Ethics in Sport?

Why Bother?

I got into an interesting Twitter discussion yesterday on ethics as they apply in sport situations. Specifically, the discussion centered around whether contravention of doping rules was unethical behaviour. While it is a fascinating exercise to have discussions like this in 140 character chunks, it’s a pretty cumbersome process where explanation is involved. Sometimes more room is needed to get the point across. So now I’ve done this.

Ethics covers a very large swath of philosophical territory. Luckily, we don’t need to go there. What a relief. It’s a mucky, murky place where one can follow a circuitous path right up one’s nether sphincter.

Why bother with ethics at all given the paragraph above? It turns out that ethics are very useful for defining rules for behaviour. These rules help to create a level playing field between individuals. The rules also help to ensure that there are remedies for breaches of ethical rules. Most importantly, the ethical rules allow sport to function.

A key feature of any sport are the rules. Some of the rules are functional in nature describing the size of the playing area, dimensions of the implements, duration of the contest, and so on. Other of the rules are ethical in nature and are commonly referred to as ‘fair play’ rules. All sports provide for specific penalties for violation of the ethical rules. For example, in most sports it will contravene the ethical rules if you kill, maim, poison or otherwise seriously harm your opponent outside of the context of the game. Appropriate penalties will be applied.

The rules associated with doping and doping infractions are another level of ethical sport rules. Doping rules are extra-sport, that is, these rules exist and are created outside of any individual sport and are adopted by individual sports. This is done in order to attain some level of consistency between sports as well as to create an environment where doping rules can be enforced at all.

Because of the adoption of doping rules by a sport they have the same impact and enforcement capabilities as any other rules of the sport. The doping rules become, by adoption, the rules of the sport and not some set of rules imposed from the outside by a foreign body.

Why does this confuse us?

No doubt, ethics can be confusing. The primary area for confusion is with morality, particularly individual moral values. Some folks seem to think that ethics are relative to an individual’s personal moral code. On an individual basis, this can be a valid proposition. Where any sport is concerned, this would be a disaster. Imagine any sporting contest where the participants were allowed to determine the applicability of the ethical rules based on each participant’s specific moral belief system. There would be no enforceable rules and no contest.

The area of ethics that sport is concerned with is called ‘professional ethics’. What makes professional ethics apply to sport, either to coaches or athletes? Sport requires a specific skill set that is unique to sport and that sport, to a great extent, is self-governed. There are two areas of conduct that professional ethics are concerned with.

  • The first is how professionals act between and among each other. The profession is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the professionals, between themselves, conduct themselves so that no individual or group within the profession gains unfair advantage over another individual or group within the profession.
  • The second area of conduct for professional ethics is how the individuals in the profession affect those outside of the profession.

How can Ethics be managed?

For nearly all professions, ethics are managed using a specific ‘Code of Ethics’. This code contains a lengthy list of rules that need to be followed by the professional. The code attempts to be an all-inclusive document that has provisions for most eventualities. All codes also include a catch-all or universal rule that is generally stated in terms of ‘actions that bring the profession into disrepute’.

For example, nearly all codes have some form of rule that states, (this is a highly paraphrased and colloquialized form) ‘don’t fuck the clients/athletes/staff’. This is usually framed in both literal and figurative terms. It is easy to see that this rule may not be being used to prevent specifically immoral behaviour (at least where consenting adults are concerned). The behaviour may not be immoral at all. A rule such as this is based on lengthy experience that such behaviour generally ends badly for the professional, professionals associated with the professional and the profession in general.

In most cases, athletes do not have a specific professional association. Athletes are regulated professionally by way of an agreement. The agreement is usually not as comprehensive as a code of ethics but contains a list of rules of behaviour that are agreed to by the athlete and the sport organisation. The agreement nearly always contains a provision relating to the requirement to adhere to the doping rules as adopted by the international sport federation or the IOC. The doping rules referred to are nearly always those created by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

In any profession, ethical rules are adjudicated and enforced in a hierarchy going from the local profession level, through the regional profession level, the national professional level and up to and including the national courts. In sport, there is an additional international level in the Court for Arbitration in Sport.

Ethics is the Glue

Our ability to conceive of all the different ways that we can arrange contests of skill, capacity and strategy is probably without bounds. In every sport, without exception, there have been rules created to govern ethical behaviour to be able to contest fairly and in a commonly comparable manner.

Over the years, those who have chosen to ignore the ethical rules have attained a level of international infamy. During the last 100 years we have seen a vast array of ethical violations. The Chicago ‘Black’ Sox betting scandal, the Nancy Kerrigan kneecapping, the Lance Armstrong mega-doping, the FIFA, IAAF and IOC games awarding scandals and, most recently the Russian state-sponsored doping program to name a few that come to mind. In every case the violations damaged sport in some way and in every case, the ethical rules and related remedies helped to repair that damage.

Ethics is not a preventative that can’t reasonably be done; ethics is a restorative that can be done.

Sport without ethics is chaos, pure and simple. We need ethical sport and we need consistent and equitable enforcement of all ethical rules to allow sport to achieve its purpose. The purpose of contesting to determine who is:  FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER.

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