Sports and Ethics Go Hand-in-Hand

For someone who’s life has essentially revolved around sports, this is finally a prompt that I’m interested in writing. I rowed for just two years before college, but have competed in both the lightweight (130.0 lbs maximum) and openweight categories while at Bucknell. More importantly, I’ve been involved in hockey as a player since I could walk, as a referee for the last six years, and now as an intern for the Hershey Bears in the AHL. So to say I’ve seen my fair share of ethics play out in sports is an understatement.

The NCAA very actively attempts to ensure ethical behavior, especially in recruiting and compliance. Their entire process is a hassle for the 99% (figuratively) of athletes that report honest test scores, medical history, amateur status, and drug (non)use. Most student-athletes don’t even understand what the NCAA actually does, but we all just go to the meetings, sign the papers, and try not to get caught doing anything stupid that would cause an investigation. Although the NCAA is far from an exemplary organization itself (read about the NCAA’s Ethics Problem according to the New York Times), it does encourage ethical behavior from its athletes and coaches as stated in their operating bylaws. How well these rules are actually followed and how well they can be monitored is whole other story, but in general the NCAA imposes some ethical boundaries that promote fair competition and sportsmanship but it is up to individuals to actually make the ethical decisions. Although I have never had to verify practice hours, I know of coaches that do exceed the allowable weekly hours and put their players in a difficult ethical position when they are asked to confirm team compliance.

As a referee, I run through more ethical questions in my head in one game than I would otherwise in a year.

Not hockey officials, but right idea

It is my responsibility to ensure that all players, coaches, and spectators adhere to the rules of USA Hockey at all times. Therefore, I must actually know all of the rules, and yet I’ve shared and received answers with many others on the closed book exam almost every year to maintain  our upper level referee status. We justify cheating because “we are in a constant learning process” and “we work as a team on the ice so why shouldn’t we be able to off the ice?” Another ethical consideration that I have seen taken into account involves officiating a game in which a family member is playing or coaching. No matter how objective a referee’s judgment is otherwise, an inherent bias exists in humans that would make working such a game unethical. A similar principle applies when teams are very unevenly matched and you actually feel sorry for one side playing. No matter what the score or the penalty count is, it would be unethical for a referee’s judgment to be swayed by emotion.

And then there’s my favorite, the “reputation calls” that are the result of a notoriously dirty player or team. So imagine this: play moves up ice, out of Red’s defensive zone and while you are watching the player with the puck, a player on Blue falls to the ice while skating next to Red #4. You didn’t see exactly what happened, only caught the end result in your peripherals, but Red #4 has already had a Slashing penalty and a Roughing penalty called on him earlier in the game. Do you call a penalty based on what you assume happened or cut the kid some slack because he’s been in the penalty box enough already? Even if the Blue player is injured, you missed the call and that’s that. The most basic guiding principle as a referee is to “only call what you see.” It sucks knowing you probably missed a penalty, but it’s a lot better to tell a pissed off coach “I didn’t see it, I’m sorry I was watching play elsewhere” than to try to make up what “you saw happen” when he actually watched the player trip over his own feet. And then the next ethical dilemma arises when you want to make that pity call on a really small incident after you know you just missed something, but you can’t allow your judgment to waver based on past events. It’s a tough job to be a referee, especially when dealing with people who do not know the rulebook and do not believe in anything that even comes close to a code of ethics. 

Working with professional sports team, I have seen that there is a constant ethical debate over the ownership of property. In regards to the players, they are under contract and owned by the organization. They can be benched, scratched from the lineup, or traded to another team at almost any time, regardless of local ties. The team purchases and maintains their equipment, but players can be held responsible for damage based on the team’s determination of the cause, which seems like a conflict of interest to me. Another ethical concern regards promotional goods that the team purchases and individuals distribute. Who do these actually belong to? The team owner? The marketing department that ordered them? The corporate sponsor that paid for them? The fans they were originally intended to go to? This is a real issue unfolding in our organization despite everyone knowing that there is something suspicious happening with team property.

I would say that the values I learned in hockey have definitely shaped my personal ethics. Hockey taught me that success comes from putting the team first and the individual second. It taught me to play by the rules or suffer the consequences (i.e. feel shame). Hockey taught me the importance of treating people right and standing by the people that matter most. It taught me to make the difficult decisions without hesitation and admit when I am wrong. Hockey taught me to commit 110% to everything I do and never let an opportunity slip by. Most importantly, hockey taught me the true meaning of a handshake and inspired me to give back to the game for the next generation to enjoy.


14 thoughts on “Sports and Ethics Go Hand-in-Hand

  1. I really enjoyed your blog, especially the part about refereeing. I was a ref for young women’s lacrosse teams for a few years and that experience definitely opened my eyes to just how difficult it is to be a ref. Don’t get me wrong I still LOVE yelling at the terrible calls ref’s make all football season long but I can appreciate the stresses they must go through. You explained the ethical decisions ref’s go through very well. It’s hard to not assume when you didn’t see something and no matter what you call someone is going to disagree. I believe ethics is a huge part of sports but for the most part everyone tries to make ethical decisions when it comes to sports.

    • Definitely always going to be someone that disagrees, but as long as both teams are unhappy, you know you’re doing alright! Isn’t it interesting that we believe everyone tries to make ethical decisions when it comes to sports, but probably wouldn’t say the same about business?

    • the clip is from the classic movie “Slapshot” where the goalie tries to explain some of the rules of hockey and how when a penalty is called on a player, he is removed from the ice and serves two minutes in the penalty box

    • I played up through prep school but stopped when i came to college and continued rowing instead. Right now I don’t have much time and would rather earn money reffing than pay to play in an adult league, but I do play open hockey occasionally and when the ponds allow a pick-up game.

  2. I think the ethics of calling only what you see is pretty clear. The interesting question is why you or any other referee would even think of reputation mattering.

    As a social scientist, what do you think? I am not putting you on a guilt trip. I am asking what your own observation says about the expectations for ethical behavior from a referee?

    • Referees certainly take a lot of abuse from fans, coaches, and players because they are essentially in control of the game. Emotions tend to run very high in such a fast paced game and effective game management largely comes from anticipating play in order to be in the right position at the right time, as well as to prevent potential altercations. Awareness of surroundings is vital to both players and referees, which includes knowing when a goon is on the ice. The expectation of officials is to treat every game as a clean slate, but apply their knowledge, experience, and judgment at the same time. I think there are certain times when experience can be used as substantial evidence to make a call that may not be completely accurate, but will contribute to overall game management and safety of players.

      • I really enjoyed your blog and can especially relate because I referee for intramurals here at Bucknell. These last couple of weeks I have been reffing for A basketball and I’m usually doing it a lot. For the first time in a while I feel myself in ethical situations very often. These games are so tough to ref because everything is happening so fast and you can’t necessarily see everything. Even worse you often have friends and or “enemies” on other teams. Even worse because players know you they question every single call you make. You get screamed at all game and it’s not cause people don’t like you, but rather because they know you, get competitive, and want to see themselves win. It finally has made me appreciate refs. I don’t know how many times when I’m playing basketball I question the ref or give him a bad look or scream a curse word at them. I remember how often in high school I would think – we lost because of that A**HOLE ref. I finally appreciate them and realize how hard their job was. Puts ethics and sports into a completely different perspective.

  3. Ironically enough in timing, last night I faced the most difficult ethical situation I’ve ever encountered in reffing. My boyfriend and his two brothers (one of which I also work with) happened to be playing on the one team, so I knew that they would be running their mouths and warned my referee partner about the situation before the game started. If anyone else had said some of the comments that came out of their mouths during the game, I probably would have given them a penalty for abuse of an official, but because I knew them, it somehow wasn’t offensive. And when I needed to fix my helmet in the middle of the game, I went right to their bench and told my boyfriend to go get a screwdriver out of his bag for me. This favor would never have happened if it was an unknown team or a different ref, but I was fortunate and took advantage of a possibly unethical situation. No harm, no foul.

    But towards the end of the game, an opposing player illegally hit one of the brothers, who retaliated back against the player, and then his other brother jumped in and engaged the original offender in a bit of a scuffle. My partner wound up being in the middle of this altercation and was hit in the face by a stick and not too happy about it. Trying to sort out these penalties was a mess but when all was said and done, neither team had an on-ice advantage but the two players in the scuffle received fighting penalties (5 minute major plus game misconduct in USA Hockey) and were thrown out of the rest of that game as well as the next scheduled game. Additionally, the second brother also received another game misconduct for being the “third man in” which is assessed to the player who is first to intervene in an altercation that is in progress (any play where a penalty is already being assessed). My partner insisted on the fighting penalties, whereas I and both team captains were in favor of coincidental minor roughing penalties (the third man in penalty was a given). I let my partner make the final call because, even though in my gut I didn’t believe the severity of the actions in the scuffle warranted game misconducts (especially with the second brother already receiving one for intervening) I didn’t know if I was unconsciously biased because I had ties with the players involved.

    In a few hours, I will discuss the incident with the area referee in chief regarding the game suspensions and leave out the fact that I had ties to the parties involved. I will tell him that I think the game misconducts should be reconsidered based on the severity of actions, but the final decision will be made by him and the commissioner of the league. And my boyfriend and everyone at work will give me shit for weeks about this call. Ethics suck.


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