By T. Leigh Buehler  |  02/22/2024

ethics in sports management


Sport management involves several moving parts. It includes the administration, organization, and coordination of various elements within the realm of sports, such as event planning, training, team management, or individual player marketing.

Sport management tends to focus on achieving success. But the pivotal role ethics plays in this field must also be recognized.

Ethics goes beyond simply following rules and regulations. It encompasses fairness, values, and the integrity of the sports industry.

In recent years, the industry has increasingly found itself caught up in moral and ethical complexities. With an ever-expanding global reach and profitable opportunities, the industry now has numerous challenges that demand sport managers provide greater precision in their supervision and ethical behavior.


Fair Play and Integrity

The basis of all ethical sport management lies in the principle of fair play. Fair play emphasizes the idea that all participants should have an equal and just opportunity to win, regardless of external factors. It can be found at all levels of sports from beginning players to players of college sports and professional athletes.

But this principle of fair play is not limited to just athletes. It extends to the entire sports ecosystem – managers, coaches, and administrators. Ensuring fairness in decision-making processes, team selection, and resource allocation is necessary for maintaining the honesty of a sport.

Victory should be determined by skill, strategy, and effort, not by unethical means such as cheating, bribery, or rigging. Athletes are expected to uphold the ethical values by treating opponents with respect.

Fair play maintains the dignity of the sport and all participants. Athletes, coaches, administrators, and other professionals are trusted to uphold sports ethics. They must ensure that competition remains untainted from corruption, cheating, or any other form of dishonesty. It is also vital that competition remains untainted from corruption, cheating, or any other form of dishonesty.

When a sport is compromised by non-ethical behavior, especially in professional associations, the trust of fans and stakeholders is lost. Promoting fair play and the importance of sports ethics becomes essential as the world of sports increases.

In our society, the athletes of professional leagues become role models to young student athletes. They inspire the next generation with their athletic prowess on the field and their behavior off the field.


Performance-Enhancing Drugs

The issue of doping – using performance-enhancement drugs – persists in sports. Athletes try to eke out a competitive edge by using banned substances, which undermines the principles of fair play and interferes with the honor of sporting competitions.

Numerous athletes have faced allegations or have been caught using prohibited substances for performance enhancement.


Lance Armstrong

One of the most shocking and infamous cases of doping, cyclist Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times. Armstrong argued that the sport was riddled with doping, and he was simply trying to level the playing field. Armstrong had repeatedly made public statements that he did not use performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2012, he was stripped of his titles and banned from professional cycling for life after a systemic and long-term doping scandal was uncovered. For more information about the ethical quandaries associated with Armstrong and the doping issue in cycling, the University of Texas published an incredible case study.


Maria Sharapova

This former number one women’s tennis player tested positive for a drug called meldonium during the 2016 Australian Open. The World Anti-Doping Agency had banned the substance at the beginning of that year.

Originally developed to treat a condition of blood flow to the organs, it was a drug Sharapova’s doctor stated she needed. Meldonium was banned as a potential performance enhancement because it can increase blood flow, improve exercise capacity, and enhance recovery.

Sharapova received a two-year ban that was reduced to 15 months after she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The case sparked debates over athletes’ responsibility to stay informed of changes to the anti-doping regulations.


Sports Organizations Need Firm Policies and Regular Testing of Athletes

To help divert athletes from doping, it is essential for organizations such as a national association or an international association to implement harsh anti-doping policies. In addition, regular testing should be conducted with internal and external anti-doping agencies.

Sports managers should frequently conduct educational sessions to raise awareness of the consequences of doping and emphasize the importance of fair competition. The long-term health risks associated with performance-enhancing substances should be addressed as well.

But if teams and organizations do not impose penalties for doping or they do not take its importance seriously, the issue will only continue. Younger generations may be led to believe there is no way to get ahead in a sport without performance-enhancing drugs and act according to principles that are not consistent with good sportsmanship or respect.


Corruption and Bribery

High-profile sports involve a lot of money. When money can be made in abundance, poor ethical decisions tend to follow, especially when you are a host nation to some of the largest sporting events in the world. But when that corruption hits sports, the consequences tarnish the credibility of the sport organization, raise awareness of ethical issues, create poor public relations, and destroy public trust in that sport.

Many sports have been affected by some type of match-fixing, bribery, or financial misconduct. Sport management professionals must help prevent and address any corruption issues within the industry. Many people complain, however, that sanctions are not enough and the penalties are not severe enough, so many issues persist.


FIFA Corruption Scandal

In 2015, the international governing body of soccer arrested several high-ranking Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) officials. They faced charges related to money laundering, bribery, and corruption.

These allegations were linked to the bidding process for host countries of the FIFA World Cup. The investigation found bribes and kickbacks spanning over several decades, an issue many people argue is still occurring today.


Salt Lake City Olympic Bid Scandal

A bribery scandal with the 2002 bidding process tainted the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Investigators found organizers gave gifts, scholarships, and other financial incentives to the International Olympic Committee members to cast their vote in favor of Salt Lake City hosting the Olympic games. The scandal led to reforms in the Olympic bidding process and the removal of several IOC members.


Athletics Federation of Nigeria Bribery Scandal

In 2019, In 2019, several high-ranking officials from the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) were caught demanding bribes from athletes to include them in the country’s team for international competition. This scandal highlighted issues surrounding many countries and how their sports federations used their athletes for monetary gain as opposed to highlighting their country’s athletes for their skill.

To help stop corruption, organizations need to establish stringent governance structures, ethical codes of conduct, and transparent financial practices. When management professionals prioritize accountability and foster a culture where unethical behavior is not tolerated, corruption tends to be curbed.

In addition, implementing whistleblower protection programs helps to encourage individuals to come forward with any information on unethical behavior.


Fair Labor Practices

In today’s sports world, fair labor practices and exploitation of athletes, coaches, and support staff are hot topics. Issues like inadequate compensation, unsafe working conditions, unequal treatment, and even a lack of representation for athletes’ rights are now under ethical scrutiny.

Fair labor regulations ensure equitable treatment and conditions for all athletes, staff members, and coaches. Contracts, wages, working hours, and safety standards fall into fair labor regulations.

These rules address issues like salary caps, club spending, and revenue sharing to maintain a balance between the interests of players and teams. The goal is to create a level playing field and safeguard the well-being and rights of those involved.


UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) implemented Financial Fair Play regulations to help promote financial stability among football (soccer) clubs. These regulations aim to prevent soccer clubs from spending funds beyond their means, which in turn protects the long-term viability of the clubs, their players, and club stakeholders.


WNBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement Improvements

In 2020, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) renegotiated its collective bargaining agreement to improve the terms for player compensation, as well as issues regarding travel conditions and overall working conditions. It was seen as a positive step toward addressing the issue of gender disparities not just within the WNBA, but in all of women’s professional sports.


NHL’s Injury Protection

Within the National Hockey League (NHL), the organization implemented provisions in their collective bargaining agreement to protect players when they suffered a career-ending injury. The provisions allow for long-term disability benefits and financial support for players who must retire due to injuries received during their careers.

Sport managers need to advocate for fair labor practices for their athletes and other represented personnel. Managers should focus on ensuring working conditions within the industry meet ethical standards and negotiating equitable contracts.

In addition, collaborating with advocacy groups and integrating their perspectives into decision-making processes can help address any power imbalances that may contribute to exploitation or unethical behavior.


Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunities That Ensure Social Justice

A very popular ethical dilemma in the sports industry today involves diversity and inclusion. Discrimination based on someone's race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors continues to plague the industry.

Sports managers are crucial in championing diversity, fostering inclusive environments, and ensuring equal opportunities for all participants.

Equal opportunity is vital in sports for fostering a fair environment. Embracing diversity brings together individuals from varied backgrounds and promotes a rich background of talents and perspectives.

Inclusion ensures that everyone, regardless of gender, racial background, or other factors, feels valued and has equal access to opportunities.

Diversity and inclusion not only strengthen leaders and teams, but also enhance overall team performance. That contributes to a more equitable and harmonious sports community.


NFL’s Rooney Rule

The Rooney Rule of the National Football League (NFL) requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and senior football operation roles. Many people argue the rule is nearly pointless, while others argue that it helps to address the lack of diversity in the NFL’s leadership positions.


UEFA’s Women in Football Leadership Program

To help increase the number of women in leadership roles within football organizations, the Union of European Football Associations implemented the Women in Football Leadership Program. It focuses on providing networking opportunities, education, and mentorship for women who aspire to work in football management.


Paralympics Movement

A worldwide example of promoting inclusivity in sports is the Paralympics movement. This area of sports provides opportunities for athletes with disabilities to compete at the highest level, and it helps to challenge societal perceptions and break down the barriers associated with disability.

To help underrepresented groups, organizations and managers need to create diversity and inclusion policies, as well as implement training programs and actively recruit personnel from these groups.

Sport managers must lead by example. They can help promote a culture that shows it values diversity and help their organizations fight discrimination and bias.


The Exploitation and Commercialization of Athletes

Due to the incredible rise of financial wins in sports, ethical concerns regarding the exploitation of athletes are also increasing. It’s easy to assume that this issue is problematic for professional teams and athletes, but in recent years, college athletes are speaking out against exploitation.

Athletes are frequently pressured to perform and endorse deals, so their entire lives can become a commodity. If this pressure is not handled carefully, it can lead to mental health issues and the possibility of compromising the well-being of those athletes.

When athletes are seen as a commodity, they risk harming their mental and physical health. The focus on profits can lead to unfair contracts or excessive endorsement demands, which causes inadequate protection of the athlete. It can even risk fair competition through bribery and persuasion.


Ed O’Bannon and the NCAA

In 2009, Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), stating that this national organization exploited college athletes by using their likenesses without proper compensation. This case led to the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals currently used by many collegiate athletes.


Migrant Workers in Sporting Events

Concerns over the working conditions for migrant workers drew greater attention with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Reports of not just lethal working conditions, but also low wages and inadequate living conditions caused an international outrage and calls for better labor practices. Many migrant workers are stuck in Qatar without a way home and awaiting wages that were never paid to them.


Boxing Promoters and Exploitation

Several boxing promoters have faced charges for exploiting lower-level fighters. Promoters make unfavorable contracts that take large chunks of the earnings and control the decisions of the fighter’s career. These issues have led to better regulations and protections for boxers.

To counter potential exploitation, managers need to find a balance between the financial interests of the sports organization and the athlete. Negotiating fair endorsement deals and advocating for athletes’ rights will help to contribute to a more ethical sports environment.


Fan Behavior

Fan behavior has long been a topic of discussion worldwide, especially in professional sports. Incidents of violence, racism, and online abuse directed at athletes pose threats to the values of fair play and sportsmanship. Sport managers must take proactive measures to address fan behavior and create safer environments for all participants.

When fans lose control of their behavior, they create a dangerous environment for athletes and spectators alike. Disruptive behavior not only tarnishes the spirit of fair competition, but also puts the safety of everyone at risk.


Racist Incidents in Soccer Stadiums

Issues with racist behavior in soccer stadiums are a worldwide problem. Fans may yell racial slurs, make racial or rude gestures, and chant discriminatory words at players during the games of professional leagues.

When this behavior occurs at sporting events, it undermines the spirit of the game. Additionally, officials are now stopping games until the fans settle down and stop ruining the spirit of competition.


Violence at Soccer Games

When racist incidents ignite anger, it can turn into violence. Some areas of the world suffer more from violence and hooliganism than others.

This lack of respect endangers fellow fans and tarnishes the reputation of the sport. Some incidents have included physical altercations, confrontations with law enforcement, and vandalism.


Trash-Throwing Incidents at Basketball Games

Basketball sees a lot of fans throw objects and trash onto the court. This behavior disrupts the games and creates a safety risk for players and officials since fans are so close to the court.

Sport managers need to work with organizations and regulating bodies to implement strict codes of conduct for fans. They can leverage technology to monitor and address online abuse and collaborate with law enforcement to ensure the safety of fans and athletes. 


The Societal Impact of Ethical Sports

The world of sports can influence and inspire society. The ancient gladiator games of Rome were brutal and inhumane, but they played a role in shaping Roman society through entertainment, politics, and cultural identity. The legacy of the games persisted even after the fall of the Roman Empire and led to later forms of public spectacle and entertainment.

Jesse Owens, an African American athlete, won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At the time, Hitler declared Aryans were superior to other races, striking terror throughout Germany to anyone not an Aryan.

Owens, however, challenged racial prejudices and became a symbol of triumph over discrimination. His victories also helped to influence civil rights movements.

Sport management professionals should be socially responsible and make ethical decisions, considering the broader implications of their decisions on ethical issues such as diversity, inclusion, and environmental sustainability. By aligning sports management practices with ethical principles, the industry can serve as a role model for ethical behavior.


Championing Ethics and Ethical Behavior in Sports Management

In the sports management industry, navigating complex moral and ethical issues requires proactive measures. Doping, corruption, exploitation, discrimination, commercialization, and fan behavior are just a few of the ethical behavior challenges that demand the attention of sport management professionals.

Robust policies, fostering a culture of integrity, and actively engaging with the broader sports community can contribute to more ethical, sustainable sporting events. Sports professionals must continuously adapt to emerging challenges, placing ethical behavior at the forefront of decision-making processes. This behavior will ensure the legacy of sports as a source of inspiration, fair competition, and universal camaraderie.


Sports Management Degrees at American Public University

American Public University (APU) offers two degrees in sports management – the online bachelor of science in sports management and the online master of science in sports management. Both of these degree programs have received specialized accreditation from the Commission on Sports Management Accreditation (COSMA).

Online courses in these programs cover a wide range of topics such as ethics in sports, sports management, sports marketing, sports law, sports psychology, sports business leadership, and sports event management. For more information about these degrees, please visit our program pages.


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About the Author
T. Leigh Buehler
T. Leigh Buehler is an assistant professor who teaches retail management courses at the University. She is also a course consultant, social media specialist, and curriculum design team leader. Her academic credentials include a B.A. in history and sociology from Texas A&M University, an MBA in business administration from the University of Phoenix, and a master’s degree in American history, along with numerous certifications in digital marketing.

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