Ethics challenges in professional sports

We are seeing scandal rock the sporting world from FIFA bribery allegations, to the NFL New Orleans Saints bounty program, and even the doping scandals. We asked our Zintro experts to comment on the long-term consequences for sports if teams, athletes, and organizations continue to experience ethical dilemmas and scandals.

Armando Antonelli, an expert in sports nutrition, says that scandals continue to rock sports because the stakes economically are very high. “We admire sportsmen, and we expect the highest ethical standards. Yet, the incredible success of sports itself is what helps create the incentives for bad behavior,” he says. “Doping is probably the most glaring sport ethics infringement. Doping originated around the middle of the twentieth century in the eastern part of Europe and in about half a century has involved the whole sports world. In a simplistic way, one could say that doping has always traveled in parallel with the business related to sports events. While doping destroys the fairness of competition, and often damages the health of athletes, the incentives to pursue doping have not decreased over time.”

Antonelli points out that between the years 1960-1980 substance abuse caused serious damage to health and even death: anabolic steroids, hormones, and amphetamines were in fact banned by the world anti-doping agency (WADA). More controls followed, and there was always a race to find the best way to evade controls. “In this regard it’s interesting to mention the case of a recent molecule, DMAA. DMAA is banned according to WADA, yet it is legally used as an ingredient in pre-work out supplements in the US, and regulatory bans are not enforced elsewhere,” notes Antonelli. “Though clearly synthetic, claims of naturality have gone unchallenged for years. Several athletes have been found positive for DMAA. An obvious issue is how far athletes can be asked not to use substances that authorities tolerate or do not clearly denounce as unsafe. Athletes are often the toughest, most determined individuals around and implicit messages like ‘you can’t take it, but everyone else safely can’ do not help.”

Antonelli says it is not easy to predict how ethics, and doping particularly, will impact negatively on sport in the coming years. “On the one hand there is a fierce struggle against misconduct. On the other, some countries are unable to fight misconduct, as recently admitted by the Spanish authorities, for example. Others argue that doping – even outside the sports world, e.g. with steroids – is socially acceptable,” he says.” “Ultimately, sports should mirror society’s best aspirations. Is part of the game rigging it? Is success in sports the result of talent and individual efforts or is it something else? As long as most of us believe that our sports idols reflect certain values, there will be a tension between our expectations, the incentives to cheat, and the enforcement of rules.”

Annette Marshal, a sports administrator and coach, says that ethical issues have become ubiquitous within society today, so it is not unusual to have them in sports. “It is the reactions of the overseeing bodies of sports programs after an infraction that will determine the public’s response to infractions,” she says. “Sports is one of the few organizations that insists on ethical behavior and strong character in all aspects. As long as sports deliver quick, stern and consistent responses to infractions there will be little loss of public support. Admiration for the efforts of athletes will always draw fans.” Marshal says that holding strong to enforcing the rules of sports programs is the only way to continue to provide fans a compelling reason to pay and watch athletes perform. “Infractions or bad choices happen. It is the response and ultimate correction of these choices that show fans what they want!” she says.

Michael Hurley,  a sports marketer and consultant, believes there can be serious consequences for professional sports if ethical issues continue to dominate the headlines. “Ultimately, all fans want two things: for their team to be competitive and to have as level a playing field as possible. When either of these two factors is diminished, fans’ emotional investment in their team is reduced,” he says. “When fans sense that the outcome of a contest can be determined by factors outside of talent, coaching, and/or pure luck, there is a loss of trust that can be manifested in many ways, none of which are good for the team or the sport. And regaining that trust can be difficult, but not impossible.”

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