What Can Sports Teach Us About Ethics?

What Can Sports Teach Us About Ethics?In recent years, the sports world has become entangled in countless ethical controversies. From steroids in baseball, to euthanasia in horse racing, to sexual harassment suits, and now, NBA referees rigging games. And that is only the first few that came to mind. Ethics is a broad topic, but it is important in all parts of society. If a society is to function well (or at least sort of well), there needs to be some basic understanding of what constitutes ethical behavior. The topic can be quite heavy, and often results in more questions than answers. But since this is a sports column, let’s take the issue down to just the sports-world; and in fact, to one specific incident. We may actually learn something that applies on a broader scale. What Can Sports Teach Us About Ethics?

Most are familiar with the story of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy. For those who aren’t, it goes like this: Donaghy was accused in 2007 of betting on basketball games, including some that he officiated in. Clearly, this type of behavior cries foul (pardon the pun). Theoretically, Donaghy could have used his power as a ref to try to sway the outcome of the game one way or another. Whether or not he actually did, we must all decide on our own. Moving along, after pleading guilty and beginning to go through investigations, Donaghy released the names of other officials who supposedly bet on games, including the shocking revelation (maybe not so shocking to Sacramentonians) that the NBA ordered certain refs to call a 2006 playoff game in such a way that would force the Kings-Lakers series to go to a seventh game, thus boosting ratings. Now, I am not going to speculate on the ins and outs of any of this, or the effect it has on the game. To step outside of the arena for a moment, consider the implications this type of behavior has.

First, we have someone in a position of authority potentially using that power unfairly for his own personal gain. Obviously, this is something that happens quite often in venues other than sports. This speaks to greed, and the desire for power – knowing that you hold the key, and negatively affecting others on your way to the top. In the business world, Enron and WorldCom taught us what can result from this type of behavior. Remember, I am not comparing the Donaghy incident to the Enron case; I am merely drawing comparisons on two different scales.

Now, consider Donaghy’s response to questioning after pleading guilty. He gave up his fellow refs who had conspired along with him. There is a two-fold effect of this: I would like to see this level of openness from all of our criminals. Most can agree that the “Don’t Snitch” mentality is detrimental to the areas where it is adhered to. So from that standpoint, Donaghy did something beneficial by giving names; he shed light on the fact that the problem with officiating in the NBA may be more widespread than originally thought. Now the NBA has the responsibility to do something about it. But on the other hand, why did he tell investigators these things? To try to reduce his own sentence? So he wouldn’t have to go down alone? To get back at the league that was vilifying him? Is this sort of confession really admirable if it was simply another attempt to gain something in return while bringing down others?

The way I see it, the argument simply can’t be settled as it is typically presented. For the general population, a confession is a confession, and no matter what the motivation, more dishonest people being brought to light so their actions can be put to an end is a good thing. But on a personal level, it is unknown whether the person naming names is having a change of heart. When someone is cooperative simply because they wish to gain a reduced sentence, or make sure everyone knows that they aren’t the only one in the wrong, it is not a sign of a healthy heart or mind.

People like Donaghy, and many of the Enron officers, are not helping their own credibility, and are not actually progressing. Until they say the sorts of things they say without having something to gain from it, they are still falling victim to the same greedy, unethical behavior that got them here in the first place. Although society can benefit from confessions and revelations given in less than honorable ways, individuals cannot. And a society that flourishes requires individuals who choose to make it flourish. In the case of the NBA, until someone starts being completely transparent about what went on, without making excuses and without looking for something in return, progress will continue to prove elusive. This season was a step in the right direction, with the exciting storylines and playoffs, and the classic match up in the Finals. But the league runs the risk of negating all that if something isn’t done to address this issue and to regain the trust of the fans. The same could be said of society: Small steps forward will continue to be negated by large steps back until enough people choose to initiate change, even if they aren’t the primary ones benefiting from it.

Dan Mason is a new graduate with a Bachelor’s in Accounting. He
day-dreams about being in the wilderness, and can’t wait to be married
in August. You can read his other work at http://www.helium.com/users/432252/show_articles.

Image by: Rodolfo Clix, SXC

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