Ethics in sport: Exploring the dilemmas, discussions and new ways of thinking

Charles Sturt University’s Acting Head of School, School of Exercise Science, Sport and Health, Dr Chelsea Litchfield on Bathurst campus.

What type of thinker are you? A leader or a follower? Would you dive deep into a controversial issue and analyse it with a genuinely open mind? That’s exactly what Dr Chelsea Litchfield challenges her students to do in her Charles Sturt University ethics in sport classes.

What is ethics in sport?

Charles Sturt University’s Acting Head of School, School of Exercise Science, Sport and Health, Dr Litchfield said that when it comes to ethics in sport we usually think of two complicated things: drugs and cheating.

But for Dr Litchfield, ethics is part of the very fabric of all sport. And it is as simple as it is complex.

“Ethics in sport is essentially about having good moral behaviour. We shouldn’t think of ethics as purely complicated concepts. It actually encapsulates the everyday practices as well.

Dr Chelsea Litchfield

“It could be as simple as extending a hand to help up someone who’s fallen on the sporting field. Or deciding who goes on the field and who doesn’t. And it could mean something much bigger than that – such as not cheating. It’s about those guiding principles that relate to morals.”

And ethics in sport is not solely the domain of the athlete. It applies to everyone involved: coaches, managers, administrators, and health professionals and sports scientists.

“It is the athletes whose behaviour is most visible. When sport is really big business, quite often athletes are criticised if they don’t have good ethical conduct. However, I would suggest there are other, potentially bigger ethical issues that are at play off the field. Issues such as financial considerations or performance enhancement.

“The Essendon AFL (Australian Football League) club’s doping scandal was a really good example. It was not something led by one player, it was led by those off the field. Ethics in sport is the responsibility of everyone involved – on and off field.”

When sport morphs into big business

Ethical issues have multiplied as a result of sport becoming a big business.

“Sport is like any other business. Would we make decisions any differently if our livelihood relied on it? It takes a very strong character to sit outside the dominant culture of sport. When it comes to drugs and cheating there have been very few people who were brave enough to say ‘no, that’s not the way I play’.

Dr Chelsea Litchfield

“A couple of years ago Professor Julian Savulescu was invited to Charles Sturt University to speak on drugs in sport. He discussed the idea that most athletes in high performance sports have been involved – or will be involved – in performance enhancing substances in some way, shape or form in their career.

“Chipping away at that embedded culture in order to change practices is very difficult. While government officials who have sport in their portfolios have tried to crack down on drugs in sport, I’m not sure their strategies have been effective.”

What about a different way of thinking?  

So, drugs in sport are bad and those who take drugs to enhance their sport performance are cheats. Right?

“That’s the dominant narrative. But if we look at it in relation to what the core of ethics is about, we see that restricting people from taking performance enhancing drugs is an issue around personal freedom. Personal freedom is one of the pillars of ethics and moral behaviour. And that presents a real dilemma in the ‘ethics in sport’ space.

“What many people think about doping in sport is not the common opinion or perspective of those who study or teach sport ethics.”

Now that’s an interesting take on things! So, if removing an athlete’s right to choose to take performance enhancing drugs is a restriction of personal freedom, should we be more open to drugs in sport?

“Absolutely! I tell my students in the very first week of class that I’m a supporter of personal freedom. I think people can put whatever they want into their own bodies. The students look at me, at that stage, as if I’m mad.

“But, at what point do we stop telling people what they can and can’t do? Why does sport – unlike a whole lot of other professions around the world – have the authority to tell us what we can or can’t put into our bodies? We often don’t question the power that sports organisations have over individuals.

Dr Chelsea Litchfield

“I’m firmly in the camp of Julian Savulescu and other sports ethicists: personal freedom must be number one.”

To dope or not to dope – when it’s a matter of choice (sort of)

So what does sport look like if we go down the personal freedom path and let athletes choose whether or not to take drugs?

“We don’t know yet.”

But Dr Litchfield does have a snapshot of what things might look like – and it comes from the sport of powerlifting. In Australia there are both drug tested and non-tested powerlifting federations.

“There are two competitions. There’s the breakaway comp that allows the use of performance enhancing drugs and the other where drug testing happens regularly. There are, obviously, very different records in place for each competition.

“That’s a snapshot of what things might look like.”

Can it be as simple as running two separate competitions?

“No. If we think of drugs in sport in terms of personal freedom and fairness, we find another issue arises. What happens to athletes and countries who can’t access the best performance enhancing drugs? It becomes an inequity issue again – this time around financial constraints.

“Will all athletes dope? Again, I don’t know. That would be a personal decision. Regardless, allowing drugs in sport will open up a Pandora’s Box of other issues.”

Jump in and wrestle some other ethics in sport topics

These are just some of the intriguing ethical dilemmas, discussions and new ways of thinking that are explored in the Ethics in Sport subject – alongside many other topics.

  • The sports clothing industry. How ethical are the business practices of these global companies? 
  • The moral behaviour of worldwide sporting organisations such as the International Olympic Committee or FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association).
  • Children in sport. At what age is it appropriate for a child to dedicate themselves to one sport? Should there be restrictions around training intensity?
  • Animal sports. Is it ethical? Think horse racing, greyhound racing and rodeos. What are the practices which support these industries?

Your move

Do you dream of working with elite athletes, want to be a sports administrator or coach? Are you fascinated by the science behind human physics and see your future as a qualified exercise scientist? Or would you prefer to write about sports in sports media or work in sports management? Explore Charles Sturt University’s Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science or Bachelor of Sports Media and get set for some very interesting ethical discussions along the way. Ready? Let’s do this!