Ethics in Physical and Sport Education

By Spencer, Albert F. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Ethics in Physical and Sport Education


Spencer, Albert F., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Although physical educators and coaches frequently cite character building, sportsmanship, and a related concept, ethical behavior, as primary attributes of sport, 80 percent of respondents to a recent ESPN/Chilton sports poll stated that they believe sportsmanship has declined within the past decade (Rauscher, 1994). Many Americans sense that the nation is in a state of ethical malaise. A study conducted by the Josephson Institute on Ethics of nearly 9,000 high school and college-aged students also did not reveal encouraging results. Cheating on examinations, drunken driving, and lying were the rule rather than the exception among many of the young survey respondents (Barnhill, 1995). Sports Illustrated ("This," 1995) labeled as "this week's sign that the Apocalypse is upon us" (p. 20) the 26 cheerleaders from a small high school in South Carolina who took part in a shoplifting spree while in Florida for a cheerleading competition.

University of Kansas head men's basketball coach Roy Williams claims that "you can't legislate morality" (Rauscher, 1995). Even so, there is a vast range of opportunities to teach physical education and sport ethics. This article focuses on ways to integrate ethical issues in physical and sport education into professional action, without involving institutional control. We will consider an individual approach to teaching-coaching practices that build decision-making skills and develop character.

Reflecting on the Past and Looking to the Future

During the final decade of the 20th century, numerous papers and conferences have focused on ethics in the physical education and sport environment (Bain, Roberts, Singer, & Berger, 1993; Beller & Stoll, 1992; Fain, 1992; Fain & Gillespie, 1990; Kretchmar, Fraleigh, & Drowatzky, 1993; Kroll, Matt, Safrit, & Zelaznik, 1993; Stoll, Beller, Cole, & Burwell, 1995; Stoll, Beller, Reall, & Hahm, 1994; Thomas & Gill, 1993; Zeigler, 1992). However, ethical concerns about sport were addressed as early as 1904, by Ohio State University President Thompson:

An absorbing interest of the public and students has created an atmosphere not always purest... There has been evident improvement in the rules; what is needed most is to improve in the ethical standards of all persons interested in athletics. Conformity to athletic rules is too much of a technicality and not enough of a principle - athletics, like every other form of amusement or business, must eventually rest on sound ethics... What is needed is efficient leadership by men to whom principle is dearer than anything else...We shall never reform athletics simply by rules, we shall reform it only when we have inspired young men to cling to high ideals and to be governed by sound ethics. (as cited in Sabock, 1985, pp. 269-270)

The personal philosophy of a physical educator or coach will prescribe the ethical standards he or she will follow. Nearly half a century ago, the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation exhorted its members to critically re-examine their instructional methodologies and to intensify efforts to promote moral and ethical behavior in young people through physical activities (1951). As we approach the new millennium, it may be time to review and reaffirm our goals as a profession.

Resources for Teaching Ethical Decision Making

Physical education activities and athletic coaching most often take place within the psychomotor domain. Ethics education permits an excellent opportunity for cognitive and affective exploration within the physical activity environment. Sabock (1985) stated that although "sport can provide one of the greatest opportunities in school for a youngster to learn how to be dishonest...how to be hypocritical," it can also provide "the greatest opportunities for a student to learn honesty, integrity...and ethical behavior" (p. 271). Stoll (1995) of the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor in Competitive Sports, emphasized that physical education and athletic programs can be harmonious in promoting the development of "sportsmanlike behaviors, ethical decision-making skills, and a total curriculum for moral character development.

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