Training program for U.S. Olympic coaches (Ethics 2)

Training program for U.S. Olympic coaches

Ethics and sportsmanship: Part II



Much of the disparity in viewpoint as to what is required of an ethical coach or athlete is a direct result of one’s philosophy about the very nature of sport. There are two major models of sport based on very different values and assumptions: the gamesmanship model and the sportsmanship model.

The Gamesmanship Model

Under the gamesmanship model, all that matters is winning. Gamesmanship approaches adopt the values of the marketplace, encouraging and sanctioning clever and effective ways of bending, evading, and breaking rules in order to gain a competitive advantage. This is considered part of the game.

  • It’s only cheating if you get caught. Gamesmanship coaches and athletes often believe they have no ethical or sportsmanship obligation to abide by rules because it’s the officials’ job to catch violations and impose penalties. The operational standards of gamesmanship are: “If it works, it’s right” and “it’s only cheating if you get caught.”

  • No criteria for what is acceptable. Gamesmanship coaches and athletes are pragmatists, believing that ethical standards are determined by practical considerations of what works, rather than principles of what’s right. One of the serious problems with gamesmanship is there are no criteria for drawing a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

  • Faked fouls. Gamesmanship theory justifies the tactic of pretending one was fouled even when the player knows he/she wasn’t.

  • Illegal head start. Gamesmanship theory can be used to justify a player deliberately getting an illegal head start in track or leaving the line early in soccer to block a penalty kick.

  • Doctoring equipment. Some baseball players and coaches adopting the gamesmanship model have no moral qualms about illegally doctoring a ball or bat to gain a competitive advantage. Is raising the foul line slightly to keep bunts in play to favor the home team or altering the height of the mound or distance from the rubber to the plate in the same category?

  • Surreptitious personal fouls. To gamesmanship players and coaches in sports like soccer, water polo, basketball, and football, tactics such as illegally holding, grabbing, and pulling are legitimate.

  • Physical intimidation. The gamesmanship model can be used to justify intentional efforts to inflict pain on opponents to intimidate them.

  • Espionage. Gamesmanship theory has been used to justify elaborate means of getting information about an opponent’s plans or plays from secret filming to electronically intercepting game communications. If this is legitimate, what’s wrong with inducing a disgruntled player on the other team to hand over a copy of the playbook?

The Sportsmanship Model

Under the sportsmanship model of sports, the way one plays the game is central. Sport is seen as a special activity where nobility and glory is found not in winning but in honorable competition in pursuit of victory.

Commitment to principles. The sportsmanship model demands a commitment to principles of scrupulous integrity (including compliance with the letter and spirit of the rules even when one could get away with violations), fair play, respect, and grace.

Disadvantage. Those who play by the sportsmanship model are often at a substantial disadvantage when competing against those who adopt the gamesmanship theory. Gamesmanship coaches gain advantages by violating eligibility, recruiting, and practice rules just as gamesmanship athletes gain an advantage using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

  • Must be willing to lose. In sports, as in business and politics, the more important it is to win and the higher the stakes, the harder it is to adhere to ethical standards. A true sportsman/woman must be willing to lose rather than sacrifice ethical principles – even when the stakes are high. If you aren’t willing to lose, you’ll do whatever it takes to win.

  • Counterfeit victories. Victories attained by cheating or other forms of unethical conduct are counterfeit. A sportsman/woman believes that winning without honor is not a true victory. Coaches must remind themselves and their athletes that true sports is a process of pursuing victory with honor.

Back to “is” vs. “ought.” While the practice of sports often reflects the dominance of the gamesmanship model (“is” ethics), the sportsmanship model is deeply rooted in the Olympic Spirit and is the foundation of all major athletic mission statements and codes of conduct. It is the way sports ought to be played.

What Is Part of the Game?

How can one know the difference between improper gamesmanship tactics and legitimate techniques and strategies that qualify under the sportsmanship model? There are two major considerations: safety and the integrity of the game.

Safety. Many rules are designed to prevent conduct that creates unnecessary risks of injury. Keeping in mind the recreational/fun foundation to sports, techniques that inflict pain or endanger athletes violate the fundamental premise of athletic competition. Thus, throwing at a batter for any reason, physical intimidation, intentional injuring, tripping, and similar tactics often justified as “part of the game” introduce unacceptably dangerous elements into the game.

Integrity of the game. Every sport has developed over the years with rule refinements. The rules not only establish standards of fair play, they actually define the game. When traditions begin to develop that corrupt the game (e.g., chop-blocking or spearing in football, flagrant fouls or hand-checking in basketball), the matter is generally addressed by additional rules or instructions to officials to enforce existing rules more vigorously.

  • Changing the Nature of the Game. To correctly say that a particular tactic is “part of the game” is to say that it is consistent with the intended nature of the game, that it doesn’t introduce irrelevant or inappropriate factors that distort the outcome. Thus, gamesmanship tactics that change the nature of the game are unethical because they violate the integrity of the sport.
  • Relevant Standards of Conduct:
  • Coaches must demonstrate and demand scrupulous integrity in all matters, observe and enforce the spirit as well as the letter of the rules. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord ¶ 8).
  • The integrity of the game rests mainly on the shoulders of the coach; there can be no compromise. (Article 3, Rule #4, American Football Coaches Association Code of Ethics)
  • Coaches who seek to gain any advantage by circumvention, disregard or unwillingness to learn the rules of the game, are unfit for this association. (Article 3, Rule #4, American Football Coaches Association Code of Ethics)
  • Coaches should not engage in, encourage or ever tolerate, any form of trickery or evasion of rules in order to gain an advantage over an opponent. (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics)

Drawing the line. In considering the propriety of a particular tactic, the proper question is: Does it use skills and abilities intended to be measured by the sport? Another way to look at it: Does the tactic favor athletic and strategic skills envisioned by the rule makers?


Ethical conflicts are best resolved by use of decision-making strategies that help us see the moral implications of our choices, sort out the competing claims, and evaluate the long-term consequences of each option.

Seven Decision-Making Strategies

Each of the following has value in clarifying the ethical issues and helping coaches make more ethical choices:

1. The Publicity Test

One of the most basic and useful strategies to help coaches make ethical decisions is called the “publicity test.” This model of decision-making directs us to consider whether we would be comfortable if what we did and why we did it was publicized. What would you do if you knew your decision and the true reasons behind would be reported on the front page of the newspaper or on the 10 o’clock news?

  • Safeguarding your good name. Most coaches realize that their reputation is one of their most important personal and professional assets. The publicity test causes us to think about how the decisions we make will either enhance or undermine our reputations. It sometimes helps to imagine the story that might be told and ask whether it would make us and our families proud or embarrassed?

  • Assume your decision will be known. This decision-making strategy forces us to abandon the dangerous assumption and frequent rationalization that no one will know about what you did or your motivations for doing it. Whenever we seek refuge in the “no one will know” justification, it’s a clear sign that we shouldn’t do it. The publicity test forces us to confront the possibility that our choice will be publicized to the world and will become a factor in how we’re judged.

2. The Role-Model Test

When faced with a difficult decision, think of an ethical role model – someone whose integrity and courage merit admiration – and ask, What would that person do? If no one you know comes to mind, use Mother Teresa, Superman, Forrest Gump, or anyone whose persona is identified with character and integrity. “What would my ethical role model do?”

3. The Parenting Tests

Our notions of right and wrong and how someone else ought to act are particularly acute when we think of ourselves as parents. Here are ways to help focus our attention on the special feelings we have about our children:

  • The kid-on-your-shoulder. What would you do if you knew your kid was looking over your shoulder? Ask yourself: “How will my conduct affect the way my children think of me?” A variation is to ask “What would I do if I knew a closed-circuit camera was beaming my words and actions to the people whose respect I want the most?”

  • What would you advise your child to do? Another decision-making strategy that draws on the parenting perspective asks: “Am I doing what I would advise my child to do?” A variation is: “What would I hope my child would do in the same situation?”

  • Think of the kind of person you want your child to marry. What would he/she do? The final test based on the parenting perspective is based on the assumption that all of us want our children to date and marry people of good moral character, people who exemplify the Six Pillars of Character –- trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Thus, if we behave the way we would want our children’s mates to behave, we have a good measure of our ideas of ethics. “What would the kind of person I want my child to marry do?”

4. The Rule of Respect

A basic standard of decision-making is based on the principle of respect for all persons. Since all people are important and the well-being of each is a moral end in itself, it is wrong to treat others simply as the means for our own benefit or gratification. Am I treating every person with proper respect?

5. The Rule of Universality

Think about the broader impact of the choices you’re considering. If you wouldn’t want others to do it, you should refrain. Do only those acts you’re willing to allow to become universal standards of behavior applicable to all people in similar situations. A simplified version is: “If everyone did it, would it be a good thing?”

6. The Golden Rule

In one version or another, the Golden Rule, also called the “rule of reciprocity,” has a prominent place in all major cultures and religions. According to philosopher Marcus Singer, “The nearly universal acceptance of the Golden Rule by persons of considerable intelligence and divergent outlooks provides evidence that it is a fundamental ethical truth.” The rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

7. The Josephson Institute Three-Step Decision-Making Model

Josephson Institute has developed a three-step process to deal with more complex decisions based on these principles: 1) ethical decisions should take into account the interests and well-being of all persons (i.e., “stakeholders”) likely to be affected by the decision; 2) ethical decisions put the core ethical values of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship above others; and 3) one may ethically choose to subordinate one core ethical value to advance another but only if it’s clearly necessary to do so and the decision-maker believes the choice will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run.

The Three-Step Model:

  1. Have I thought about how my decisions are likely to help or hurt others (the “stakeholders”)?

  2. Am I living up to the ethical principles of the Six Pillars of Character by being trustworthy, respectful, responsible, fair, caring, and a good citizen – even if I have to give up things I want?

  3. If I cannot find a way to live up to one of the Six Pillar principles without violating another, am I making the choice that will be best for society in the long run?

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