Ethics and Sport

Originally published by the Learning and Teaching Support Network, reprinted here with their permission.
– Written by Mike McNamee.


Among the different sub-disciplines of philosophy that are worked by philosophers of sport, in the last decade there is little doubt that the sub-field “ethics of sport” has seen the most growth and activity. Typically, some confusion surrounds the precise nature and scope of the concept “sports ethics” itself. While it is both difficult and undesirable to police language and to prescribe usage that dissipates conceptual confusion effectively, it may be helpful to observe some important distinctions before describing the work of philosophers in the area of “ethics of sport”.

Ethics and Morality

In the first instance, the words “ethics” and “morality” are used interchangeably in everyday language. Many mainstream philosophers have come to question the concept “morality” as a peculiarly western convention whose ambitions to universalise guides to right conduct were overly ambitious in scope. Along with the project of modernity, philosophers were looking to universalise ethics along the lines that scientists had so powerfully done in discovering natural laws and thereby “mastering” the world. A number of traditions of moral thinking emerged which shared certain features in their development of systems of thought that ought to guide the conduct of citizens of the globe wherever they existed. In this modern philosophical vein, “ethics” was used to refer to the systematic study of morals; ie. universal codes or principles of right conduct. The distinction between rules, guidelines, mores or principles of living (“morality”) that exist in time and space and systematic reflection upon them (“ethics”) is still worth observing. The idea that morality refers to what all reasonable persons will conform to, requires much more careful attention.

Having suggested then, a distinction between “morality” and “ethics”, it is worth noting that the very concept of “ethics” itself is a hotly contested one. There are a host of theoretical positions too numerous to list here (but including contractarianism, emotivism, intuitionism, and rights theory in the West, and a host of religio-ethical systems such as Confucianism in the East). One common way of capturing the contestedness of the terrain has been caught up in the terms “descriptive ethics” and “normative ethics”. Ultimately, the distinction cannot survive close logical scrutiny, but it can be useful in detecting what are at least prima facie differences in the aims of certain philosophical and social scientific scholars interested in a range of concepts and practices such as admiration, cheating, deceiving, lying, promising, respecting, virtues and vices and so on.

Ethics: Philosophy and Social Science

In the sports related literatures, most of what is called “ethics” is simply social science by another name. It is better, perhaps, to call it social scientific descriptions of ethically problematic practices, persons or policies. The older label “descriptive ethics” was designed to capture precisely such operations. Here researchers seek to describe that portion of the world that is ethically problematic by the received methods of social science; observation, ethnography, interview, questionnaire and the like. The most common examples of “ethics” in sport that spring up in casual conversations, as well as the academic literature, are matters of equity (i.e. social justice in terms of unequal pay for male and female sports stars) and/or of access (for example, with respect to racism or disability), deviant sub-cultures and practices (for example, so-called football “hooliganism” and cheating, sexual-abuse/harassment or doping), the prevalence of sport as a site of child abuse and exploitation, homophobia, and so forth.

There is another conception of “ethics” which as noted above is quite simply moral philosophy. Under this conception of ethics, academics are engaged in the systematic conceptual enquiry of reflective questions regarding how we ought to live our lives. This entails the analysis of central concepts such as duty, right, harm, pain, pleasure and promise within (often ignored) theoretical perspectives such as deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and so forth. Each of these moral philosophical traditions aims to systematise thinking about the nature of ourselves in the contexts of good and right living and conduct. Nevertheless, their nature and scope differ widely. At some points they are coherent and comparable, at other times and pressed into particular questions they throw up radically divergent norms for conduct.

The distinction between descriptive ethics – which was supposed to be an entirely value-free endeavour, and normative ethics – which was supposed to issue in authoritative guidance – is, unsurprisingly enough, a contentious one. It is conceived of differently according to how one understands the nature of “ethics” itself. Questions such as whether there are moral facts; whether there is a clear distinction between facts and values; how the fact:value relationship is characterised; whether moral obligations override considerations of virtue and so on, are not answerable from outside a given theoretical perspective. But there are difficulties with a distinction that tries to distinguish one programme that sets out to describe the world from another that prescribes a programme for action. The two are intertwined in complex ways. Most philosophers working in mainstream ethics and in the ethics of sport have given up the idea of a neutral, descriptive, ethics (of sports) and pursue normative programmes for which they attempt to give reasonable support in terms of the clarity and coherence of their developed position. Still the distinction need not be sharp to be important.

Mainstream Ethical Theories in the Ethics of Sports

In most writings in the ethics of sports, three families of theories have been adopted; two modern and one ancient. Modern moral philosophy was dominated by the universalistic ethics of either consequentialism or deontology. Over the last twenty years or so (a relatively recent time slice in philosophical thought) there has been a revival of virtue-theoretical work in mainstream ethics and in the ethics of sports. Some introductory remarks and indications of indicative sources in the literature, must suffice here.

Deontology (from the Greek word “deon”: roughly, duty), is the classical theory of the right action. Before we act as deontologists (the German philosopher Kant is the key figure here), we must consider those duties (usually in the form of principles or rights) which we owe others in our transactions with them. The system of principles is usually thought to have its foundation in a super-rule (often called the Golden rule – enshrined in Christian thought among others) that one ought always to treat others with respect. To cheat, deceive, harm or lie to people is to disrespect them. Warren Fraleigh’s classic “Right Actions in Sport” is a beautiful statement of the deontological ethic in sport. It attempts to cash out a system of guides to right conduct for participants and coaches engaged in sports. In other cases (see Lumpkin, Beller and Stoll, 1999) philosophers have simply assumed a deontological framework and applied to it to good effect without necessarily interrogating the theoretical basis upon which their sports ethics is based. Of course, philosophically troubling questions such as “what is meant by respect?”; “does respect always trump other moral values?”; “does respect entail not harming others even when they consent to it?” and so on still trouble deontological ethicists. Fraleigh (1984), for example, argues that boxing is immoral since it involves the intentional harming of another – even though they consent to that harm. While deontology (whether as rights or duties) remains a commonsense ethic for many people, there are others who think it simply starts from the wrong place.

In apparent contrast, consequentialism is a telelological (from the Greek word “telos”: roughly nature/purpose) theory. It is a family of theories of the good, which justify actions according to their yielding the most favourable and least unfavourable consequences. The dominant strand of thinking here is “utilitarian” which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes but is based upon the maximising of “utility” or good. In distinguishing good from bad we merely need to add up the potential consequences of different courses of action and act upon that which maximises good outcomes. There are very few sustained efforts at utilitarian thinking in sports but see Claudio Tamburrini’s (2000) defence of Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” incident in his book of that name. He also attempts to argue for controversial conclusions to the doping issue (he is in favour of getting rid of bans) and gender equity (he is often in favour of non-sex segregated sports) from a utilitarian perspective.

Consequentialism and deontology, while taking opposing foundations for the justification of moral action (in sports as in life) share certain important conceptual features. In the first instance they are universal in scope: moral rules apply in all places and times – it is just that they have different moral principles (respect and utility). Equally important is the idea (often ignored in naïve discussion of utilitarianism as an ideology) that they enshrine impartiality. In both theoretical traditions, no one person or group must be favoured over another. Everyone is equally deserving of respect (imagine a world in which football fans took this seriously!) just as everyone should be counted in the decisions as to which course of action to choose (not just whether to commit a strategic foul in terms of good consequences for my team, but the opposition and the good of the game!) Finally, they share the idea that the moral rules have force: once you understand them you must act in a manner that brings the conclusion to life in your actions, for to fail to do so would be irrational, not just immoral. But it is difficult to imagine any theory of ethics (or religion for that matter) which did not make such a claim.

In the recent past, there has been a revival of virtue theory in mainstream and applied ethics. This has usually taken the form of a resuscitation of Aristotle’s work. Here ethics is based upon good character, and the good life will be lived by those who are in possession of a range of virtues such as courage, co-operativeness, sympathy, honesty, justice, reliability, and so on and the absence of vices such as cowardice, egoism, dishonesty, and so on. Sports’ traditional function as role modeller for youth is premised upon virtue theory. Russell Gough’s (1997) admirable book is a user-friendly application of virtue ethics in sports. This language has an immediate application in the contexts of sports in theory but in practice, spitefulness, violence, greed, and the like often characterise elite sports. Moreover, we often question the integrity of certain coaches or officials just as we chastise players who deceive the officials.

This sketch of underlying ethical theory and its application to sports is not merely suggestive, it is also a rather traditional one. Scholars have more recently been questioning an exciting array of issues: the use of genetic engineering in sports; the place of adventurous activities in a risk avoiding culture; the role of sports in sustaining and subverting communities, identities and sexualities; environmentalist ethics for sports in a global world; ethical audits of sports organisations and cultures; and much more.

Key Texts in the Ethics of Sports

The literature concerning sport is extensive. Historically important and contemporary books in the field of ethics and sport notably include the following:


  • Gough, R. (1997) Character is everything: promoting ethical excellence in sports, Orlando: Harcourt Brace.
  • Hemphill, D. & Symons, C. (Eds.) (2002) Gender, Sexuality and Sport, Melbourne: University of Victoria Press.
  • Lumpkin, A., Stoll, S.K., & Beller, J.M. (1999) Sport Ethics: Applications for Fair Play (second edition), Boston: McGraw Hill.
  • McIntosh, P.C. (1978) Fair Play: Ethics in Sport and Education, London: Heinemann.


  • Boxill, J. (ed) (2002) Ethics and Sport, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Fraleigh, W.P. (1984) Right Actions in Sport: Ethics for Contestants, Illinois, Human Kinetics.
  • Galasso, P.J. (Ed.) (1988) Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity Issues and Concepts, Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.
  • Gerber, E. W. & Morgan, W.J. (Eds.) (1979) Sport and the Body: A Philosophical Symposium (second edition), Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger.
  • Gibson, J.H. (1993) Performance Versus Results: A Critique of Values in Contemporary Sport, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Grupe, O. & Dietmar, M. (1988) Lexikon der ethik im sport, Schorndorf: Verlag Karl Hofman.
  • Hoberman, J. (1992) Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport, New York: The Free Press.
  • Loland, S. (2002) Fair Play in Sport: A Moral Norm System, London: Routledge.
  • Morgan, W.J. (Ed.) (1979) Sport and the Humanities: A Collection of Original Essays, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  • Morgan, W.J. (1994) Leftist Theories of Sport: A Critique and Reconstruction, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Morgan, W.J. (2000) Ethics in Sport, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
  • Morgan, W.J. & Meier, K.V. (Eds.) (1988) Philosophic Inquiry in Sport, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
  • Osterhoudt, R.G. (1991) The Philosophy of Sport: An Overview, Champaign, Illinois: Stipes.
  • Simon, R.L. (1991) Fair Play: Sports, Values, and Society, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Tamburrini, C. (2000) The “Hand of God”, Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg Press.
  • Tomlinson, A. & Fleming, S. (Eds.) (1995) Ethics, Sport and Leisure: Crises and Critiques, Chelsea School Research Centre: University of Brighton.

Book Series

A series on philosophical and social scientific ethics of sport is edited by McNamee, M. J. and Parry, S. J. under the title Ethics and Sport and is published by Routledge. Publications thus far include:

  • McNamee, M. J. & Parry, S. J. (Eds.) (1998) Ethics and Sport, London, Routledge.
  • Tännsjö, T. & Tamburrini, C. (Eds.) (2000) Values in Sport: Elitism, Nationalism, Gender Equality and the Scientific Manufacture of Winners, London: Routledge.
  • Brackenridge, C. H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and Preventing Sexual Exploitation in Sport, London: Routledge.
  • Loland, S. (2002) Fair Play in Sport: A Moral Norm System, London: Routledge.
  • McFee, G. (2004) Sports, Rules and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport, London: Routledge.
  • Howe, P. D. (2004) Sport, Professionalism and Pain: Ethnographies of Injury and Risk, London: Routledge.
  • Miah, A. (2004) Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping and Sport, London: Routledge.
  • David, P. (2005) Human Rights in Youth Sport: A Critical Review of Children’s Rights in Competitive Sports, London: Routledge.
  • Tamburrini, C. & Tännsjö, T. (Eds.) (2006) Genetic Technology and Sport: Ethical Questions, London: Routledge.
  • Loland, S., Skirstad, B. & Waddington, I. (Eds.) (2006) Pain and Injury in Sport: Social and Ethical Analysis, London: Routledge.
  • Walsh, A. & Giulianotti, R. (2007) Ethics, Money and Sport: This Sporting Mammon, London: Routledge.
  • McNamee, M. J., Olivier, S. & Wainwright, P. (2007) Research Ethics in Exercise, Health and Sports Sciences, London, Routledge.
  • Jespersen, E. & McNamee, M. J. (Eds.) (2009) Ethics, Dis/Ability and Sports, London: Routledge.
  • Tamburrini, C. & Tännsjö, T. (Eds.) (2009) The Ethics of Sports Medicine, London: Routledge.
  • Møller, V. (2010) The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping: Redeeming the Soul of Sport?, London: Routledge.

Guide to Journals and Periodicals

Sports ethicists have tended to publish their research in a wide variety of outlets from scientific to professional journals, including national and international multi-disciplinary journals on sports. Equally, it is very common for sports ethicists to publish in national and international social scientific sports journals. The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, however, published annually since 1974, and twice annually since 2001, is explicitly and exclusively devoted to the subject. The Journal considers the full range of philosophic issues pertinent to sport, including ethics, irrespective of the school of thought it emerges from within; it is tightly refereed and internationally indexed. It remains the principal organ for accomplished scholarship concerning the philosophy of sport in the world. The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport is published by Routledge and is currently edited by J. S. Russell (Langara College, Canada) and Cesar R. Torres (Assistant Editor: SUNY Brockport, USA).

Since 2007, the official journal of the British Philosophy of Sport Association – Sport, Ethics and Philosophy – has published articles from a wide variety of philosophical traditions. The journal, edited by M. J. McNamee (Swansea University, Wales) and published by Routledge, is particularly open to essays of applied philosophy that engage with issues or practice, policy and scholarship concerning the nature and values of sports.

Other secondary outlets for ethics and sport include:

For more generally on the philosophy of sport, including a bibliography of important philosophical works within the field, see the Guide to the Philosophy of Sport.