Ethical lines in sports as blurry as ever

Experts, players and officials weigh in on cultural and social implications of bending rules, doping and more

Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" in the 1986 World Cup remains one of sports' most ethically debated moments.
Bob Thomas/Getty Images

NEW YORK — What can sports tell us about our wider values and ethics as a society? It is a question New York University Professor Arthur Miller is looking to answer.

There is a serious issue as to “what extent is ‘the game’ (that is all sports) being compromised, in terms of credibility, by the ethical pressure that is put on all participants in sports, be that the kids, the players, the coaches, the doctors, the owners,” Miller said. “Some people think we’re on the pathway to becoming Worldwide Wrestling.”

Miller’s premise was at the heart of a public panel he moderated last month called, “Integrity of the Game: Ethics and Today’s Athlete,” which featured some greats of American sports.

“A lot of people study hits, runs and errors and who beat who,” said Miller, who is kicking off an ambitious program to consider the societal effects of the multibillion-dollar sports industry, “but no one is studying what the societal and cultural implications of sports on American life is all about.”

In many ways some of the biggest issues facing the management of sports in the United States are directly related to ethical, or more often unethical, practices as the financial stakes of sports get ever higher and the imperative to win creates pressure to cut corners.

Miller cites a couple of obvious issues, such as concussion treatment and management and performance-enhancing drugs, but also points to the pressures starting long before reaching the professional level.

“What are the distortions on young people being directed into sports — to what extent is that damaging public education?” he said. “To what extent is it interfering with colleges and universities attention to other matters? It may be causing a variety of ethical problems, whether they be grotesque — like what happened at Penn State — or more subtle, about parents creating pressures for youngsters and lying about their age to make them eligible for this team or that team.”

These are the more tangible variety of ethical questions.

Cultural differences

Other scenarios emerge on the field that can see sport intersect with popular values in ways that are peculiar to a particular country. During the 1986 World Cup, for example, the Argentinean footballer Diego Maradona scored perhaps the greatest goal ever scored, slaloming half the length of the field, past multiple defenders, to convert during the quarter final against hated rival, England. Yet it is the first goal he scored in that game, where he cheated by reaching up with his hand to deflect the ball past the English goalkeeper Peter Shilton, that is arguably even more celebrated in his home country.

For some Argentinians, the so-called "Hand of God" goal represented a cosmic tipping of the scales back in Argentina's favor after their defeat in the then-recent Falklands War with England. The second goal may have been sublime but it lacked that symbolic element. But on another level, both goals also represented the resourceful virtues of the “pibe” — a kind of soccer-playing scallywag — the perfect archetype of the kind of player produced in a country and region whose sporting heroes are often forged in the near anarchy of street games, and who became both inventive and ethically elastic by necessity.

In the U.S., where soccer players are routinely denounced for any sign of “flopping,” such underhand (or, in this case, overhand) antics would be frowned upon, given the particular mythical codes of behavior that make up American sports, which idealize work ethic, honesty and team play. Yet in the U.S., just as elsewhere, ethical practice in sports often differs from ethical ideals, as the recent hazing scandal in Miami, Alex Rodriguez’s mess, concussion controversies and constantly rolling revelations of doping indicate all too clearly.

The plan for Miller’s inaugural panel was to present the group of major figures from American sports with hypothetical situations representing ethical dilemmas — but the distinction between gamesmanship and sportsmanship was one that got blurred early on by the sport of the event itself, with members of the panel soon speaking over each other in their attempts to be heard.

At one moment, a panelist immediately derided a long, earnest answer by someone else about the importance of children “learning how to fail,” by proclaiming, “They’re just saying that because they’re here!” 

Despite this, the panel did touch on the state of youth and college sports, the influence of money and professionalization trickling down into schools, and the changing attitudes toward concussions, among other topics. Here are some highlights:

On youth sports

“The original goal of youth sports was to use athletics to build character and somewhere along the line people got confused and started think it was about creating professional, or successful, or proficient athletes.” — Robert Manfred, chief operating officer of Major League Baseball

“Kids aren’t kids anymore — they’re extensions of their parents, and that’s why youth sports in America is an absolute disgrace. It’s a mess … the kids should be allowed to play sports by themselves, with no rules, and no parents.” — Mike Francesca, Radio and TV personality

“I played 21 years in the NHL and won three championships, and people call me a winner. Actually the percentages are not good. There were 18 years when I was a loser. You have to teach these kids and allow them to fail.” — Brendan Shanahan, NHL senior vice president of player safety

On college sports

The panel was asked about the treatment of college athletes, including NCAA rules and the phenomenon of “one and done” college athletes going into the pros after a mandatory year in college.

“I think one of the biggest failures for young people in this country, is the way universities treat their athletes. They don’t graduate, they have nowhere to go.” — Fred Wilpon, chairman of the New York Mets

“Let’s be real: Coaches get paid millions of dollars. What are they going to do? They’re going to recruit players that win. They don’t get fired if they don’t graduate their players. They get fired if they lose and don’t fill their building. If you want coaches to recruit students, then pay them by the SAT scores and the graduation (rate).” — Mike Francesca

“I remember Arthur Ashe, 20 years ago, used to speak to kids and say 'We’re a country of 300 million and how many of you think you’re going to play in the NBA?'” — Lesley Visser, CBS broadcaster

On concussions

“There’s something very ugly … if people want to donate their organs, that’s fine with me, but I think they should be dead first. I don’t think they should be selling their brain on the open market in order to be able to make money. There’s something about that that doesn’t sit right.” — Robert Stock, fan

“I do think it’s an evolving science and we have to continue to learn from it … I’m a traditionalist, but I’m not a traditionalist who’s going to bury his head in the sand … I’m telling you there is a culture change. Players will report, and if they don’t the player behind him on the bench — it’s not a big deal, he doesn’t deliver a speech to the coach — but he’ll point at a guy and say, ‘Hey, this guy’s not right.’” — Brendan Shanahan

“I’m really more concerned, not about the less than 1 percent who happen to be pro athletes, but the children … we have to be concerned with how we protect the safety of our children going forward.” — Kiki VanDeWeghe, senior vice president of basketball operations for the NBA

“We have kids that are 7, 8, 9, 10 years old playing, for instance, football. They are colliding with each other and the assumption is that because they’re small the impacts are not the same as with an adult player. The reality is that when they put accelerators in helmets some of the very young kids, the blunt force trauma of the helmet is the same as for an NFL or college player … and they can't articulate it. They might say 'I don’t feel right' or not want to go to school the next day.” — Garland Allen, former high school athletic director

“The very first time I stepped on a football field you ‘got your bell rung.’ We didn’t know the ramifications of that way back then … it’s not necessarily the hits, it’s the nature of the sport. The acceleration, the sudden stoppages … obviously Junior Seau’s suicide drove home the point with most fans because he’s a contemporary player, but there were a number of players who were older who committed suicide and nobody really paid attention to what was going on with those situations.” — Harry Carson, NFL Hall of Famer

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