Long Overdue: A Sports Code of Ethics

I’ve been struggling with some ethical inconsistencies in the world of sports. Maybe you can help me think them through. Consider the following:

In golf, the honor code rules. Players routinely assess their own penalties if they accidentally move a ball or otherwise violate a rule. This doesn’t seem to happen in any other sport. Try to imagine a first baseman turning around to a baseball umpire after an “out” call and saying, “No, actually my foot slipped off the bag and he’s safe.” (No, I can’t imagine it, either.)

Last year, a football scandal led to penalties for several players and teams that had offered bonuses to players who knocked the opposing team’s quarterback out of the game with an injury. But what made it illegal was the bounty, not the strategy. How ethical is that?

In baseball, it’s illegal to use certain performance enhancing drugs, but dozens of pitchers have had their elbows surgically reconstructed so they can pitch more effectively. Why is one “cheating” and the other not? (The New York Times’ ethicist recently wrestled with this one).

Baseball umpires judging double plays routinely give second basemen the benefit of the doubt in what’s come to be called the neighborhood play—it’s enough to be close to the bag (in the neighborhood) to get the call. There’s a reason umpires are lenient; staying on the bag too long can lead to injury. But is this ethical? If everyone thinks this is a reasonable way to operate, why not change the rule?

What are we to make of these situations? Are golfers more ethical than baseball players? Are performance enhancing drugs banned because they’re harmful rather than because they’re unfair? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t football and other collision sports be banned as harmful?

We generally define ethics as a system of moral principles or as the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or culture. Health care professionals have their own particular code of ethics, so do lawyers, journalists, realtors, and all sorts of other groups.

But there’s no code of ethics for sports. There isn’t even an acceptance of the one principle that appears in almost every other code of ethics: Minimize harm. Instead, each sport is governed by a set of rules and common practices, and it’s those rules and common practices, not ethics based on moral behavior, that determine what’s allowed and what’s considered unfair. Cheating—defined as violating the rules—is frowned upon and punished (if discovered). But apart from golf, there’s no honor system. No self policing of the rules, which to me suggests no ethics.

Maybe that’s okay, but I don’t think so. Given that sports are held up as a kind of noble enterprise–one that teaches the value of teamwork and cooperation—I’d be much happier to see more honor. I wouldn’t mind players correcting umpires who ruled in their favor or a clearer understanding of why some medical enhancements are okay and others aren’t. And I’d like to see a football lineman who’s called for roughing the passer get suspended for the rest of the season (and for life on the third offense) rather than a mild 15-yard penalty.

As always, I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

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4 thoughts on “Long Overdue: A Sports Code of Ethics

  1. More honor, but how much honor? Isn’t there a risk of changing the character of the game? Can you see Big Papi turning to the home-plate umpire and saying, “No, actually, I did swing through. It was a strike.”

  2. “Honor” is a respect we grant ourselves or that is granted by others. Unfortunately people seeking honor are not necessarily moral or ethical (see “honor killing” in Wikipedia). For example, the UVa honor system has but a single sanction, expulsion, to defend the honor of the student body. If they were seeking justice rather than honor the penalties would be more appropriate (effective without being excessive). You earn honor by seeking justice. Seeking honor for its own sake is self-serving.

    “Honesty” is the better word for what you’re describing. People who believe in honesty feel shame when they behave dishonestly (“integrity” is consistency with one’s values, which sustains self-respect, which is the form of “personal honor” we give ourselves).

    You make a good point about the rules, which tell you the “process” for playing the game, rather than the “ethical requirements”. Since professional societies often have a code of ethics, it makes sense for professional sports to also have ethical codes. And why not make that one of the first things you teach young people in little league sports.

  3. These are some great questions and insights. I realize you aren’t strictly a sports blog, but we are looking at these questions on a daily basis over at http://wellplayed.us. Another great example is the use of blades in running. As technology continues to improve, these questions become more important to answer.

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