Caught out! Ethical behaviour in sport

In July this year, UWA's Dr Sandy Gordon penned the cover story for InPsych: The Bulletin of The Australian Psychological Society. He argues professional sport has become controlled by the power elite and shaped by the needs of corporate logic.


heating, drug abuse, gambling, distrust, greed, egotism, racism, sexism, violence, trash talking, showboating, temper tantrums, bench-clearing brawls, disrespect for opponents and for officials, grossly unrealistic pressures and expectations.

Have I missed anything on sport’s dishonour roll?

And yet Australian society is madly in love with sport, which, for a majority, is clearly highly valued in our way of life.

Most parents religiously drop their children off at sport events like it’s Bible class, expecting something good will happen.

Is it possible to get ‘ethical’ from being ‘athletic’? Well, yes – one is an anagram of the other (with an extra ‘t’ for talent). But does sport build character or reveal it; and are athletes special people (role models) or just people with special skills?

While ‘ethics’ and ‘values’ are words that can evoke yawns and put most people to sleep, what follows is an attempt to respond to the aforementioned questions and possibly balance some of the anecdotal and populist rhetoric on cheating in sport in the wake of the recent cricket ball-tampering episode in South Africa.

Certainly, it is an incident that shocked the nation and ‘clean bowled’ widely held expectations for behaviours and attitudes among Australian athletes, and professional cricketers in particular.

A critical perspective

Did the cricketers actually cheat? Some might argue that contemporary athletes merely collude with the system in order to survive, so it’s the system that is cheating the athletes.

Broadly speaking, deviant behaviour is any violation of the social expectations of that society. Subsequently the moral panic over ball-tampering by cricketers could be regarded as nothing but a huge overreaction to a deviant behavioural violation and an unmerciful media beat-up.

Social commentators and academics have long claimed that, in capitalist societies, sport serves as an effective opiate that deadens awareness of other societal problems. If, in the workplace, punters are discussing suspensions of AFL players and the fortunes of the Matildas, then they’re not thinking about salary claims and the misbehaviour of banks.

Professional sport has become a distorted form of physical activity, controlled by the power elite and shaped by the needs of corporate logic (i.e. winning and profit).

As part of the entertainment industry, sport has been commodified, commercialised and spectacularised. Accordingly, athletes are being exploited and manipulated, and have become victims.

In this heady ideological mix, athletes are encouraged and even expected to use any means to win. Some believe that character is taught, not caught, so if the cricketers cheated, they must have been taught to do so, just to survive while the system thrives.

Subsequently athletes deserve better than unsubstantiated innuendo, accusations and stereotyping; as victims of ideology, they deserve our support.

And so this ‘bigger-picture’ argument goes. But what about the misuse or abuse of power in sport?

Playing with power

Power is a psychological and social phenomenon, and part of the human condition – like a drive, emotion and behaviour. While there is no doubt power can corrupt, it does not do so inevitably. When it does, why does it, how and to whom?

When Philip Zimbardo testified before the US Congress at the hearings over events in 2004 at Abu Ghraib, where US soldiers tortured detainees, he cited similarities with participants (graduate students) in his famous 1971 Stanford Prison experiment.

Specifically, he listed a set of social psychological (situational) variables that can make ordinary people do the unimaginable: namely perceived anonymity, absence of a sense of personal responsibility, and tacit approval by military commanders.

Translated again to our cricket ball-tampering episode, there was evidence of attempted covert actions by a player who acted blindly out of loyalty to the leaders, on behalf of the team, who simply followed actions that were approved by the team leadership (captain and vice-captain).

Courtesy of their respective high positions, the captain and vice-captain appeared disinhibited or unconcerned about what others might think of their plans, and displayed an illusory sense of control, i.e. they underestimated the risks and overestimated the potential for success of their actions.

Also, their callous disregard of the impact of their directives on the player caught on camera acting out their plans depicted diminished empathy. 

Research has shown some individuals in high-power roles have difficulty considering the impact of their actions on others, and tend to perceive others, in particular low-ranking persons, through the lens of self-interest (Galinsky et al., 2006). But these cricketers obviously did not act alone.

Did group factors influence decisions to tamper with the ball? We know that when people are in groups, they make decisions about risk differently than when they are alone. In the group, individuals are likely to make riskier decisions, because the shared risk makes the individual risk less.

Zoe Yujnovich 

Caption: "Athletes are encouraged and even expected to win".

The quality of sporting heroes

In my view, sporting heroes (true athletes) should: have character, not be a character; know that winning isn’t everything, but trying to win through fairness is; know that by playing to win you can never lose; never cheat because the minute you cheat, you lose – ‘cheaters’ are never ‘winners’.

Second, character involves fair play, which means promoting both the formal rules of all sports and a spirit of cooperation among all players and teams, as well as playing by those rules.

Third, character includes sportspersonship, which means giving a full effort in games and training as well as showing respect and concern for officials, coaches, team management, team mates and opponents, as well as for family and oneself.

Finally character includes compassion – appreciating others’ feelings – and integrity – knowing the right thing to do and behaving in line with it, even when alternative choices are available.

I also believe participation in all sports can teach, shape, unify, comfort, uplift and lead to many other positive things – not always, and not always perfectly, but the important point is that it can.

All sports can have a positive influence on all societies because, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your
habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” – Mahatma Gandhi

References available online:

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