Sports and Ethics Essay

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Sports are one area of human interaction that has been subject to a great deal of adjustment as to its ethical thresholds and parameters. Almost without exception, these adjustments represent a decay of previous standards.

In ancient Rome, the working man paid to watch athletes struggle in competition. At that time the competition was sword fighting in the Coliseum, with the gladius that gave the athlete his name, the gladiator. Fast forward to the 21st century and the modern gladiator is a National Football League (NFL) lineman, playing in a U.S. city coliseum. Then and now, principles existed that went beyond the defined rules that governed the athletes’ behavior.

Well-established criminological theory can explain why an athlete would break those defined rules and/or violate their spirit. Cesare Beccaria’s thesis was that if punishment was “swift, certain and severe,” the would-be miscreant would not break the rules. For example, the NFL lineman may choose deliberately to run into the kicker, with a distinct and unethical possibility of injuring him severely. With several watchful officials involved, he is almost certain to be detected on that infraction. The punishment will be swift, but it will be minimal. He personally may be dismissed from that game, but his spot on the field will be taken by another player from the bench. What makes this example even more ethically unpleasant is that the player may be acting under blind obedience to the direct orders of an equally unethical coach. This is a calculated risk. It supports the premise that the athlete who cheats subscribes to “rational choice” theory.

Economist Jeremy Bentham suggested that wrongful behavior would be diminished if the costs of being caught outweighed the advantages of a successful avoidance of detection. So for that lineman, the benefits to his team far outweigh the costs of being caught.

Further examples of this cheating could be at the end of an NFL game, when that same lineman may feign an injury. This stops the clock, allowing his teammates to plan how to win the game in those last seconds. Although the player pretending to be injured must come out of the game for one play, he is replaced. By Bentham’s criteria, there is little, if any, cost to the team. What the lineman has done is unethical. The game clock should only be stopped for a legitimate injury.

Questionable Ethics and the Rise of Professional Sports
Questionable ethics are not limited to any one sport. In the National Hockey League playoffs for the Stanley Cup in May 2013, the Boston Bruins’ coach pulled a highly unethical maneuver against the Toronto Maple Leafs. After an instance of “icing,” the skaters on the ice at that moment stayed on the ice when the play restarted. This denied the offending team the chance for skaters with fresh legs. The Bruins’ coach deliberately had five new players go out onto the ice. He knew that in the confusion, the referee would have to stop the clock and review the video to recall who those previous five players were. During that time, the previous five could recover their skating legs. Ice hockey lovers could admit, as is acknowledged here, the strategic brilliance of that move. Nonetheless, it is unethical, however euphemized under the heading of “gamesmanship”.

Activities which have ethical concerns often conceal these problems with dubious terminology. In sports, that euphemism is “gamesmanship.” More simply put, it is “cheating,” a violation of the spirit of the game, if not its defined rules. Not long ago, an expression from the iconic English sport, “it’s not cricket,” was a metaphor for general behavior that was wrong in all aspects of life, let alone sports. Back then, cricket players, usually from socially respectable backgrounds, had an exemplary code of behavior on the field. Even with officials to interpret the official rules, the players held themselves to a standard in which the officials could almost be superfluous. Back then, there was a high-level, all-star match between the gentlemen, amateurs playing for the love of the game, as the word suggests, and the players, professionals paid to express their athletic talents (in this case, cricket).

Athletes who were paid to play the game started to appear after the Industrial Revolution, with remuneration in part from the cost of tickets paid by people who were happy to watch others of high skill play a game. As will be suggested here, the ethical threshold may be “adjusted” when athletes are being paid and the sport is their livelihood.

No sport has fallen farther ethically than cricket. Players are now sanctioned by long suspensions, including lifetime bans, for cheating. Top-level cricketers can now bet on games in ways so subtle as to avoid detection by on-field officials. In March 2013, high-level professional cricketers in India were suspended for “spot-fixing” matches. Cricket can illustrate further the ethical condition of sports in the 21st century. The four main issues are as follows:

• The developing place of sports in popular culture around the world; every country has a sport
• The place of sports in the interaction between countries, as in the Olympic Games and the World Cup for soccer
• The increasing number of professionals in almost all sports
• The increasing remuneration paid to those athletes.

Some sports predated the Industrial Revolution, such as boxing and football/soccer. As Vivek Chaudary noted, Henry VIII had his own pair of football (soccer) boots as far back as 1526. Many sports underwent change when the ordinary man began living a city lifestyle that may have allowed some time away from work. Prior to the 19th century, many sports developed rapidly from humble origins, becoming important activities in the working man’s life. People would pay to watch athletes play sports. It is a small step from that to the athletes being paid: professional sports had their launching pad. Many sports that are now fully professional began to attain that status in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Modern Olympic Games
In face of this developing professionalism, Pierre de Coubertin recreated the Olympic Games, including the ancient events, for amateurs. The Olympic Games fought the reality of sports’ increasing commercialism into late in the 20th century, when the Olympics allowed professionals to participate. In their last stages as the bastion of amateur sports, the Olympics were prone to the most egregious ethical violations. In Soviet-bloc countries, nominal amateurs were paid by their governments to represent their countries. The Soviets entered an ice hockey team whose players were identified as amateurs even though they were professionals, with the government as their employer. This team skated against genuine Canadian amateurs. Ice hockey had become a proxy for the Cold War, with the unethical behavior sponsored by the state itself.

The Olympic Games still provide a surrogate image for the place of a country on the world stage. The tit-for-tat boycotts by the United States of the Moscow games in 1980, with the Soviet Union’s retaliation in the Los Angeles games in 1984, stemmed from the U.S. assessment that the Soviets’ military involvement in Afghanistan was wrong. Now during the Olympic Games the medal counts for each country are posted. The collective angst shown by Australia for its lack of success in the London Olympics in 2012 was heard round the world.

Pressures to Cheat
Professional sports and even, to some degree, sports such as university football and basketball in the United States, which attract large TV audiences, now generate so much money that the temptations to cheat are too great. Thousands of millions of dollars hinge on having a successful season.

Under such powerful pressures, it is easy to explain why athletes, even those below the elite professional level, now resort to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. While steroids are an obvious current whipping boy, drugs in other classifications are also at fault. High-level cycling has a well-earned reputation as the sport of cheats. Originally cyclists used stimulants to enhance endurance, particularly in the Tour de France, the world’s most demanding sporting challenge. Cyclists would die from the consequences of the use of these drugs. Those involved with the sport protested this drug use for a little while and then moved on, fully in collusion as to what was happening. In the meantime, all that has happened is that the Satan of steroids has replaced the fallen Angel of amphetamines.

Even in the team sports, such as cycling and baseball, individual athletes stand out and are automatic celebrities. Consider Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez, who at different times played baseball for the New York Yankees. In 1930, Babe Ruth was asked to justify his salary being higher than President Herbert Hoover’s. His reply was that he had had a better year. Rodriguez has been persuasively implicated in the use of steroids to enhance his performance. With so much pressure to meet the expectations of his enormous salary, it is easy to see how he could cheat by performance enhancement through drugs.

The desire to win, recently exemplified by Rodriguez and cyclist Lance Armstrong, is what separates the elite athlete from the also-ran. The research, now known as the Goldman dilemma, has shown that top-level athletes would willingly take a drug to “guarantee” being the best in their field, even with the equal guarantee that it would shorten their life. Lyle Alzado, a legendary NFL lineman who died from the complications of steroid abuse, admitted as much in his memoirs.

Youth is now emphasized in many sports, with athletes achieving stardom before the accepted ages of social maturity in the late teenage years, when at least some of the ethical compromise can be blamed on parents and other role models. The example of Jennifer Capriati, the tennis player, is instructive. She turned professional at
13, long before her own ethical backbone was fully formed. What is not clear is when the young athlete internalizes the preparedness to be unethical in order to maximize sporting opportunities.

In team sports, a variation of ”corporate ethics” has been added to the equation. With professional sports now dominant, the financial expectations of the owners come into play. Athletes such as Rodriguez now get paid Monopoly-money salaries because the team owners expect them to perform at a level commensurate with that salary.

Sports and Performance-Enhancing Drugs
It is difficult to accept the professed innocence of the team owners. The results of performance-enhancing drugs are such that even to the untrained eye it is clear that the athlete has done something “unusual” to enhance his physique. It may not be possible to say that team owners have ordered their players to cheat in this manner, but they are, at the very least, complicit in the athletes’ unethical behavior. This is not to excuse the individual athlete. It becomes a vicious circle when a previously clean athlete feels obliged to cheat to maintain parity with his direct opponents who are cheating. One sport has now conceded the reality of cheating and using performance-enhancing drugs. Competitive bodybuilding now has two top levels, one in which questions are not asked, and the other in which the athletes are indeed drug free. In the latter, the athlete is making the statement out loud that should not be necessary. He is subscribing to the highest ethical standards of his sport.

The current ethical condition of sports is not promising. With the corrupting influence of money as the major explanation, sports have grown out of all proportion to their logical place in society, and ethical standards may never return.

1. Albergotti, Reed and Vanessa O’Connell. Wheelman: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever. New York: Gotham, 2013.
2. Alzado, Lyle and Paul Zimmerman. Mile High: The Story of Lyle Alzado and the Amazing Denver Broncos. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
3. Benedict, Jeff. Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA’s Culture of Rape, Violence and Crime. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
4. Benedict, Jeff and Don Yeager. Pros and Cons: The Criminals who Play in the NFL. New York: Warner Books, 1998.
5. Cooper, Chris. Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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