With all of the scandals surrounding this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s hard to ignore the importance of ethics in sports. Between Russia being barred from the Olympics for doping and former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar being sentenced for sexual abuse, news headlines have been rife with controversy.
But controversy and ethics in sports is not new.
Society tends to put professional athletes on a pedestal – casting them as idols and role models. In reality, professional sports can serve more as a mirror to society, but are not always held to the same standards. Tolga Ozyurtcu, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, says “In times like these, it is important to uphold ethical principles and not let a person’s reputation or fame downplay their actions. Although sports have numerous positive benefits, people should not ignore the bad when celebrating the good.”
Ozyurtcu addresses issues like these in his teaching. He cites many sports events and controversies of the past that still resonate with us today, such as:
- the evolution of women’s sports, from fears of female “frailty” into the Title IX era and beyond,
- the black power salute and symbolic protests at the 1968 Mexico City games and their legacy with the current NFL national anthem conversation,
- and sport during the Cold War and the intersection of sports with nationalism and politics.
He also teaches a course, Historical and Ethical Issues in Physical Culture and Sports, that helps undergraduate kinesiology and health education students consider these topics. It’s a course with value that extends beyond the realm of athletics. “We focus on the ethical decision-making process: how do we identify an issue as a matter of ethics, examine it, and find the courage to take action,” says Ozyurtcu.
His course uses historical events to examine ethical issues, and current events also shape much of the class discussion. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics, for example, provoked ethical conversations around:
- competing for a nation you don’t reside in or have much connection to,
- allowing children to try risky sports, such as luge or skeleton,
- and gold-medalist Shaun White’s sexual harassment allegations.
Says Ozyurtcu, who welcomes anyone to contact him to attend one of his lectures, “These examples allow students to develop a process of reasoning that, hopefully, should translate into their careers and lives beyond the Forty Acres.”
Though the discussions in Ozyurtcu’s classes focus on sports and ethics, the concepts can be applied to other aspects of life. Ozyurtcu, therefore, tries to highlight the moral dilemmas that arise from justifying less than exemplary behavior in the pursuit of competitive success.
“An example I often use in class is based on youth sports, which we tend to justify because of non-sports benefits like discipline, integrity, teamwork, and leadership. However, when we turn around and coach kids to do something such as deceiving a referee, we completely undermine our justifications. This may seem like a minor indiscretion, but the lessons we learn as children have outsized legacies in our lives,” says Ozyurtcu.
Although students may not have to deal with issues as grave as those that plagued the Winter Games, studying ethics can help them develop a process of reasoning that extends beyond their time in school.