Overheating and ethics in the sport industry

Hallgeir Gammelsæter
University College Molde, Norway


Kadence Otto
Applied Ethics for Sport Managers
180 pages, paperback.
Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press 2019 (Sports and Risk Management)
ISBN 978-1-5310-1236-6

In China, major rivers are being choked by islands of waste disrupting the flow of water. In Pakistan, children develop rare and sometimes fatal deceases due to their line of work, which is to scavenge metals and other marketable things from derelict ships sent there from the North to die. […..] and just as recycling is becoming a major industry in the Global North, Southern cities and territories are being poisoned, polluted and turned into wastelands by rapid economic change without an accompanying development of waste management (Eriksen, 2016, p.106-107)

You may wonder why a book review of a sport management text is introduced with a quote more apt at waste management. Well, contrast it with the following from Applied ethics for sport managers:

Sport is a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 2014, the North American sports market alone was worth $60.5 billion and is projected to exceed $70 billion by 2019 (Heitner, 2015). Like it or not, sport is a business. But how has this come to be? At a foundational level, sport, like other businesses, is dependent on what society values. […] In a capitalist society, if people value sport, then they will want to consume it. Thus a market for sport develops. One of the reasons the sport industry is a financial heavyweight is because the public values sport so much that they are willing to pay considerable amounts of money to consume it. (p. 11)

Praising the expansion of the sport industry is typical for sport management (text)books. While Otto is modest in this regard, she clearly states “sport is a business”. I have argued elsewhere that we should challenge this seeming truism, so widespread in the sport management field. This is not to say that there is no sport industry or that I doubt the numbers presented above. On the contrary, the sport industry, the “financial heavyweight” is huge, and for that reason, is it not in part directly and indirectly responsible for the global waste situation?

Through its demand for mega events, land and huge construction works, extensive global transportation and an almost unrestrained hunger for exposing sponsorship on TV, the sport industry has been and is instrumental in producing ever-extending consumerism, over-consumption, waste and inequality across the globe. In this respect, is the sport industry any different from other industries? If not, why do we need applied ethics specifically for sport managers? Does not business ethics do the job?

It so happened that I was reading Applied Ethics for Sport Managers in an atmosphere of Covid-19 lockdown of society. Concurrently I read Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Overheating. An anthropology of Accelerated Change (2016), a book on the three interrelated crises of environment, economy and identity, assuming “that rapid changes characterising the present age have important, sometimes dramatic, unintended consequences” (Eriksen, 2016, p. vii).

In isolation, these two short chapters are an accessible introduction to Western philosophical thinking for non-philosophers. But again, the red flag should be raised.

It is hard not to see the coronavirus’ global spread as a dramatic unintended consequence of overheating, of the unprecedented expansion of human population, urbanisation, energy consumption, global trade, information, migration, transportation and tourism, species extinction, carbon emission, waste production etc. Overheating existed before the pandemic, but the sport industry showed no sign of curbing its expansion. Perhaps because “the public values it so much”, and because the sport industry is not any more ethical than other industries?

Applied Ethics for Sport Managers is directed towards those that want to become “the complete sport manager”, which is “someone who evolves from a manager of sport to a leader of sport by operating professionally, ethically, and socially responsibly” (p. xvii). Throughout the 144 pages of text (ex. glossary, references and index), Otto speaks to the individual “you”, particularly in the small activity sections: It’s Your Turn; Take Action!; Take the Lead!; and Red Flag Challenges. Leading up to these segments are brief introductions of central concepts, conceptual frames, central thinkers and strands of moral philosophy.

The thirteen chapters are distributed over three parts, Becoming the Complete Manager; Ethical Sport Managers in Action; and Socially responsible Sport Leaders. Part I is the more conceptual, while Part II is directed towards ethical action in developing work culture, communication and marketing, pricing and event safety. Part III takes a more social approach, addressing issues such as athletes’ human rights and economic freedom, sport for peace, and sustainability in sport. All chapters comprise Red Flag Challenges that describe examples from the sport’s world. The majority of these are taken from a US sporting context, so readers in other parts of the world may find it difficult to engage in them.

The chapters are short and adapted to readers that fear tediousness. This, of course, comes at the cost of depth and comprehensive discussion, but obviously, the book is not directed towards those with a special interest in philosophy. Rather, Otto earnestly wants to get through to the busy practicing manager that wants to do right. This is all good, but as already indicated, my “red flag challenges” to the book and the author are more fundamental.

Red Flag Challenges

In chapter 1, Otto introduces the reader to the concept sportpersonship, contrasting it with gamespersonship. The values of sportpersonship are presented as unique to sport, as “the anchor, and the firm foundation of the sporting environment” (p. 4). Indeed, in chapter 3, the author maintains that “the game itself is built on the values of sportsmanship that serve the invisible structure of sport” (p. 26). When these values are violated and compromised, gamespersonship results.

Gamespersonship is “attempting to gain, or gaining, a strategic advantage in a way that is ethically questionable” (p. 5). However, this is not specific for sport, because, as Otto states, “the same is true for all our major institutions”. The “very fabric of society is built on a common value – trust” (p. 5) and rule following. If this is true, sportpersonship is not unique to sport. It is simply ethical behaviour. Which takes us back to the question; if sport is not unique, just another industry, why is a there need for applied ethics specifically for sport managers?

My argument – or antithesis in this context – is that sport is neither business nor industry, but rather a human activity that is primarily intrinsically motivated and in essence largely independent of markets and industries.

The second red flag challenge concerns the anthropocentric foundation of the ethical theories on which Otto bases her book. On the question of what motivates individual decision and action, Otto relies on Kohlbergs’s stages of moral development (chpt. 3). This frame builds on dilemmas Kohlberg presented to three groups of children, aged 10, 13 and 16. Based on the answers, he depicted six stages and three levels of moral development. Without going into detail, all of the stages are human-centred. Even at the sixth stage, concerning “universal principles” guiding moral action, there is little awareness of moral understandings that put man and human communities into an ecologic context.

This is no surprise, of course, since Kohlberg’s empirically derived moral judgement must by necessity incorporate cultural bias, which in a modern Western context is likely to be anthropocentric rather than ecocentric. “In a capitalist society, if people value sport, then they will want to consume it” (p.11) is expression of such anthropocentric moral philosophy.

Otto goes on to outline teleological and deontological theories (chpt. 4), drawing on philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, as well as the apostle Paul and Buddhist teaching, juxtaposing these inputs with Kohlberg’s six-stage model. The extended frame, incorporating altruism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics and moral reasoning serve as reference points in later chapters. In chapter 5, on sport’s social responsibility, Otto briefly outlines the dialectic of social change, the thesis – antithesis – synthesis scheme, which she refers back to in Part III. The dialectic is illustrated by the historical development of justice theories (libertarianism, utilitarianism and egalitarianism), all nicely summed up in table 5.7.

In isolation, these two short chapters are an accessible introduction to Western philosophical thinking for non-philosophers. But again, the red flag should be raised. Does this assortment of philosophical theory suffice to capture sport’s role in the overheating of the planet? To do justice to Otto, the book ends with a brief chapter on sport sustainability (and there is a remark on ecological awareness on page 138), but this last chapter unfortunately appears more as an appendix than an engaging part of the book. And a reflection of the sport industry approach. This is a pity, because in a situation so dramatically framed by the worldwide human reaction to the corona pandemic, it becomes clear that the book suffers profoundly from the absence of eco-philosophical thinking.

This, in the end, takes me back to dialectical thinking. Applied Ethics for Sport Managers, similar to so much of the academic field of sport management, departs from the thesis, not to say truism, that modern sport is a business. My argument – or antithesis in this context – is that sport is neither business nor industry, but rather a human activity that is primarily intrinsically motivated and in essence largely independent of markets and industries. While this antithesis is much debated in the field of sport ethics, Otto holds on to the industry thesis.

I am aware that any thesis about sport are human-centred and not ecocentric per se. However, the current situation with sport being locked down on a global scale should be an impetus to explore again if sport is sustainable beyond the capitalist market and can be performed in such a way that it does not contribute to overheating the planet. I am afraid commendable initiatives like Sustainability in sport, Green Sport Alliance and Pavegen, which Otto mentions as examples of sport sustainability leaders, are too feeble to do more than scraping the surface of the overheating problem.

When I write down these words, the Covid-19 pandemic is casting its dark shadow over all human beings. I am aware that Otto’s book, published in 2019, belongs to the “old world”, when things were settled. With the advantage of hindsight, the ethical problems associated with sport, or more accurately the sport industry, that was, now loom larger.

Copyright © Hallgeir Gammelsæter 2020

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.