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Ethical Dilemmas in American Sport

by D. Stanley Eitzen

Although there are a number of prominent American values, I am going to focus on the consequences of the two that I consider the most central -- achievement and competition. We Americans glorify individual achievement in competitive situations. A recent book, The Winner-Take-All Society, shows how we heap incredible rewards on winners and barely reward others in a number of markets including sport (1).

The values we promote throughout American society are believed to be good. They motivate. They promote excellence. They make individuals and society productive. They fit with capitalism, and they make life interesting. We believe that sports participation for children and youth prepares them for success in a competitive society. According to folk wisdom, young people take on a number of desirable character traits from sport. They learn to persevere, to sacrifice, to work hard, to follow orders, to work together with others, and to be self-disciplined. Assuming that these traits are learned through sport (at best, a dubious assumption) what else is learned from the sports experience? This is the central question I wish to discuss. I will focus on the dark side of competition, emphasizing ethical dilemmas.

Now I want you to know that, while I am going to be critical of sport, much of the time I celebrate sport. I was an athlete in high school and college. I have coached youth sports and several high school sports. My children participated from youth sports through college sport. The last 25 years, I have been an active researcher and teacher in the sociology of sport. I am energized by sport. Going to sports events and watching them on television adds zest to my existence. I savor the great moments of sport. My spirits are elevated when my favorite teams and athletes win, especially when they overcome great odds to defeat superior opponents. I am transfixed by the excellence of athletes. I am moved by the genuine camaraderie among teammates. Of course, I suffer when these same athletes make mistakes and fall short of expectations. The key is that I genuinely love sport. I want you to place my critical analysis of sport within the context of my great affection for sport. I love sport, and in criticizing it, I hope to improve it.

Sport has a dark side. It is plagued with problems. Big-time sport has corrupted academe. Coaches sometimes engage in outrageous behaviors, but if they win, they are rewarded handsomely. Gratuitous violence is glorified in the media. Some athletes take drugs. Some athletes are found guilty of gang rape and spouse abuse. Many athletes cheat to achieve a competitive edge. Sports organizations take advantage of athletes. In the view of many, these problems result from bad people. I believe they stem from a morally distorted sports world -- a world where winning supersedes all other considerations, where moral values have become confused with the bottom line.

Success: Winning is Everything

My thesis is that American values are responsible for many of the ethical problems found in sport. We glorify winners and forget losers. As Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, puts it: "Nobody remembers who came in second." Let me quote a few famous coaches on the importance of winning:

"Winning isn't everything, it is the only thing." (Vince Lombardi)

"Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat." (Bill Musselman)

"In our society, in my profession, there is only one measure of success, and that is winning. Not just any game, not just the big game, but the last one." (John Madden)

"There are only two things in this league, winning and misery." (Pat Riley)

"Our expectations are to play for and win the national championship every year. Second, third, fourth, and fifth don't do you any good in this business." (Dennis Erickson)

Americans want winners, whether winning is in school, or in business, or in politics, or in sport. In sport, we demand winners. Coaches are fired if they are not successful; teams are booed if they play for ties. The team that does not win the Super Bowl in a given year is a loser. My favorite NFL team, the Denver Broncos has made it to the Super Bowl three times and lost that big game each time. In the minds of the Bronco coaches, players, fans, as well as others across the United States, the Broncos were losers in each of those years even though they were second out of twenty-eight teams, which -- if you think about it -- is not too shabby.

One other example shows how we exalt first place and debase second place. A football team, composed of fifth graders, was undefeated going into the Florida state championship game. They lost that game in a close contest. At a banquet for these boys following that season, each player was given a plaque on which was inscribed a quote from Vince Lombardi:

"There is no room for second place. I have finished second twice at Green Bay and I never want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do and to win and to win and to win."

In other words, the parents and coaches of these boys wanted them to not be satisfied with being second. Second is losing. The only acceptable placement is first.

If second is unacceptable and all the rewards go to the winners, then some will do whatever it takes to be first. It may require using steroids, or trying to injure a competitor, or altering the transcript of a recruit so that he or she can play illegally. These, of course, are unethical practices in sport, the topics of this paper.

Ethical Dilemmas

This section points to some questionable practices in sport that need to be examined more closely for their ethical meaning and consequences. First is the culture of certain sports. The essence of sport is competition. The goal is to win. But to be ethical, this quest to win must be done in a spirit of fairness. Fairness tends to prevail in certain sports, such as golf and tennis, but in other sports the prevalent mood is to achieve an unfair advantage over an opponent. Getting such a competitive edge unfairly is viewed by many in sports as "strategy" rather than cheating. In some sports, illegal acts are accepted as part of the game. Coaches encourage such acts, or look the other way, as in the case of steroid use. Rule enforcers such as referees and league commissioners rarely discourage them, impose minimal penalties, or ignore them altogether.

The forms of normative cheating are interesting and important to consider because they are more widespread than commonly thought, and they clearly violate ethical principles. In basketball, for example, it is common for a player to pretend to be fouled in order to receive an undeserved free throw and give the opponent an undeserved foul. In football, players are typically coached to use illegal techniques to hold or trip opponents without detection. The practice is common in baseball for the home team to "doctor" its field to suit its strengths and minimize the strengths of a particular opponent. A fast team can be neutralized, for example, by slowing down the base paths with water or sand. Home teams have been known to gain an edge by increasing the heat by several degrees from normal in the visitors dressing room to make the athletes sluggish. At my school the visiting football team's dressing room is painted pink. This upset the coach of Hawaii because the color pink, he argued, reduces strength and makes people less aggressive.

Let's look at sportspersonship in sport, using three examples. First, in a state championship basketball game in Colorado, Agate was playing Stratton. Agate because of mix-up over keys could not dress in time. The referees called a technical foul, allowing Stratton to begin the game with two free throws. The Stratton coach, however, told his player to miss the shots.

A second example involves a football game between Dartmouth and Cornell a number of years ago, with Dartmouth winning. Later, after reviewing the films, it was established that Dartmouth had received a fifth down on its winning drive. The Dartmouth president forfeited the win.

As a third example, consider the case of a basketball team in Alabama a few years ago that won the state championship -- the first ever for the school. A month or so later, the coach found that he had unknowingly used an ineligible player. No one else knew of the problem. Moreover, the player in question was in the game only a minute or two and had not scored. The coach notified the state high school activities association and, as a result, the only state championship in the school's history was forfeited.

Each of these examples has an unusual resolution. They represent acts of true sportspersonship. Usually, we hear of the opposite situations, a team scoring with a fifth down -- as the University of Colorado did to defeat Missouri in the year Colorado won the national championship -- but refusing to forfeit. Last year, Stanford and Northwestern played to a 41-41 tie. After reviewing the films, the referees admitted that they gave Stanford an undeserved touchdown, yet Stanford did not forfeit. What did the fans of these offending schools say? What did the media outlets say? What did the school administrations say? At my school, Colorado State, the football team upset LSU in 1992. On CSU's winning drive there was a fumble. An LSU player fell on the ball, but in the ensuing pile up, a CSU player ended up with the ball illegally. The player, Geoff Grenier, was quoted in the newspaper that he elbowed and kicked a player in the pile to get the ball. The referees did not see this action and awarded the ball to CSU. CSU's coach, Earle Bruce, said: "One player who should get credit for the victory is Geoff Grenier. If we had lost the ball, the game was over. Geoff found a way to get the ball." The coaches, players, and fans of the "winning" teams accepted these ill gotten gains as victories. Isn't this strange behavior in an activity that pretends to be built on a foundation of rules and sportspersonship? In fact, such activities involve "normative cheating" -- acts to achieve an unfair advantage that are accepted as part of the game. The culture of most sports is to get a competitive advantage over the opponent even if it means taking an unfair advantage. When this occurs, I argue, then sport is sending a message -- winning is more important than being fair. In this way, sport is a microcosm of society where the bottom line is more important than how you got there. That, my friends, is a consequence of the huge importance we put on success in our society.

A second area of ethical concern has to do with normative violence in sport. Many popular sports encourage player aggression. These sports demand body checking, blocking, and tackling. But the culture of these sports sometimes goes beyond what is needed. Players are taught to deliver a blow to the opponent, not just to block or tackle him. They are taught to gang tackle, to make the ball carrier "pay the price." The assumption is that physically punishing the other player will increase the probability of the opponent fumbling, losing his concentration and executing poorly the next time, or having to be replaced by a less talented substitute. Coaches often reward athletes for extra hard hits. Let me cite several examples:

1. At the University of Florida a football player received a "dead roach" decal for his helmet when he hit an opponent so hard that he lay prone with his legs and arms up in the air.

2. Similarly, University of Miami football players were awarded a "slobber knocker" decal for their helmets if they hit an opposing player so hard that it knocked the slobber out of his mouth.

3. The Denver Broncos coaching staff, similar to other NFL teams, yet contrary to league rules, gave monetary awards each week to the players who hit their opponents the hardest.

4. The assumption of unethical violence by opponents in football is "just part of the game" was illustrated in a 1993 playoff game when a player from the Buffalo Bills put a splint on the outside of his good leg so that opponents would concentrate on that leg rather than on his bad leg.

This emphasis on intimidating violence is almost universally held among football and hockey coaches, their players, and their fans. The object is not to just hit, but to hit to punish, and even to injure. The unfortunate result is a much higher injury rate than necessary. Clearly, these behaviors are unethical. John Underwood, a writer for Sports Illustrated, has said this about these practices:

"Brutality is its own fertilizer. From 'get by with what you can' it is a short hop to the deviations that poison sport . . . But it is not just the acts that border on criminal that are intolerable, it is the permissive atmosphere they spring from. The 'lesser' evils that are given tacit approval as 'techniques' of the game, even within the rules."

As a result of the cultural context in many sports, players regularly engage in a number of acts that are unethical, considering them as part of their sport. These include acts of intimidation such as physical threats and aggression, taunting and "trash talking," and racial insults; use of drugs to enhance performance such as steroids, amphetamines, or blood doping; use of illegal equipment such as changing a baseball with a "foreign" substance or roughing one side, using a "corked" bat, or a hockey stick curved beyond the legal limits.

The behavior of coaches is affected too. Coaches are rewarded handsomely, if they win. In addition to generous salary raises, successful college coaches receive lucrative contracts from shoe companies and for other endorsements, media deals, summer camps, speaking engagements, country club memberships, insurance annuities, and the like. With potential income of college coaches approaching $1 million at the highest levels, the temptations are great to offer illegal inducements to prospective athletes, or to find illicit ways to keep them eligible -- phantom courses, surrogate test takers, altered transcripts. Because winning is so important, some coaches drive their athletes too hard, take them out of the classroom too much, and encourage them to use performance-enhancing drugs and engage in other unethical acts. They may abuse their athletes physically, and verbal assaults by coaches are routine. And, of course, coaches may encourage violence in their players. Vince Lombardi once said, ". . . that to play this game, you have to have that fire within you, and nothing stokes that fire like hate." Perhaps you'll remember that Jackie Sherrill, the coach at Mississippi State, at the end of the last practice before they were to play the Texas Longhorns, had a bull castrated in front of his players. In a less celebrated case, a high school coach in Iowa playing a team called the "Golden Eagles," spray-painted a chicken gold and had his players stomp it to death in the locker room before the contest.

Are these actions by coaches in educational settings appropriate? What lesson is being taught to athletes when their coaches blatantly ask the players to cheat? Consider, for example, the situation when a high school football coach in Portland sent a player into the game on a very foggy night. The player asked: "Who am I going in for?" "No one," the coach replied, "the fog is so thick the ref will never notice you."

Is it proper for coaches to crush the opposition? This is the case in college football today, as it is imperative to be ranked in the top two at season's end so your team can play in the coalition bowl for the national championship -- by the way, each team receives $12 million this year. But this happens at other levels as well. A Laramie, Wyoming, girls junior high school basketball team won a game by a score of 81-1, using a full-court press the entire game. Is that OK?

In general, it appears coaches too often condone cheating, whether it be an offensive lineman holding his opponent, or a pitcher loading a baseball so that it is more difficult to hit. Consider this statement by Sparky Anderson, the former manager of Detroit Tigers:

"I never teach cheating to any of my players but I admire the guys who get away with it. The object of the game is to win and if you can cheat and win, I give you all the credit in the world."

Spectator behavior is not beyond the pale either. Spectator behavior such as rioting and throwing objects at players and officials is excessive. The question is, how are we to evaluate other common but unsportspersonlike practices? Spectators not only tolerate violence, they sometimes encourage it. They do so, when they cheer an opponent's injury, or with bloodlust cheers such as: "Kill, Kill! Hate, Hate, Murder, Murder! Mutilate!"

What about those unethical instances where fans try to distract opponents by yelling racial slurs, or as in the case of Arizona State fans several years ago chanting "P-L-O" to Arizona's Steve Kerr, whose father had been killed by terrorists in Beirut?

The administrators of sport have the overall responsibility to see that the athletic programs abide by the spirit of the rules and that their coaches behave ethically. They must provide safe conditions for play, properly maintained equipment, and appropriate medical attention. Are they showing an adequate concern for their players, for example, when they choose artificial turf over grass, knowing that the rate and severity of injuries are higher with artificial turf?

There are several other areas where athletic directors and administrators may be involved in questionable ethics. They are not ethical when they "drag their feet" in providing equal facilities, equipment, and budgets for women's athletic programs. Clearly, athletic directors are not ethical when they schedule teams that are an obvious mismatch. The especially strong often schedule the especially weak to enhance their record and maintain a high ranking, while the weak are enticed to schedule the strong for a good pay day -- a practice, I suggest, that is akin to prostitution.

Finally, college administrators are not ethical when they make decisions regarding the hiring and firing of coaches strictly on the won-lost record. For the most part, school administrators do not fire coaches guilty of shady transgressions if they win. As John Underwood has characterized it:

"We've told them it doesn't matter how clean they keep their program. It doesn't matter what percentage of their athletes graduate or take a useful place in society. It doesn't even matter how well the coaches teach the sport. All that matters are the flashing scoreboard lights."

Parental behavior also is involved. Parents may push their children too far, too fast. Is it appropriate to involve children as young as five in triathlons, marathons, and tackle football? Should one-year olds be trying to set records as was the case in 1972 when the national record for the mile run for a one-year old was set by Steve Parsons of Normal, Illinois, at 24:16.6 (one day short of his second birthday)? Is such a practice appropriate, or is it a form of child abuse? Is it right to send ten-year old children away from home to work out eight hours a day with a gymnastics coach in Houston, a swimming coach in Mission Viejo, California, or a tennis coach in Florida?

Parents may encourage their child to use drugs (diuretics for weight control, drugs to retard puberty, growth hormones, or steroids). Parents sometimes are too critical of their children's play, other players, coaches, and referees. Some parents are never satisfied. They may have unrealistic expectations for their children, and in doing so, may rob them of their childhood and their self-esteem.

There are essentially two ethical issues facing those involved in sports medicine, especially those employed by schools or professional teams. Most fundamentally, team doctors and trainers face a dilemma resulting from their ultimate allegiance -- is it to their employer or to the injured athlete? The employer wants athletes on the field, not in the training room. Thus, the ethical question -- should pain killing drugs be administered to an injured player so that he or she can return to action sooner than is prudent for the long-term health of the athlete? A second ethical issue for those in sports medicine is whether they should dispense performance-enhancing drugs and the related issue of whether or not they should help drug-using athletes pass a drug test.

Overall, immoral and unethical practices are not just a matter of rule-breaking, or bending the rules. The rules themselves may be immoral or unethical. Powerful organizations such as universities, leagues, and the U.S. Olympic Committee have had sexist rules, and they exploit athletes. The rules of the NCAA are consistently unfair to college athletes. For example, the NCAA rules require that athletes commit to a four-year agreement with a school; yet schools only have to abide by a year by year commitment to the athlete. Moreover, the compensation of athletes is severely limited while the schools and the NCAA make millions.

Consequences of Unethical Practices in Sport

A widely held assumption of parents, educators, banquet speakers, and editorial writers is that sport is a primary vehicle by which youth are socialized to adopt the values and morals of society. The ultimate irony is, however, that sport as it is presently conducted in youth leagues, schools, and the professional level does not enhance positive character traits. As philosopher Charles Banham has said, many do benefit from the sports experience but for too many others:

". . . [sport] encourages selfishness, envy, conceit, hostility, and bad temper. Far from ventilating the mind, it stifles it. Good sportsmanship may be a product of sport, but so is bad sportsmanship."

The "winning-at-all-costs" philosophy pervades sport at every level and this leads to cheating by coaches and athletes. It leads to the dehumanization of athletes and to their alienation from themselves and from their competitors. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that research reveals consistently that sport stifles moral reasoning and moral development. For example, from 1987 to the present physical educators Sharon Stoll and Jennifer Beller have studied over 10,000 athletes from the ninth grade through college. The following are among their findings:

1. Athletes score lower than their non-athlete peers on moral development.

2. Male athletes score lower than female athletes in moral development.

3. Moral reasoning scores for athletic populations steadily decline from the ninth grade through university age, whereas scores for non-athletes tend to increase.

This last point is very significant. The longer an individual participates in sport, the less able they are to reason morally. Stoll and Beller say:

"While sport does build character if defined as loyalty, dedication, sacrifice, and teamwork, it does not build moral character in the sense of honesty, responsibility, and justice."

Thus, I believe the unethical practices so common in sport have negative consequences for the participants. Gresham's law would seem to apply to sport -- bad morality tends to defeat good morality; unfairness tends to encourage unfairness. Sociologist Melvin Tumin's principle of "least significant morality" also makes this point:

"In any social group, the moral behavior of the group as an average will tend to sink to that of the least moral participant, and the least moral participant will, in that sense, control the group unless he is otherwise restrained and/or expelled . . . Bad money may not always drive out good money, though it almost always does. But 'bad' conduct surely drives out 'good' conduct with predictable vigor and speed."

The irony, as sport psychologists Brenda Jo Bredemeier and David Shields have pointed out, is that often "to be good in sports, you have to be bad." You must, as we have seen, take unfair advantage and be overly aggressive if you want to win. The implications of this are significant. Moral development theorists agree that the fundamental structure of moral reasoning remains relatively stable from situation to situation. Thus, when coaches and athletes -- in their zeal to succeed -- corrupt the ideals of sportspersonship and fair play, they are likely to employ or condone similar tactics outside sport. They might accept the necessity of dirty tricks in politics, the manipulation of foreign governments for our benefit, and business practices that include using misleading advertising and selling shoddy and/or harmful products. The ultimate goal in politics, business, and sport, after all, is to win. And winning may require moving outside the established rules. Unfortunately, this lesson is learned all too often in sport.


(1) Frank, Robert H., and Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society. New York: Penguin, 1996.