Sport, a moral dilemma

Sport, a moral dilemma

Sport is so much about winning, especially at the higher levels of the game where results are so consequential. For example, the top team in this year’s IPL received a Rs 20 crore winning bonus, while the four teams that did not qualify all responded by firing their head coach. I am one of them. Apart from great skill, winning in sport requires each athlete to master qualities such as goal-orientation, determination, perseverance, dedication, commitment and resilience. Let’s call this set of attributes ‘performance values’.

There is another set of values, called ‘moral values’, that include things like sportsmanship, respect, integrity, honour, humility, fairness and ‘doing the right thing’. These often appear lower on athletes and coaches priority list, as they find themselves being sacrificed at the altar of winning-at-all-costs.

Australian cricketers Smith, Warner and Bancroft paid a high price for sandpapering the ball during the third and final test match at Newlands in March 2018. Knowing full well that it is an unlawful practice, they nonetheless went ahead. It happened in the third of four tests, with the series at 1-1 and as the South African batsmen were getting on the better of the Australian bowling attack. The decision to take sandpaper onto the field was driven by the pursuit of winning-at-all-costs. Much around the practice of sledging is unsportsmanlike, yet it happens in abundance.

Seven times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was the greatest cyclist in history, as well as being a cancer survivor and cancer champion. He is also the person that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) called ‘the ringleader of the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.’

He cheated, lied and bullied his way to winning those seven Tour de France titles, and when threatened with being exposed, he covered his tracks, intimidated witnesses and lied to hearing panels and to the world. Armstrong claimed that evidence of his doping and intimidation scheme, provided by twenty-six people, including eleven of his former teammates, was fabricated. He lied until he just couldn’t lie anymore.

Recently marathon running icon and legendary coach Alberto Salazar received a four-year ban for ‘multiple anti-doping violations’, in a move which also saw Nike close down its famous Nike Oregon Project which was headed up by Salazar. The list of drug cheating, match fixing, fudging of birth certificates and unlawful or unsporting tactics to gain advantage in sport is endless. All in the pursuit of winning and the associated financial gain. These are all examples of the dark side of sport, where the desire to win prevails over moral values such as integrity, honour, respect, and doing the right thing.

The reality is that in modern-day sport, and in business and politics, moral values are often compromised in the pursuit of victory and financial gain. There is a saying that suggests ‘nice guys come second’.

It begs the question, is it possible to engage both performance and moral values equally, and simultaneously? There has always been a gap between the values that pave the way for those who travel the business or material world and for example those who pursue community work, social work or who embark on a spiritual journey.

For me the answer to that question is a resounding yes. It’s not just possible, but essential for our future. There are already examples in sport, business and maybe even politics of those who are lighting the way by integrating practices such as mindfulness, equanimity, service, higher purpose and integrity with their pursuit of material success. In simple language, this is the practice of winning and making money whilst being a good human of sound moral values, and doing good in the world.

Those athletes mentioned above all would have excelled in their execution of the performance values, yet in their pursuit of winning they all compromised on either being a good person and/or doing the right thing.

The way of the future, and it needs to start with the adults who are coaching our kids in schools, clubs and private clinics, is to marry performance and moral values. This means seeking to win by doing the right things in the right way. Same for business, the future is to make a profit in way that sustainably serves best interests of society and the environment. Not just lip service or window dressing, but genuinely marrying both pursuits.

A good start is for employers and coaches to reward moral values. Celebrate and reward acts of good sportsmanship, respect for the game, respect for opponents, humility, caring for a team mate and similar. This is the future, and when we get it right, it will be a future of healthy business, communities and environment, and one where nice guys come first.1

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