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Why Ethics in Sports Should Be Your Organization's Top Priority

Unethical behavior can harm players, staff, fans, and your organization. Here’s how to promote ethics in sports and how to proceed when an incident occurs.

“Deflategate.” Tonya Harding’s friends attacking her competitor Nancy Kerrigan. Lance Armstrong’s doping. FIFA bribes. Equal pay for the U.S. women’s and men’s soccer teams.

We all know these infamous sporting scandals, and if you’re part of a sports organization, whether it’s professional or a community youth league, avoiding a similar fate should be top priority.

Ethics violations sully the reputation of the organization and forever change the careers of those involved, both victims and perpetrators. Even worse, your organization could face fines, lawsuits, loss of funding, and reputational damage.

However, maintaining ethics in sports can feel overwhelming with all the egos, agendas, and a highly competitive atmosphere. In this guide, we’ve compiled common ethical issues to look out for, how to deal with ethical incidents when they do arise, and how to prevent issues so that your athletes, staff, fans, and organization stay safe.

What is Ethics & Integrity in Sports?

“Ethics in sport is essentially about having good moral behavior,” says Dr. Chelsea Litchfield, Senior Lecturer in Human Movement Studies at Charles Sturt University. “Ethics in sport is the responsibility of everyone involved – on and off field.”

While it’s always fun to win, ethics and integrity ensure that achievements are reached fairly. No person, team, or organization should make any kind of gain at the expense of anyone else.

 

What are the Four Sports Ethics?

According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, ethics in sports center around four key virtues:

  1. Fairness: following and applying rules consistently; no discrimination or advantages
  2. Integrity: no sacrificing the quality of the game through your actions (such as faking an injury)
  3. Responsibility: managing emotions and conduct; knowing the rules; owning up to mistakes
  4. Respect: acting with consideration toward athletes, staff, officials, and fans

 

Some sports ethics standards also include caring. This means not engaging in or tolerating unhealthy, dangerous, or harmful behavior (e.g. doping, harassment, etc.).

 

Are Ethics Important in Sports?

Ethical behavior is as important, if not more, in sports organizations as in other businesses.

First, many of the unethical behaviors described below can endanger the victims’ physical and mental well-being. This is especially troubling in organizations that work with children.

In addition, fans of all ages look up to athletes and even coaches as role models. If they engage in unethical behavior, their admirers might think it’s ok to act that way, too.

Finally, sports are supposed to be fun games that challenge players to show off their skills and bring communities of fans together. Violating sportsmanship, especially at the organizational level, shifts the focus from an enjoyable event to power struggles and greed.

Don't make your ethical standards a mystery.

With a clear code of ethics, everyone in your organization will know the values you operate under and how to achieve them. Download our free template to start writing yours.

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Types of Ethics in Sports Issues

In 2021, 51 per cent of reports to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada involved unfair team selection, 18 per cent involved maltreatment, and 12 per cent involved doping.

The unique atmosphere and interactions between athletes, staff, and fans can make sports organizations or teams susceptible to ethical issues. While it’s impossible to get your incident count down to zero, keep these common problems in mind as you assess your risks and plan preventive measures.

 

Discrimination

Discrimination can be based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, class/status, age, or physical ability. The term refers to treating a person differently (in a negative way) because of a trait they hold.

Examples of discrimination could include:

  • Playing a gay athlete less often than their straight teammates
  • Refusing to give a Muslim athlete time and space to pray
  • Hiring only male coaches or club staff
  • Failing to accommodate a deaf athlete with visual coaching/learning materials

 

Not only is discrimination unethical, it’s often illegal, too. For example, FINA, the international governing body for swimming, recently banned any transgender woman who completed her transition after age 12. Critics of the decision say that this ban is discriminatory and violates both the privacy and the human rights of the athletes.

If your organization employs professional athletes, discriminating against someone for belonging to a protected class (e.g. race, religion) could lead to an EEOC investigation. This also applies to staff members for any sports organization.

Student athletes at every level are protected from gender discrimination nationwide by Title IX. In some states, including California, community youth sports teams requires equal playing opportunities for boys and girls.

Even if the person isn’t covered by a discrimination law, they could hit you with a human or civil rights lawsuit.

Diverse teams and staff add excitement and a variety of skills and viewpoints. Encouraging inclusivity is the best bet for your organization and its members.

 

RELATED: Discrimination in Sports: 5 Types, 25 Solutions

 

Harassment

Harassment is any kind of unwelcome conduct targeting a person. It can be physical, verbal, sexual, and/or mental/psychological.

In sports organizations, harassment can occur in numerous scenarios, including:

  • Athlete to athlete. Example: A player punches another player because they messed up a play.
  • Staff to athlete. Example: A coach frequently insults a player’s skills in front of their teammates.
  • Fan to athleteExample: A fan swears at a player when they miss a field goal.
  • Athlete to fan. Example: A player has drinks with a fan after a game and sexually assaults them.

 

Harassing behavior should not be tolerated from anyone. It is disruptive, unethical, and detracts from the sportsmanship of the game, regardless of level. Have policies and procedures in place for dealing with each harassment possibility to keep everyone safe.

Mental Health

Due to performance pressure, athletes and staff might struggle with their mental health, especially at more competitive levels of play. In fact, up to 35 per cent of elite athletes suffer from mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, burnout, and substance abuse.

Telling an athlete to “push through” a mentally tough time is just as detrimental as asking them to push through a physical injury, yet this is the norm in many sports organizations.

Instead, encourage athletes to listen to their needs, like U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles did in 2021 by withdrawing. Or, use Naomi Osaka’s declination to participate in a tournament’s media day due to anxiety as an example. When players are mentally healthy, they’ll feel better and perform better.

Drug Use & Abuse

In the competitive atmosphere of sports, athletes might look for a way to get a leg up on the competition. When they’ve trained as hard as they can, they might turn to drugs or performance enhancers for a boost, such as:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
  • Metabolic modulators (used to increase endurance and suppress estrogen production)
  • Diuretics (used to flush out other drugs or quickly lose weight)

 

In addition, athletes may use legal or illegal drugs (e.g. marijuana, alcohol, opioids) to calm down, increase energy and stamina, or cope with mental health issues, as mentioned above.

Using drugs to get ahead in sports is certainly unethical, and often illegal as well. For example, the substances in the bulleted list above are prohibited at all times in many sports organizations. Others, such as stimulants, cannabinoids, narcotics, and glucocorticoids (drugs to reduce inflammation and pain) are banned during competitions.

Drug use (aka “doping”) is dangerous to the athlete’s health, but can also be unethical in other ways. You may have heard this term when Russia was officially banned from sending athletes to the Olympics due to widespread doping.

Athletes might be coerced by staff to use drugs, and staff might bribe officials to turn a blind eye to doping. Plus, getting ahead by using performance enhancers is unsportsmanlike and just plain cheating.

 

RELATED: Doping in Sports: What It Is and How to Stop It with Whistleblowing

 

Abuse of Power/Corruption/Bribery

In most cases, corruption and abuse of power cases involve sports organization staff members, such as coaches, trainers, officials, board members, and administrators.

Accepting bribes, fixing and betting on events, and harmful governance are common ways that bad actors make money for themselves while harming others. These practices can negatively affect athletes physically and mentally while also detracting from sportsmanship.

In addition, staff and athletes might also use their positions of power to take advantage of those who trust and look up to them.

For example, a coach might verbally harass their athletes to “motivate” them to win, whether it’s for glory or the promise of a higher paycheck. Or, a trainer could touch an athlete inappropriately but use the trust they’ve built to convince them it’s a medical procedure.

Athletes, too, can abuse their power. In 2022, Hockey Canada settled a lawsuit with a female fan who claimed she was given alcohol and then sexually assaulted by a group of players. The woman claimed the athletes threatened her with golf clubs and told her not to report the incident.

Retaliation/Silencing Victims

One of the worst issues concerning ethics in sports is silencing or retaliating against victims. Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, over 18 per cent of athletes who had an unwanted sexual experience also experienced retaliation.

Whistleblowers, whether they’re fans, staff, or athletes, want to feel safe as they come forward with ethical concerns. However, some sports organizations take unethical measures to protect the organization’s reputation.

Silencing and retaliation can include:

  • Ignoring or failing to investigate a complaint
  • Threatening to remove the person from the organization if they go to police
  • Asking victims not to discuss their complaints until the matter is resolved
  • Gaslighting the victim
  • Firing or refusing to play the complainant
  • Carrying out a slow or incomplete investigation
  • Using an NDA to keep the victim from whistleblowing publicly

 

This can happen with any manner of complaint or incident. While you might want to keep allegations quiet out of fear, a scandal will do far more reputation damage than admitting fault ever could.

What's in your whistleblower policy?

Your policy should protect members from retaliation, plus encourage them speak up when they experience an issue. Download this free template to get started.

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How to Address Unethical Behavior in Sports

Even the most ethical organizations experience incidents sometimes. What’s important is how you handle them when they do occur.

First and most importantly, respond to every report you receive as quickly as possible. The complainant might have experienced the issue for years before gathering the courage to come forward, so you need to act fast.

Next, take every complaint seriously. Even if you decide not to investigate, trust that the report was made in good faith. It could point to a bigger systemic problem that needs to be addressed, even if this specific complaint was unfounded or could be resolved through other means.

Similarly, be open to reports. Don’t try to silence people coming forward or retaliate against them for reporting. Learn how to triage complaints so that you can address the most serious, time-sensitive accusations ASAP. Managing issues doesn’t just keep athletes and staff safe, but also protects your organization’s reputation.

If you receive a complaint against a specific person, protect the whistleblower while you investigate. Don’t reveal their identity and, if possible, remove them from the dangerous situation. Protect them from retaliation from the organization, accused person, or others by keeping details confidential and monitoring the situation closely.

Not only does this keep the victim safe, but also promotes an ethical culture. According to Whistleblower Security, “even minor forms of retaliation, like marginalization, can lead to poor workplace culture.

Consistent discipline is another key to handling ethics in sports incidents. Whether the accused person is a third-string player or the CEO of the organization, treat every incident of wrongdoing the same way. For instance, since 2021, MLB pitchers, both starters and relievers, have been subject to regular checks by umpires for foreign substances that they could apply to the ball to help their game.

To avoid confusion, lay out clear consequences for each incident type in your code of conduct. This will help you resolve the case faster, as well as provide proof of your internal policies and procedures should the bad actor push back on their discipline.

Finally, keep good documentation. Maintain records of team rosters (including staff) and schedules, all complaints, and final reports from internal investigations.

These records will come in handy if someone questions a decision you’ve made, such as citing wrongful dismissal. They’ll also help if you receive a complaint about an incident that happened years ago, or a new incident involving someone you’ve investigated before.

For instance, Hockey Canada is currently dealing with allegations against members of the 2003 world junior team. While the investigation is being conducted by a police department, Hockey Canada will need to provide information about the team’s members and interactions in order to resolve the matter quickly and accurately.

How to Ensure Ethical Behavior in Your Organization

Ethics in sports organizations should be top priority, but how do you encourage it across your organization?

To start, you’ll need a strong code of conduct and/or code of ethics. These policies clearly outline the behaviors that are required (and prohibited) in order for the organization to run smoothly and safely for everyone.

In your code of conduct, don’t just explain concepts of right and wrong, but use examples specific to your organization to illustrate each point. For instance, instead of saying “Staff must not have inappropriate relationships with athletes,” make a list of prohibited behaviors (e.g. sexual comments, suggestive text messages, frequent touching, etc.).

You might also want to create a separate athlete safety and well-being policy like the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee has. If you work with students or youth, include a “Rule of Two” policy, where two responsible adults must be present during all interactions with under-age participants. Ask members to sign off that they’ve read your code of conduct so you know that the information hasn’t been glossed over or buried under other conduct rules.

Your code of ethics should describe your organization’s ethical standards or core values at a higher level. Explain why ethics is important to the organization. Include ethically confusing sample scenarios, with instructions on how to apply your values when deciding how to tackle them.

In addition, outline the ways that ethics connect to compliance with laws you’re subject to, such as Title IX. Most importantly, describe how and where people can report ethical concerns and incidents.

 

RELATED: 6 Essential Things to Include in Your Code of Ethics

 

Next, implement a secure, easy-to-use reporting system. This could include a hotline number, an online form, a dedicated email address, and/or paper forms. You can’t have eyes everywhere at once, so a hotline is key to catching issues before they escalate.

Be sure to communicate to staff and athletes how and where they can use each reporting method. Emphasize the importance of speaking up, and assure them that all reports will be taken seriously and kept confidential.

Having a hotline is the easiest way to protect all members of your organization, as well as the organization itself. It helps you catch incidents fast, and might even deter bad actors if they know they’re likely to get caught.

For some organizations, specifically academic institutions, you might also need a compliance office or department. Employees of the office can help you make decisions and policies, ensuring the program is fair, safe, and compliant with Title IX and other laws.

When it comes to compliance, more is more. For instance, schools shouldn’t just employ the bare minimum Title IX Coordinator to deal with all things gender discrimination. Hire Title IX compliance officers who specifically handle the sports side of things as well. This will make your organization not only compliant, but also equitable and attractive to athletes.

Finally, you can prevent ethical issues by analyzing historic case data. Look back at past incidents and ask:

  • Are certain types of problems more common than others?
  • Do incidents occur more often in specific teams/geographic areas?
  • Are there any people involved with multiple incidents?

 

Once you’ve uncovered your areas of risk, you can better plan preventive efforts and make changes to policies that will stop repeat incidents.

Doing this type of analysis can take hours. If you use case management software like i-Sight, though, you can create graphs, charts, and heat maps that show your problem areas in just a few clicks. Find out how here.

Need help crafting your code of conduct?

Use our free template to write a clear, organized, and thorough code of conduct that outlines acceptable (and unacceptable) behaviors for everyone from players to staff to officials.

Download the Template

How i-Sight Can Help

If you’re still managing incidents and complaints with spreadsheets or an outdated system, you’re putting your organization, your athletes, your staff, and your fans at risk.

i-Sight’s powerful all-in-one case management software helps you tackle issues from intake to resolution with one robust tool.

The integrate hotline feature creates a new case file as soon as it receives the report, ensuring you can act quickly and reduce resolution time. Our secure platform and case-by-case privacy settings keep sensitive information safe. Finally, you can organize your historic case data into charts and graphs, helping you identify problem areas where you can focus your preventive efforts.

Learn more about how i-Sight can improve your organization’s ethics and compliance program here.

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