently from others have occurred this past year including Jason Collins, the NBA’s first openly gay player, who received universal support from the Association when he came out but so far no team has taken a chance on the free agent big man. The recent episode where Jonathan Martin claims to have been harassed in the locker room by Miami Dolphins players, specifically Richie Incognito, led to claims of bullying. Both instances raise the same question whether some in sports treat players that do not conform to ‘established norms’ differently and unfairly.

Sport ethics deals with issues that arise during and around sport competitions. Sports are based on the fair enforcement of rules. At a first approximation, this means that every contestant (being an individual player or a team) has the right to see the rules of the game applied in equal measure to each and every contestant, while having the duty to try and respect the rules as best as possible. The educational importance of this aspect, not just for children and young adults but for everyone, can be hardly overstated. Sport is a critical tool to teach justice, the respect of rules for the benefit of a group (the contestants as well as the spectators), and honesty.

When we think of sport ethics we tend to focus on the way in which participants carry themselves on the field of play. For example, vicious hits in football are frowned upon and often penalized. Lately, fines have been imposed on players who commit such offenses including Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions who has had multiple ‘vicious’ hits on quarterbacks, including Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Brandon Weeden of the Cleveland Browns.

Most ethicists go further and analyze sport ethics from a philosophical view. For example, the Markkula Center for Ethics at Santa Clara University distinguishes 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. This is unethical behavior because it relies on the ‘the ends justifies the means’ approach to playing the game. If that were true then one player would be justified in hitting another player viciously in order to win a game.

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.

The abiding values of sport include fairness, integrity, responsibility, and respect. Fairness requires that each player and each team should have an equal chance to play up to their abilities. The taking of steroids by well-known baseball players such as Ryan Braun violates the fairness doctrine because it gave him a competitive advantage over those who played by the rules, which ban certain substances.

Integrity is related to fairness and the other values because it addresses the whole of the person. Does each individual playing the sport truly believe in and practice the core values of sport? That is the essence of integrity or principled behavior in sport. In football, faking an injury at the end of a game to stop the clock lacks integrity and the offending team may lose time off the clock. In basketball some would say ‘flopping’ to draw a foul lacks integrity.

Respect deals with how athletes and coaches relate to athletes, teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials. Rutgers University Mike Rice was fired on April 3, 2013, after the coach was caught on video hitting, kicking and taunting players with anti-gay slurs at practice.

Responsibility entails accepting the consequences of one’s actions on the field including one’s emotions. On a Thanksgiving game last year, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stepped over the line that separates the players on the field of play from coaches and other players during a kickoff return by Baltimore Ravens’ player Jacoby Jones. To his credit, Tomlin accepted responsibility for his actions and the $100,000 penalty assessed by the NFL for his sideline interference. But, was this gamesmanship or just an error in judgment? You make the call.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 6, 2014

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