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.
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.