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Future challenges in ethical operations of sport organizations

This is an excerpt from Organizational Behavior in Sport Management by Eric MacIntosh & Laura Burton.

Sport organizations will undoubtedly continue to face ethical challenges in the realm of organizational behavior. We discuss a few of those challenges here - in intercollegiate sport, professional sport, and technology in sport - but this discussion certainly does not provides an exhaustive consideration of what lies ahead. Therefore, we encourage you to contemplate other ongoing ethical challenges, as well as those that may yet arise.


Intercollegiate sport will continue to face ethical challenges in both decision making and leadership due to ongoing pressure to win and increase revenue. Specifically, universities continue to rely on athletics as a marketing tool to increase student applications, increase enrollment of out-of-state students, enhance reputation, and, for a small percentage of universities, bring in considerable revenue. As a result, the pressure to win will continue to be felt by athletic directors, administrators, and coaches. At the same time, these individuals also face other pressures, such as fielding the most talented team possible within the academic requirements of the university and ensuring that student-athletes maintain their academic eligibility according to NCAA requirements. These competing pressures can lead to unethical decisions that carry negative implications for all of a university’s stakeholders. To see how the desire to win can take precedence over all else, we need only to review the scandal related to alleged sexual assaults, other crimes, and cover-ups by members of the Baylor University football program under the leadership of then-coach Art Briles (Goodwyn, 2017).


On the professional level, both sport leaders and other stakeholders will continue to face the ethical challenge of how to address the growing crisis of traumatic brain injury in contact sports. The NFL and the NHL need to provide honest and ethical leadership that can serve as an example for those in youth sport and interscholastic and intercollegiate sport. Unfortunately, as of yet, league leaders have chosen to resist honest, significant reforms that would help support retired players who suffer from debilitating injuries as a result of head trauma sustained during their playing days (Lupica, 2016; Branch, 2016).


In addition, ethical challenges will continue to be created by technological developments that enable fast and easy sharing of information. Social media platforms (e.g., Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) can closely link fans with players and employees of sport organizations in exciting ways. Yet for all the positive connections they enable, we have also witnessed the ugliness that can occur when individuals hide behind a screen name. This ugliness was brought to the fore in the summer of 2016 by two prominent sports reporters, Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro. In a video that quickly went viral, men read tweets posted about Spain and DiCaro that highlighted the harassment and abuse they have experienced on Twitter. (To view the video, search YouTube for "#MoreThanMean." Warning: The content is disturbing.)Another troubling trend involves the use of social media to attack athletes (usually football players) when they are perceived to be responsible for a team’s loss. Athletic departments, and coaches in particular, have been quick to respond to such attacks, but more work needs to be done on the issue - perhaps, for example, establishing a social media code of ethics for fans to follow.


In the Boardroom

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

Intercollegiate athletic programs - particularly Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs - face significant challenges, including the rising cost of maintaining competitive teams, pressure from stakeholders to win and keep winning, and the need to generate revenue to support their programs. These challenges can lead to ethical issues, including cheating (e.g., fake classes, improper tutoring assistance) geared to keeping athletes academically eligible. In this environment, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics seeks to influence policies to better support the academic experiences of student-athletes. The commission has produced reports and built an interactive database that stakeholders in college athletics can use to understand the current state of college sport and the spending it entails (Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, 2017). As a future employee in a sport organization, you can use resources provided by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and other groups (such as the College Sport Research Institute in Columbia, South Carolina) to stay informed about issues facing collegiate athletic administrators.


Case Study

Ethical Challenges in Youth Sport Administration

As fall arrives, you are excited to begin your first season as director of the Smithton Youth Soccer League. Though you look forward to watching the 30 teams play, you also recognize that some coaches and parents have exhibited conduct that does not support the principles of youth sport development, such as fun, fair play, and good sportspersonship. Unfortunately, it is not long into the season before you are approached by a group of disgruntled parents. They allege that the top team in the sixth-grade league (the Smithton Firecrackers) is violating the age requirement established by the league by allowing five players to play on their team who appear to be older and more mature than others in the league. The parents also complain that the coach of the Firecrackers (Coach Sarah) tends to use those five players for the majority of each game and that the scores are therefore lopsided. For example, one parent refers to a game in which her daughter’s team lost 11-0 to the "more mature" Firecrackers. The parents also complain that Coach Sarah yells harshly at her players, even though you have received no complaints from parents of players on her team.


Case Study Questions

  1. Identify the ethical dilemmas presented in this fictional case study.
  2. Evaluate one of these dilemmas by using the etho-conventional decision-making model for sport managers.
  3. As director of the Smithton Youth Soccer League, what actions could you take to address the ethical dilemmas identified in question 1?

Learn more about Organizational Behavior in Sport Management.