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Arkansas State University

Tackling Ethics in Sports

There has recently been widespread discussion in the media and at research institutions on ethics in sports. Because sports are both social and physical, many issues arise concerning athletes’ behavior, the mentalities that competitive sports generate and the common medical conditions that athletes can develop from the intensive and sometimes dangerous activities inherent to high-level competition.

Sports administrators have the important responsibility of considering the ethical issues involved in their organizations, including the social and behavioral development of their athletes, the influence those athletes have as role models in the local and national communities and the athletes’ immediate and long-term health.

Students in an online master’s degree in sports administration program analyze and discuss these and other issues to develop a thorough understanding of the ethical considerations they will face as professional sports administrators.


At its most basic level, ethics is the consideration of what is right or wrong in interpersonal interaction, including the complex middle ground between the two extremes. Philosophers, theorists and academics discuss ethics at length. How does one person’s behavior affect others? This question is an important part of developing one’s morals and beliefs, and it guides decisions and interactions. Ethics is a form of critical thought that considers how we think and behave and how that affects our behavior.

Although ethical and moral questions arise from the interactions and decisions of individuals, they also play a large role in the policies and decision-making of large groups of people, such as businesses, political organizations, faith-based groups and educational programs. Ethics is the foundation of ideologies and social standards, so it informs most aspects of our everyday lives, including personal goals and careers.


Athletes have always been role models. They are well-known public figures respected for their physical talents. High school football players look to their favorite professional athletes as models of who and what they aspire to be. If professional athletes model positive social qualities like compassion, respect and a strong work ethic, aspiring high schoolers will adopt those behaviors for themselves. However, if professional players conduct themselves without respect for other players or engage in inappropriate or illegal behavior, young football players might behave similarly. Stories are constantly surfacing of professional athletes using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, disrespecting each other on the field and even being physically abusive to others, as though they do not need to play by the same rules as “normal” people. Being a public figure and a role model comes with a lot of responsibility.


One aspect of ethics in sports to receive social criticism is the competitive nature of sports in general. However, competition is an important part of human nature — it helps us develop skills and become better at what we do. Participating in competitive sports can be a positive experience for children, giving them a strong work ethic, the motivation to improve, the ability to work well with others and self-confidence.

When coaches, leaders and players have the “win at all costs” mentality, however, it can create the impression that winning takes priority over integrity, which can reverse the social and developmental benefits of playing organized sports.


Medical considerations have also recently been scrutinized in many organized sports. Football, especially, has been the subject of ethical discussion. Beyond the numerous bodily injuries common to playing football, research shows that the repeated head trauma common in football can lead to permanent cognitive damage, memory loss and other brain injuries. Although these effects do not usually develop until after many years of playing football, even getting a concussion as a high school player can cause weeks of mental impairment, decreasing that student’s ability to perform in school and on the field.


As a coach or administrator of a sports program, you will likely have to deal with these and other issues involving ethics in sports. These issues might arise on an organizational level, like setting policies for your programs, addressing medical issues or conducting public relations. Responsibilities might also include communicating policies to the public and to sports officials — as well as updating those policies as needed.

On the personal administrative level, you will be a role model for your athletes, so you must model good sportsmanship, a strong work ethic and appropriate conduct. An important part of this responsibility is instilling the ability in players to think critically about the ethics of how they perform. This ability to reflect upon and modify their own behavior can help your athletes develop as socially responsible people on and off the field.

If you would like to start a career in sports administration, there are several job opportunities available, such as college football coaches, athletics department heads, professional baseball team managers or even therapeutic recreation program directors. Each of these roles, however, must consider the issue of ethics in sports. Whether developing your athletes’ conduct or ensuring their physical health, you will have to thoroughly understand the issues at hand, articulate them clearly, encourage critical thinking and make hard decisions.

Ethical questions in sports are not simple. In fact, they are probably some of the most difficult aspects of being a responsible sports administrator and role model. Earning a master’s degree in sports administration can give you the experience with ethical considerations you need to succeed as an administrator in the complex world of competitive and therapeutic sports.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s online Master of Science in Sport Administration program.


The Ethics Centre: What is Ethics?

Thought Co.: Sports Ethics and Our Society Medical Ethics and School Football

National Sports Ethics Plan: Ethics in Sport: Guidelines for Teachers

The Conversation: Is it Immoral to Watch Football?

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