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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Corruption in sport: moral code or just rules? (Part 2)

My last post addressed the essence of corruption as a matter of morality. This second post in the series on corruption focuses on how to rethink the topic in your coaching practice. Codes of practice founded on a rules-based approach has merit. But to be fair, the WADA anti-doping code, associated rules and national anti-doping organisations have been around for a long time. Many sports have anti-corruption measures in place, often following serious events. The infamous points shaving scandal in the then NIT and NCAA basketball tournaments led to dozens of schools being brought up on charges.

This post asks whether the nature of sport itself is the problem. In one view we should focus entirely on detecting whether or not players break the rules. We referee games to that effect.

Breaking rules is, at face value, simple to comprehend. You did or you didn’t. Sometimes the referee’s opinion determines whether a rule is broken: a tackle or foul can be a matter of opinion. If you have six on the basketball court instead of the allowable five, then the rule has been broken as a matter of fact. However, not all rule-breaking is a moral breach. A mistake in substitutions may leave six on the court. A foot on the line is simply an unforced error. An overenthusiastic unskilled tackle is not a moral error.

So in one view, you might argue that the main reason athletes don’t cheat is to comply with the rules and to avoid receiving penalties. But for this to be true, athletes would have no need for a moral code in the background. However, athletes certainly value fairness. They wish rule to be applied consistently to everyone. But if rules don’t work as intended then they are amended to rebalance the game towards fairness.

If we are to argue that using performance enhancers is cheating (maybe for health reasons), then the most important reason that doping/match-fixing/assaulting another player are banned is because they are morally wrong. It is not the same as a foul or foot on the line.

If we were talking about the risk of a double dribble from poor execution or making a double back somersault, we would likely invest hours in getting it right. The good coach would simulate competition conditions so when the real event arrives, the athlete has ‘been there before in training’. We spend little time, however, on simulating the moral choices that athletes are called on to make as they play the game.

To be fair, young people are called on to make moral choices across their lives. If a friend aims to drive after drinking, what should he or she do? If you know your friend cheated in an exam, what should you do? If you know your friend is doping, what should you do? Now think about the many moral choices a game requires and how can you simulate the choice or, more importantly, the situation that forces the choice.

Ask your players, "How would you like to remembered as an athlete?" Playing ethically is as much an achievement as being the fittest, fastest or most skilled. How will we remember Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Tonya Harding, US Gymnastics 2018 and ask baseball fans about the ‘Boston Black Sox’. And just in case someone says, “well that’s professional sport for you!”. All those players were amateurs once. They all played their sport for the first time. So what life and sport experiences set them on the path that finished so badly?

(photo source: Wikipedia)

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