Ethical Issues and School Athletics Essay

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When applied to sports, ethics refers to the principles and values associated with sports participation, including sportsmanship and character development. It is an important issue in K–12 school athletics. Sports participation is generally believed to teach character and leadership skills that can be applied later in life. Teamwork, communication, peaceful resolution to conflict, goal setting, motivation, and the work ethic are seen as some of the positive aspects.

In addition, certain values and principles are associated with being engaged in athletic activities, such as respect (for rules and people), integrity, competition, honesty, safety, fairness, trust, and sportsmanship. Since ethics is often thought about as “doing the right thing,” then sport ethics means doing the right thing in a sports setting. Sportsmanship cannot be achieved without ethical behavior.

When an ethical dilemma occurs in a sports setting, two or more values, such as wanting to win versus safety or fairness are in conflict and the participant is forced to choose between those values. When the need to win becomes more important, unethical or unsportsmanlike behavior may occur, such as a coach playing an injured athlete simply to win a contest. This entry examines the ethical issues in school athletic programs that are confronted by athletes and their coaches and parents.

Ethical Dilemmas

The extent to which ethical issues play an important role in the climate of contemporary schools can be seen in the results of a number of recent surveys. In a 2004 survey of 4,200 high school athletes, 12 percent of males and 36 percent of females admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in the past year. In addition, 68 percent of males and 50 percent of the females in the study admitted that they had bullied, teased, or taunted someone in the past year, and 55 percent of males acknowledged using racial slurs. A 2006 survey revealed that high school students involved in athletics cheat more in school than their nonathlete counterparts.

Young athletes are increasingly the subjects of news stories about negative incidents in sports. Recently, a thirteen-year-old boy was charged with murder for a fatal attack with a baseball bat on another boy who teased him about losing a baseball game. A case that received worldwide attention involved a Dominican immigrant who became one of the biggest sensations in Little League baseball history by pitching the first perfect Little League game in forty-four years and striking out 90 percent of opposing batters with a skill level that far exceeded all of his thirteen year-old competitors. It was later discovered that his birth certificate had been altered by two years, meaning that he was and had been ineligible during his championship run. Parents, coaches, and players were all aware that he was too old to play but ignored the rules in favor of winning games.

Ethical issues involving school settings are not limited simply to students, but also involve coaches and parents. In a recent study of 803 athletes ranging in age from nine to fifteen, and 189 parents and 61 youth sport coaches, poor behavior among parents and coaches was consistently reported. Among parents, 13 percent acknowledged angrily criticizing their child’s performance.

Coaches are increasingly reported as being involved in unsportsmanlike behaviors—behaviors that often clearly have ethical overtones. For example, a 2004 study indicates that 8 percent of coaches encouraged their players to hurt an opponent, while 7 percent condoned cheating, and 33 percent admitted yelling at players for making mistakes. In addition, 4 percent of the athletes reported that a coach had hit, kicked, or slapped them.

A relatively new phenomenon, “sports rage” has developed in recent years, with an increasing number of parents and coaches stepping over the line at sporting events and engaging in aggressive and violent behavior. Examples can be found of a father shooting a football coach because of the coach’s treatment of his son, a father being beaten to death by another parent at a youth hockey game, four and five-year-olds watching parents brawling at a t-ball game, and parents poisoning the members of an opposing team.

Ethical Theory Applied To Sport

A number of important concepts drawn from the more general field of ethics have a particular application to sports ethics. These include deontology; teleology; rule, principle, and the categorical imperative; situational ethics; and the ethics of social contracts.

Deontology refers to ethical decision making based on moral obligations and responsibilities or actions that are taken for reasons other than consequences, such as telling the truth and respecting others. In sport, helping an injured opponent, equal participation, and being honest with officials or referees serve as examples of deontology.

Teleology suggests that ethical behavior is based on ends, consequences, or goals, often manifested in sports by the focus on winning. How one wins may be viewed as less important than the victory itself. The utilitarian view looks at the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as a measure of the “rightness” of an action, and when more than one person is involved, what is best for the greatest number of people.

In youth sports, for example, when a coach chooses to play only the best players in an effort to win, and thus ignores the notion that equal participation is important at this level, a teleogical approach has been used. If happiness is achieved, especially for the greatest number of people (team, coaches, players, and parents), then the fact that a few players sat on the bench is considered unimportant.

Another aspect of teleology, and perhaps a more practical way of approaching ethical theory lies with a situational approach, or “letting conscience be your guide.” In this theory, an individual views each moral episode as a separate and unique event, and decisions are based on what is right in a given situation without regard to a specific set of rules, likely consequences, or moral obligations. An example of this type of behavior might be a coach looking at another team’s playbook or an athlete tampering with the equipment of an opponent.

A rule or principle-based perspective, based on the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, is predicated on the maxim that an action is acceptable as a universal law. The cheater in sports doesn’t want everyone to violate the rules; otherwise, cheating would offer no rewards. This includes the virtuous aspect of sport, or what it “ought” to be, as opposed to what it is, or winning the “right way” instead of “winning at all costs.”

The social contract view of ethics maintains that the community or group dictates what is ethical or not. Athletes on a team, for example, agree to the rules and parameters of their participation, and decision making takes the form of give and take. When athletes take steroids, the action violates the social contract that athletes have agreed to abide by—that is, not to have an unfair advantage over their opponents.

Sportsmanship Versus Gamesmanship

Understanding the difference between sportsmanship and its counterpart, gamesmanship, is essential to a discussion of sport ethics. Sportsmanship refers to the virtuous perspective or the way that sport participation “ought” to be. It includes winning the right way, being willing to lose gracefully, having appropriate respect for opponents and officials, understanding and abiding by the spirit of the rules, and putting competition into perspective. Gamesmanship, on the other hand, is the winning-at-all-costs mentality; it is the way that sports may be, not how it should be. It includes looking for exceptions to the rules, taunting, fake fouls, illegal head starts, taunting to gain an advantage, intentionally injuring another player, and intimidation or espionage.

While winning is commonly the goal in a sport contest, the pervasive notion that it is the most important aspect of the contest causes unethical behavior and even violence in sports. In the 1996 Olympics, a popular Nike ad sent the message that “you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold,” and the famous NFL football legend and coach Vince Lombard is often quoted as saying “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” These examples perpetuate the notion that winning is the most important goal in sports, and to be successful, one must attain that goal in whatever manner available. It is also a perspective that is not necessarily consistent with what is considered appropriate ethical behavior.

The Future Of Sport Ethics

The future of sport ethics at the K–12 level rests on the ability of those involved to adhere to the principles of good sportsmanship and minimize the need to win at all costs. Education of parents, coaches, teachers, administrators, and athletes is essential, and can take the form of holding sport ethics clinics and workshops, developing and implementing codes of ethics for all stakeholders, rewarding good sportsmanship, and having a zero tolerance for gamesmanship.


  1. Malloy, D. C., Ross, S., & Zakus, D. H. (2003). Sport ethics: Concepts and cases in sport and recreation. Toronto, ON, Canada: Thompson.
  2. Shea, E. J. (1996). Ethical decision in sport. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  3. Shields, D. L., & Bredemeier, B. J. (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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