Sports need role models to cleanse them of rot

The incidence of unethical behaviour in sport continues to make regular headlines in the media.

They include match-fixing, drug usage and cheating in many forms. And, it seems, few sports are exempt.

Soccer may be “the beautiful game” to many. But a far uglier side is being uncovered by a European police intelligence agency investigation of widespread occurrences of match-fixing in recent years.

Cricket, as the supposed “game of gentlemen”, has revealed anything but gentlemanly behaviour in many incidents of match-fixing and spot-fixing.

Cycling will be remembered for the Lance Armstrong saga.

After years of vehement denials, he admitted to cheating by taking banned performance-enhancing drugs and was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins.

The London Olympics also produced their scandals – in the badminton women’s doubles tournament.

Eight players from South Korea, China and Indonesia were expelled for playing to lose matches and manipulate the draw for the knockout stage.

The view that “winners never cheat” seems like a quaint illusion next to Armstrong’s revelations.

Armstrong’s claims that winning was not possible without performance-enhancing drugs and that “everyone else was doing it” suggest that “winners always cheat”.

The common drivers of such misconduct are the huge prestige and recognition accorded to winners, the monetary rewards – for example in prize money – and the benefits of product endorsements and sponsorships. All these combine to create a tempting environment where winning becomes acceptable at any cost.

The question of what needs to be done to fix this must encompass and strive for two outcomes: correcting unethical and illegal conduct and rebuilding trust and confidence among the stakeholders: players, sponsors and the public.

The current approach by sporting agencies, bodies and coaches needs to be supported and sustained; they consistently enforce the rules of the game, constantly measure and monitor behaviour – via drug testing for example – and are transparent about the convictions for wrongdoing.

Sporting bodies should also actively work with law enforcement agencies to curtail the manufacture, importation and supply of prohibited substances, as the SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport (Saids) is doing.

However, a rule-based approach alone is unlikely to be effective.

It needs to be linked to a values-based approach.

One of the most effective ways of including a value-based response is via good, credible role models.

Leaders are widely accepted as the most influential factor in terms of shaping ethics among others – be it in a country, workplace or in sport.

As role models, leaders in the sporting arena or elsewhere can influence fellow team members and other players by what they do, by what they speak out for and against and by what they don’t do and don’t condone.

Paralympic swimmer Natalie du Toit is a good example, having just accepted an appointment to the board of directors at Saids.

Together, an effective rule-based approach and a well-supported value-based approach can contribute to building a culture of fair, clean sport.

It will not be an easy goal to realise and may even seem impossible to attain – but that’s not a good reason not to try to make a difference.

By Cynthia Schoeman

Published in The Star & Pretoria News Workplace, 13 February 2013

Posted on IOL, 15 February 2013