Four-Year Changes in College Athletes' Ethical Value Choices in Sports Situations

By Priest, Robert F.; Krause, Jerry V. et al. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Four-Year Changes in College Athletes' Ethical Value Choices in Sports Situations


Priest, Robert F., Krause, Jerry V., Beach, Johnston, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Despite expressed concerns about the ethical behavior of athletes, there is surprisingly little research on athletes' ethical behavior (Arnold, 1994; Beller & Stoll, 1993; Kavanagh & Fall, 1995; Shields & Bredemeier, 1995; Wandzilak, 1985). In addition, there is little research on athletes' ethical values (including fairness toward opponents and being a "good sport") or moral development. From 1974 to 1995, there were over 2,400 references to athletes in the psychological literature, over 1,700 to moral development, but only 3 to athletes' moral development (Bredemeier, 1985; Bredemeier & Shields, 1986a, 1986b).

Bredemeier and Shields (1986a) pioneered the study of athletes' moral development, using responses to sport situations to assess development in achieving mature moral balance. Theoretically based coaching can lead to measurable gains in moral growth among children at a summer sports camp (Bredemeier, Weiss, Shields, & Shewchuk, 1986). In high school students, Bredemeier and Shields (1986a) found that basketball players and nonathletes had similar moral reasoning scores. Yet, among college students, basketball players' moral reasoning was less mature than that of nonathletes. Furthermore, they noted that basketball players used a lower level of moral reasoning in sports situations than in other life situations. Such studies are important, because moral development and positive values for fairness in competition are supposed to undergird the publicly observable behavior of athletes while engaged in their sport. Additionally, research on such values can lead to greater understanding of the conditions under which positive values do or do not develop.

One problem for researchers is a lack of alternative, easily administered, and valid measures of athletes' ethical values. Bredemeier and Shields' (1986a) original work required a 60-min individual interview with each athlete and an 8-week training program to train interviewers to score interview protocols. Some researchers may prefer a less labor-intensive methodology. We believe an alternative method for studying moral development in sports situations is to measure the ethical value choices of athletes at two points in time and infer moral development from change or lack of change in these choices.

Study Rationale

This research will address three questions: (a) Do college athletes develop morally over 4 years? (b) Are there differences among intercollegiate team-sport athletes, intercollegiate individual-sport athletes, and intramural athletes in moral development? and (c) Do male and female athletes develop morally at the same rate? Our primary focus is to establish whether or not 4 years of college sport experiences will foster moral development in athletes. This issue is particularly important for colleges or athletic programs that aim at moral development. Although colleges vary in their efforts to foster moral development in their students, some colleges have specific programs that concentrate on developing sound values (Whitely, 1982). Few colleges, moreover, would want to see their students become less ethical over time.

At the United States Military Academy (USMA), both athletic participation and value development are strongly emphasized. Over 90% of students entering USMA participated in varsity sports, and over 85% lettered in one or more sports in high school. Also, USMA students are required to participate in either intramural, club, or intercollegiate sports every year. In intramural contests, each student must be used at least half of the playing time in each contest. Although some students may not self-identify as athletes, in terms of background and participation virtually every student is an athlete.

Value development is also strongly emphasized at USMA. Students undergo a 4-year instructional program that stresses bedrock values of honor and consideration of others, emphasizes an honor code, and has an institutional purpose to develop leaders of character. …

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