To truly understand the role that ethics plays in competition and sports, it is very important to distinguish between sportsmanship and gamesmanship.

Winning is everything is the principle that gamesmanship is built upon. Bending the rules whenever possible is something that coaches and athletes are encouraged to do to get a competitive edge over the opponent. Paying attention to the welfare and safety of the competition is seen as less important. Some of the gamesmanship’s key tenants include the following:

  • Winning is everything.
  • The end justifies the means.
  • It isn’t cheating unless you are caught.
  • Catching any wrongdoing is the referee’s job, and coaches and athletes don’t have any inherent responsibility for following the rules

Examples of gamesmanship include the following:

  • Faking an injury or foul
  • In a race, trying to get a head start
  • Tampering with equipment, like putting cork inside a baseball bat so that the ball can be hit further
  • A coaching lying about the grades of an athlete so that the student is still eligible to play
  • Intimidating or taunting an opponent
  • Using performance-enhancing drugs
  • Inflicting pain on an opposing player to attempt to knock the individual from the game.
  • Covert personal fouls, like grabbing an opponent underwater in a water polo game.

These examples all place a much greater emphasis on the game’s outcome instead of the way that the game is played.

Sportsmanship is a much more ethical approach to take for athletics. Under the model of sportsmanship, healthy competition is viewed as a way to cultivate character, virtue, and personal honor. It contributes towards a community of trust and respect in society and between competitors. In sportsmanship, the goal is not just to win, but also to give one’s best effort and to be honorable in the pursuit of victory.

Four key virtues are required for ethics in sports: respect, responsibility, integrity, and fairness.


  • All coaches and athletes must follow guides and rules that are established for their specific sport.
  • The rules must be applied equally to both teams by the referees, and personal interest or bias cannot be shown for the outcome.
  • Coaches and athletes cannot be excluded from participating or discriminated against in a sport based on sexual orientation, gender or race.
  • The sport’s integrity is violated when teams seek to obtain an unfair competitive advantage and unfair playing field over their opponent.


This concept is similar to fairness, regarding the idea that any athlete attempting to obtain an advantage over the opponent through any means that the game wasn’t designed to, violates the game’s integrity and shows that the person lacks integrity. For example, whenever a player fakes being fouled or injured during a soccer game, the person is not behaving in a sportsmanlike way since soccer is not a game that has been designed to measure a player’s flopping skills. Faking is a means used to deceive an official intentionally into making a poor call. All this does is hurt the officiating’s credibility and undermines the game’s integrity ultimately.


  • To be sportsmanlike, coaches and players must take responsibility for their actions out on the field as well as their performance. Their emotions are included in this.
  • Coaches and athletes will many times make excuses for themselves for why they lost a game. Blaming the officiating is the most popular of all excuses. What the most honorable thing to do is to focus instead just on the aspects you control in a game, such as your performance as well as questioning yourself about areas where you could have possibly done better which may have changed the outcome.
  • Responsibility requires that coaches and players be current on all of the regulations and rules that govern their particular sport.
  • Responsibility requires that coaches and players conduct themselves in honorable ways both on the field and off of it as well.


  • Athletes should all show respect for officials, coaches, opponents, and teammates.
  • Coaches should all show respect for officials, opponents, and their players.
  • All fans, and, in particular, parents, should show respect to officials, both of the teams, and all other fans.

The model of sportsmanship is built on the concept that sport encourages as well as demonstrates character development. This in turn influences the broader community’s moral character. How each one of us competes in sports can have a profound effect on our ethical, moral and personal behavior beyond just the realm of competition.

Some will argue for having a “bracketed morality” for the world of sports. This particular approach argues that competition and sports are separate from real life and that within this realm moral codes and ethics are not applicable. Some argue that sports are an outlet for expressing our primal aggression as well as selfish needs for respect and recognition that are obtained through conquering our opponent. Victory and aggression, in this view, are the only virtues that exist. A football player might be described as being nasty and meanwhile out on the field, yet in everyday life as gentle and kind. The violent disposition that he exhibits out on the field isn’t wrong while playing the game since it is just a natural component of an amoral reality that the principle of winning dictates.

When an ethical approach is taken to sports, this bracketed morality is rejected. Instead, one’s opponent and the game itself is honored through fair yet tough play. That involves understanding what the rules are as well as their importance in respecting your opponent, which in turn pushes you to play and be your absolute best.