Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Sports Ethics

In the flotsam and jetsam of the world of sports, and sports law, ethical issues arise more and more frequently. Any particular sport is by definition governed by the rule of law or, more precisely, the rules of the game. But we know as lawyers that ethics -- a moral code of what is right or permitted and what is wrong or forbidden -- and rules or laws are not always the same thing. While our system of laws is ideally based on what we as a society believe is right and just, not all moral precepts find their way into statute books. To cite but one example: only three of the Ten Commandments are actually against the law.

Similarly, the rules in our games don’t always include what we know to be moral or righteous behavior, or good sportsmanship. Competitive sports at the highest level seem to favor the Lombardian view that “winning is the only thing” throwing aside the old adage that what matters is “how you play the game.”

In just the last few year or so, we have borne witness to a variety of events tinged with ethical implications: the life stories and travails of Reggie Bush, Michael Vick, Maurice Clarett, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, Cam Newton, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemmons, the whole performance enhancing drug mess, Tim Donaghy’s confessions about reffing in the NBA, Derek Jeter’s overly dramatic tomfoolery at the plate, Belicheck’s spygate, Armando Galarraga’s perfect behavior in the perfect game that wasn’t, the feigning injury ploy used by more than one opponent of the fast moving Ducks of Oregon, Jason Werth’s money is all that matters choice to play for the lowly Nationals, Cliff Lee’s money is not everything choice to come home to the Phils, and most recently the outrageous behavior of Sal Alosi on the sideline of the J E T S Jets.

In some sports like baseball, a certain amount of cheating is tolerated, even encouraged, in basketball athletes seemingly on every play claim they were fouled or never fouled. In golf, of course, sportsmen still police themselves, readily admit to wrongdoing, keep their own score and assess penalties on themselves when the rules require it. Yet only in football, sometimes the most brutal of games, is there actually a penalty for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

What do we want to see from these folks inside and outside the lines? Must they show us honor and integrity or should they “just win, baby”? Most professional athletes, after all, fit the description Rick Blaine gave in Casablanca when asked what kind of man Captain Renault was: “Just like any other man, only more so.” All as human as humans can be.


As someone who is more often than not disappointed by the behavior of athletes, it would seem that the logical thing to do would be to stop expecting them to act ethically. It'd be a great deal easier to cheer for the runs they score and forget everything else. Indeed, we revere plenty of people who fail to act according to our standards and this doesn't seem to bother us; then again, how often do we satisfy our standards? We fail constantly -- and those of us who pretend not to fall short in some way are in even greater danger of doing so. Which leads me to a basic response to the question posed here: maybe we should expect our athletes to behave in a proper way because they are, after all, human, and thus the assumption that they would never act properly denies them their humanity. If we're going to place a bet on someone acting rightly or not, we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to expect the former -- because our inevitable disappointment is still better than the alternative.

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Blogger The Foz -- 12/15/2010 6:58 PM  

Baseball has an "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalty. It is called ejection.

The balk rule is there to prevent a pitcher from "deceiving a baserunner" as to his intent to do whatever with the ball in his hand.

A minor league player once threw a potato he had hidden in his pocket to make a runner think the ball had been thrown away and then tagged him out. I believe he was suspended for a year.

Football may be the only sport that has a penalty labeled "unsportsmanlike conduct" but others have it too.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 12/15/2010 11:14 PM  

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