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Ethical Issues in Sports Administration

Values such as sportsmanship, integrity and a strong work ethic remain top goals for professional teams and individual athletes. But when those value judgements falter, league penalties and public ire can quickly follow. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is just one example of an ethical issue that touches every major sporting association. Understanding how ethics impact professional sports is key to a successful career in sports administration because of the severity of penalties and fines that can be levied when ethical rules and guidelines are broken.

Who Determines Ethical Behavior Guidelines in Professional Sports?

Guidelines for how athletes should behave on and off the field are outlined and enforced by governing bodies such as USA Basketball, which governs the NBA, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which oversees the quadrennial Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

Some rules outlined in the IOC Code of Conduct list general expectations. Under general behavior, the document requires that “participants shall show verbal respect for all team delegations, host communities, and/or countries.” Under USA Basketball’s anti-doping guidelines, the code of conduct references other governing bodies, such as the IOC, as the standard to adhere to. Under disciplinary actions, players in the NBA are entitled to a hearing if removal from the league is being sought. Unsportsmanlike, illegal, immoral and unethical acts are all grounds for disciplinary actions that range from fines and suspension to outright dismissal.

Common Ethical Issues in Sports

Potential ethical problems in professional sports go far beyond using steroids or bribing officials. In many cases, the issues are much more complicated and nuanced.


On the court or sports field, minorities are often well-represented. In recent years, though, public scrutiny has turned to diversity among coaches, assistant coaches and other support staff, meaning franchises now have to be mindful about issues of gender and racial diversity. Each year, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) publishes a Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). During the 2017-18 season, the NBA led in overall RGRC rankings. The percentage of people of color in coaching positions by the end of that year was 33.3 percent, the highest of all men’s professional leagues in the United States.

Delise O’Meally, executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, was quoted on the report card:

“The NBA as a league has taken a dedicated and consistent approach to inclusion,” he said. “The importance of this commitment cannot be overstated. The NBA, as a barrier-breaker, has led the way in all professional leagues with the first female referee, the first openly gay referee and the first female assistant coach.”

Pay for Play

A recent article in BizFluent described what is becoming something of a controversy within college sports. While college athletics generate more than $1 billion in revenue (and big paychecks for coaches), student athletes do not see any of those earnings due to strict NCAA guidelines.

The student athletes are “continually asked to miss classes due to travel for their sport,” the article said. “A free education may seem like reasonable pay for some college athletes, [but] what about the big-name athletes” whose names bring in millions for the schools they represent? ESPN cites an instance in 2017 of the NCAA and 11 major athletic conferences agreeing to pay more than $200 million to settle a federal class-action lawsuit filed by former college athletes.


Once considered a pernicious vice by some, gambling has become mainstream to professional sports following a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave states the authority to regulate sports gambling. In 2017, legal sports betting accounted for $270 million in revenue, according to the research firm Eilers & Krejcik. The NCAA and other sports association governing bodies still restrict gambling on the part of professional athletes.

Performance-enhancing Drugs

Sadly, many of the most popular athletes in recent memory (Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Andre Agassi to name a few) admitted to or were found to have taken some type of performance-enhancing drug. Such instances are a blight on professional sports and place the very notion of fair play in peril. How sports administrators handle these situations, whether through public statements or fines, deeply impacts public perception.

Steroids are now just one of dozens of substances classified as performance enhancing by the governing bodies of sports associations. Blood doping, the practice of injecting oxygenated blood into an athlete, is one performance-enhancing technique that has become associated with professional cycling in recent years. As new drugs and techniques are introduced to athletes, game and tournament organizers are forced to update drug testing protocols.

The Summer and Winter Olympic Games are an example of a high-profile sporting event often mired with doping allegations. The International Olympic Committee bans substances and doping methods that violate the spirit of sport, enhance performance, or threaten the health of the athletes.

Sports managers have an integral role to play in sports ethics. Coaches, for example, are pivotal in setting team culture. By openly discussing topics like doping and the importance of diversity, leaders can influence the behavior of those who work under them. Once an athlete has violated an existing code of conduct, sports management shapes public perception by levying fines and other disciplinary actions on the offending team member.

St. Thomas University’s online Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Sports Administration covers sports ethics through courses on public relations and sports law. The online courses are taught by STU faculty and can be completed in as few as 10 months. With changing laws governing online gambling, the ongoing debate of pay for college athletes, and the growing number of banned substances that can be used by athletes, the ethical issues facing sports administrators are constantly evolving. The comprehensive training offered by STU’s MBA in sports administration is one way to gain the skills needed to influence team and individual behavior so high ethical standards remain the norm in professional sports.

Learn more about the STU online MBA program with a concentration in Sports Administration.


BizFluent: Ethical Issues in Sports Management

ESPN: NCAA Agrees to Historic $209M Settlement Over Scholarship Shortages

ResearchGate: The Ethical Issues Confronting Managers in the Sport Industry

USA Basketball: USA Basketball Constitution

TIDES: The 2018 Racial and Gender Report Card

Eilers & Krejcik: Reports

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