Are sport metaphors, athletic heroism, and celebrity role models, the right ingredients to teach ethical business behaviour?
Business coaching has a long tradition and in particular the motivational workshop is often welcomed among leaders in the field. However, since the burst of the new economy bubble, several financial crises, the crash of the US housing market, and a relentless economic downturn, there is rising concern about the ethical dimensions of decision making. How do we motivate people to make the right decision in a high pressure and highly opportunistic society? And is it right to regard financial market analysts and the offspring of Western business schools as selfish and immoral? Maybe the answers lie somewhere else, in something which appears to be so eternal that it has been ritualized and even secularized: sport. In contemporary society, sport might have lost some of its spirituality, yet people look up to athletes, lift them up as heroes, and believe in the words they speak. Is it, therefore, not surprising that business managers want to benefit from those individuals who seem to have proven that people can achieve anything through discipline and hard work, to also motivate their workers and help them with decision making?
This paper tries to question this field, an area which has not been given much attention, and in particular which has not discussed the ethical bias and dilemmas business coaching based on sport might face. The researcher hypothesis that athletes may not be the best teachers to give us answers to complex and for most of them ethical business decision. Unfortunately, literature on the ethical bias of athletic motivational speakers is scarce. Some researchers, however, have addressed related issues which might allow drawing conclusions addressing the topic addressed in this paper. In particular, Boxill’s book Sports Ethics –Anthology (2003), contains valuable research to address issues when sport and athletes become role models for decision making. But before we address this dimension, we need to shed some light on the application of sport psychology in business.
The sport – business relationship
Fletcher discussed in his article Applying Sport Psychology in Business: A Narrative Commentary and Bibliography (2010), that there is a, “close link between sport and another prominent performance domain, business” (p. 140). The author initially reviewed several other pieces of literature which discussed a sport-business analogy and possibilities to draw links between the two. He found that there are, in fact, many parallels: Beyond the sense of team spirit, the author realized that mental patterns and domains such as organizational issues, stress, leadership, or consulting are as familiar to business managers as they are to elite athletes. It is argued that there are several research areas where one could benefit from examining those links: specifically. mental toughness, job stress, burnout, life development, leadership and motivation. However, Fletcher remarked that even though those findings provide credibility for such a connection, the research on how to utilize such links remains scarce. Only three studies could be found were the application was further discussed. In particular, it was found that sport and business could benefit from teaching leadership and interpersonal characteristics; something, which is usually the main content of motivational and coaching sessions executed by athletes or directly derived from sport (e.g. sport acronyms used to define strategic goals, such as the W.I.N. slogan at Ford). The author of this paper agrees with the statement that there is a strong relationship between business and sport and that the link can be valuable, but argues that Fletcher’s paper lacks an ethical dimension. To blindly act on sport metaphors, narratives, and beliefs can’t be the answer to solve complex ethical issues without cautious conduct. It should be mentioned, nevertheless, that Fletcher realized the sensitivity one needs and stated that “at the highest levels of performance, the transfer of knowledge needs to be conducted with caution and on an individual, case-by-case basis” (p. 146). This is a statement which, in my opinion, supports the claim of this paper that athletes are not necessarily the best prophets for moral decision making.
Moral decision–making in sport and business
Having identified links between sport and business, the question of what moral decision-making is should be addressed more generally. Melzer, Elbe, & Brand, though focusing on doping prevention, presented an interesting account on this topic in their paper Moral and Ethical Decision-Making: A Chance for Doping Prevention in Sports? (2010). The paper addressed issues which are also key elements of the present study and argued that though it is believed, “that participation in sport has pedagogical values … the goal of winning at all costs” (p. 70), are two conflicting parts of modern high-performance sport. It is further discussed that sport in its pure rule-based form is believed to be ethical by nature and that therefore immoral behavior (such as doping) “weighs even more heavily, because it attacks sport’s innermost values” (p. 73). From this statement, it could be concluded that, because ethical dilemmas are so vivid and sport in and of itself is moral, athletes are the right choice to teach us such behavior. Unfortunately, however, Melzer et al. argued that there is no empirical support for the connection between sport participation and moral development (Kavussanu & Ntoumanis, 2003). It was further stated that, “Sport in general does not turn individual into moral people. In contrast, unethical behavior seems to be more accepted in sports than in daily life (Bredemeier & Shields, 1984)” (p. 73). If all the above is true, how then can we hope that an athlete is the right person to teach us ethical decision making? Moral education is without doubt a good starting point and provides a chance to create a sense of moral behavior. However, as we have seen earlier, the means have to be of sensitive nature. As Melzer et al. argued, the ability to judge situations in a moral manner remains a crucial point in the decision making process, which goes beyond a theoretic education of ethical theories. Kohlberg (1964) described moral judgment as “the capacity to make decisions and judgments that are moral (i.e., based on internal principles) and to act in accordance with such judgments” (p. 425). It is further contended that an action which one believes is immoral has to always be evaluated within a broader context, including factors such as gender, culture, self-awareness, moral courage, and the ability to critically reflect on one’s own values and moral attitudes. Interesting for the focus of this paper is that those insights were derived from business ethics, and not, as one might have assumed, from a sport context. The argument that the field of decision making in business ethics would provide an advantage for sport, and not as we see it today that sport is the answer to ethical dilemmas in business, is interesting for this paper and thus provides another reason making this discussion valuable.
Sport metaphors as coaching practice
The discussion so far has linked sport and business, briefly discussed the dimension of ethical decision-making and casted doubt on the belief that ethical issues in business can be answered with the help of sport. The next paper reviewed written by Hardaway, titled Foul Play: Sports Metaphors as Public Doublespeak (2003), addressed a specific coaching practice. Hardaway argued that sport “fit philosophically with the widely accepted American dream of open competition in a free market economy” (p. 56) and that therefore it is no surprise that the “language of athletic competition has found its way as metaphor into every aspect of American life” (p. 56). In a world where challenges are ubiquitous, where we are expected to understand issues across the globe and the internet and media provide a vast amount of information which might be only understood by few, people tend to turn to things they can comprehend. Sport is something people understand, which they are familiar with and which therefore appears safe to turn to. The paper nevertheless argued that sport metaphors have changed from a competitive rhetoric towards a public doublespeak, where sport philosophies are used to “hedge on moral issues” (Hardaway, p. 57). Utilitarian theories focus on the consequences of our actions, asking which behavior is appropriate to achieve the greatest balance between good and evil. It is as such a form of consequentialism; something which is believed to be inherent in sport. Hardaway argued that sport activities are always non-controversial and unambiguous. The participants do not discuss the goal, because it is clear that winning is the answer. Therefore it is stated that they do not discuss the end, and consequently use any means possible to achieve a common goal. It appears, therefore, reasonable that analogies to sport are used to convince business leaders that their decisions lack morality. On this note, however, aren’t sport metaphors manipulative? Can one reasonably claim that something which works in one field brings success in another? Though it is understood that sport metaphors find their way into business because they reflect the competitive nature of that environment, it remains unanswered – why are we so intrigued by those phrases? Hardaway argued that it “has something to do with man’s aggressive nature; what sport and business have in common” (p. 57). The author of this paper agrees with this notion, in particular considering the recent economic turmoil, which was largely based on over-aggressive behavior by business leaders losing sight of their social responsibility. It appears that the bigger and more globalized a business is, the more sport metaphors are used. Most likely this can be attributed to the fact that human nature cannot comprehend the ongoing globalization of our world and thus reverts to well-known patterns. But if we use well-known patterns to describe and generalize the emergence of a new world, are we not over-simplifying things? The problem, as Hardaway described it, is that we lean back accepting human and social problems by using sport metaphors which portray it as a strategic issue. He proposed, therefore, that we reconsider if an obsession with sport, with its winning attitude and aggressiveness, and simultaneously glorifying a “winner takes it all society” is something we want to pass on to our children, or for that matter, if we should make it a general principle of ethical business behavior.
Sport and role models for business leaders
Beyond the use of metaphors, which might be harmful rather than beneficial through oversimplifying complicated interrelations, this paper tries to raise concerns about sport participants coaching in business settings in general. From that perspective, the author agrees with some left-wing representatives that sport (specifically spectator sport) is an opiate for the masses and thus not necessarily the best ingredient to formulate an ethical business code. Nonetheless, it is understood that this has to be carefully considered on the premise that there are indeed moral values one can derive from sport. In an article by Marqusee titled Sport and Stereotype: From Role Model to Muhammad Ali (2003) the author brought up several examples where athletes or sport do represent an ethical ideal, but also argued that “the reversal may be limited and transient” (p. 312). In the beginning Marqusee formed a case about boxing and argued that it provides a level playing field where cultural, social, and socio-economic statuses become irrelevant. Modern sport, being quantifiable and rule based, is non-arbitrary and everybody has an equal chance; something which would be, in a perfect world, ideal in business as well. But is this true? Does sport really provide and promote equal opportunities? Is sport always fair and are rules never violated? In the opinion of the author, not at all, in agreement with Marqusee who noted that the “level playing field is enclosed within a society which is anything but level” (p. 312). The paper argued further that given its commercial impact, sport is governed by capitalists, who flourish on inequalities. He stated that “the metaphor of the level playing field is, in fact, a lie about the market, as it is a lie about society as a whole.” (p. 312). Nonetheless, and beyond this criticism, it should be mentioned that this paper does not disagree with the notion that sport can have a positive influence on society. A few athletes rightfully can serve as role models for ethical decision-making, not only in sport. The author’s discussion about Muhammed Ali is a prime example of what a role model can be. It is said that “the purpose of the role model is to provide an example to black people (or any other social group) of personal success achieved within the laws and customs of the realm” (p. 315). Though this phrase does not specifically argue in favour of athletes being the right people to serve as models for ethical decision-making, the fact that some have achieved greatness without cheating is something remarkable. Ali, perhaps like no one before him, triumphed “for principle and solidarity over expedience and selfishness” (p. 326); something remarkable at the time, but also certainly something eternal, a virtue for every setting. But what is left of this glory, of remarkable achievements, of using one’s popularity to become a moral role model for the masses? In his paper, Marqusee quoted Ali’s assistant trainer Drew Bundini Brown who stated the following:
Take a look at black superstars today – Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy – and look at them hiding behind the bushes with all the power they have. Watch them twist their mouths and make money and pretend, yet do virtually nothing but pay tokenism to black freedom. If Ali was Michael Jackson or Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy, he’d risk everything for black people. (p. 327)
Marqusee continued to argue that there is an ever increasing gap between the big business of sport and other social worlds and he referred back to boxing where Don King has become “a role model embodying the morals of a ghetto crack lord” (p. 329). With this in mind, do we still think sport is ethical and a good teacher of how to run a business? And are we still blind to the obvious fact that modern sport is as focused on money and status as the global market-place; something which ethical training sessions actually try to overcome?
Ethics training programs and their impact
So far this paper has identified several issues which were discussed within the literature and it appears that there is reason to believe that coaching a business ethics based on sport is morally questionable. The paper, however, claims that there is value for ethics training, but that current practices are flawed.
An empirical study conducted by Delaney and Sockell (1992) addressed this question and asked if ethics training programs can make a difference. Though the article is rather old, it is grounded on the same notion as this paper that the “media and public attention on the issue of ethical behavior in business dealings … have raised questions about whether American firms and business schools are properly preparing individuals to deal with work-place ethical dilemmas” (p. 719). It should be noted that this finding dates back to Thompson (1990) and that this is exactly the reason why the author has chosen this article. As it has been argued earlier, recent scandals and their immoral fundamentals are not any less visible than at the time the study was conducted.
The case for ethical training has been heard, but it apparently has not had a positive response, even though Delaney and Sockell found that business between 1953 and 1987 would have benefited from ethics training programs. The paper mentioned that such trainings can increase employees’ satisfaction and reduce opportunistic behavior, but that at the time there was limited applicable guidance to evaluate the effectiveness of such programs. Delaney and Sockell introduced a new set of data for ethical behavior. Though they admitted that the sample might not be representative of a general workforce, they argued that the indicators are reasonable for being used in a business setting to assess such a program. The researchers surveyed graduates of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and disseminated a questionnaire which was used to collect data on ethical dilemmas in their workplace. Measurements included the number of times they were faced with an ethical decision and how often they did something immoral in order to beat a competitor.
Further, the author asked the participants to indicate any ethical training they received and, if not provided, if they thought it would be reasonable to implement. A total of 5,864 graduates from classes between 1953 and 1987 with an average age of 41 were questioned, with a return rate of 18.3%. Over 80% of those in the poll were managing an average of 80 people. At the time, 36% of all participants claimed that their company had a formal ethics program, and a total of 62% from the remaining interviewees argued in favor of such a program. The results revealed that ethics training was: A. not common and B. that “the existence of an ethics training program lowers the extent to which respondents perceived that they had to do unethical things to get ahead in their firm” (p. 723).
So it could be concluded that no matter which kind of ethical program is conducted, it is beneficial; and although this statement is more than 20 years old, it could be applied in a globalized world where unethical behavior appears to be even more prevalent. The paper, however, also argued that an “ethics program could tacitly encourage immoral behavior by suggesting to individuals that no absolute right or wrong exists” (p. 725); a claim supporting the foundation of this paper – that it is not the existence of those programs in question, but their execution and more specifically, doubting whether athletic role models are an appropriate means to answer complex ethical questions.
The performance ethic and the social contract of sport
Fletcher claimed in his paper, as discussed above, that there is a strong relationship between business and sport. Even though there might be a strong connection, why do we ask athletes to speak in front of businesses? This paper claims that there is an ethical issue of using sport to coach business managers how to act and lead. In particular, if we reflect the moral issues the performance ethics of sport might cause which in the author’s opinion result in and further intensify nowadays selfish and opportunistic business behavior. According to Hobermann (2009) the performance ethic of sport is linked to deviance because overconformity to its norms is expected in many sports. It has been argued that athletes are overly dedicated to the game and are supposed to love it above all other things; for example the money they can earn from it. Controversially it is also reasoned that athletes shall not accept any obstacles in their pursuit of success. The author argues that those two ethical principles are inherently paradox, resulting in immoral behaviour where ego-centric decision making is put in front of moral reasoning. It could be concluded that this is not any different in the business world and thus it might be argued that this constitutes a reason why enterprises around the world use (former) athletes to speak in front of their businesses. Isn’t it questionable to talk about moral reasoning while at the same time relying on a performance ethics, which actually boost a ‘winning at any cost’ attitude, is the right approach? Even further, not only sport, but also the business world could be referred to as highly competitive. But if this is the case, isn’t the question which arises why someone should be self-disciplined, modest, and consequently ethical in face of ever increasing competitive challenges?
One might argue that we cannot draw general conclusions, or judge all athletes as being over-dedicated to a performance ethic resulting in immoral behaviour and judgement. As outlined above, Marqusee gave several examples throughout his article which could lead to the conclusion that athletes can act as role models because they use their celebrity status for the greater good. From this perspective, reflecting and reinforcing virtue ethical theory, which claims that ethics should devote itself foremost to the development of moral character. Marqusee’s conclusive thoughts, however, were different, and he gave several examples of an ever increasing gap between the big business of sport and other social worlds. His claim rather led to the conclusion that the big business of sport does care about the end but by any means necessary (cf. performance ethic). Referring to Hobbes’ version of Contractarian perspective (Morgan, 2007), this would in fact violate a social contract, because sport is inherently competitive and one does not need to cooperate to achieve his goals. One’s victory is another’s defeat, thus there is never enough for everybody. But is this argument strong enough to conclude that sport is inherently violating a social contract? Aren’t there good non-moral reasons to be moral? What about the normative restrictions sport enforces which should consequently restrict selfish behavior and result in a corporative conduct? What about the common notion that sport participation has pedagogical value and that it builds good (moral) character. Maybe it is true that sport is ethical by its very nature, because it is rule-based and makes decisions always non-controversial and unambiguous.
Utilitarianism and the inherent ethical nature of sport
When discussing and finding answers to those questions, we should turn to utilitarianism beliefs and argue that if we agree with sport being inherently ethical, then the claim also most hold that every victory, every defeat and every action taken have been ethical. However, one side of a possible counter-argument, and as discussed above, is the fact that without the need to reflect the overall goal of sport, participants have no need to discuss, and are thus likely trying to achieve their objective by every means possible. The other objection undermines the very foundation utilitarianism theory is based upon, because supporters of this theory are the ones claiming that sport is an inherently ethic activity. In particular, Mill’s comments on liberty, where he argues that the only reason to interfere with a person’s personal freedom is to protect harm to others. How then is power and performance sport ethical, where harming one another is part of the game, accepted, and even sometimes accepted beyond the norm? Further, and in line with criticism towards utilitarianism, how can we argue sport is inherently ethical, when generating general welfare does mean, more often than not, to bend the rules?
If we argue that the economy has first and foremost the task to provide common wealth and understand that business leaders in a globalized world need to violate the rules for the overall good, do we then not argue that sport and athletes are the wrong entities to turn to? Is not the care of society exactly what we want from our business leaders, or do we want them to stick to an unwritten or self-dictated rule without implying a broader and more long-term perspective?
Moral reasoning in sport
Consequently, the discussion in the last paragraph raises the question if the means by which somebody became an outstanding sportswoman / sportsman were the right ones a business manager or leader should adapt? From a marketing perspective, sport managers are keen to use every means necessary to let an athlete appear as a hero through sport. And if we look at their accomplishments in face of fierce competition, the joy and pride Olympic athletes show presenting their flags after winning a 100 meter dash, we could in fact assume that their behavior is heroic. The idea in sport marketing is that in order to be a hero, first someone needs to acquire celebrity status; that means having a well-known name and representing a specific image. A hero, in addition to this status, is then considered to be someone who is also known for his admirable achievements. The question, however, remains if this perceived hero has mastered a moral way to provide an overall benefit for society or if it is just a media creation. Unfortunately, there is no empirical support for the connection between sport participation and moral development. Further, there is no proof that sport has ever turned someone in a moral person. It could be shown that unethical behavior seems to be more accepted in sports than in daily life. From this perspective, even if we believe that someone is a hero because he represented his country and brought back respect and appreciation for a whole nation in reflection of his victory, we still do not know anything about the how.
An annotation which brings this paper to its final argument: Even if we could find arguments to support that sport and athletes act within a social contract and that the rule-based system, which makes sport inherently moral, were moral virtues which we would like our business leaders to learn, can we rightfully assume that sport has the power to build a moral mindset? Sport sociologists often claim that sport is the advocate of building good character. It is argued that sport can teach loyalty, dedication, sacrifice, and teamwork; which are arguably positive and morally valuable character traits. Regrettably, it appears that despite the good in sport it also leads people to be dishonest, irresponsible, and creates a wrong sense of justice; most likely given the above arguments about the “winner takes it all society”. It is somewhat paradox that even if sport has the capacity to build character; it appears that it similarly encourages bad character. The reason might be that when we make the value for winning so important that it tramps morality then we and sport are diminished. Bredemeier said, for example, that there is indeed a relationship between maturity of athletes’ moral reasoning and their acceptance of aggression; and the higher their level of moral reasoning, the less aggression athletes demonstrate. Most athletes, however, perceive morality on and off the field differently, thus moral reasoning is often suspended during competition in favor of a more egocentric moral perspective. In the business world there is no “off the field” environment, and it could be argued that managers permanently face competition. From a deontological perspective, therefore, we could conclude that if we want to contempt opportunistic behavior and have businesses support social welfare, then moral decisions need to be absolutely consistent for each and every one. If, however, athletes tend to be biased in their moral judgment, than we also have to admit that sportspeople are not the right teachers for moral values.
This paper has argued that athletes may not be the right teachers of moral values to our business leaders if we want them to disengage in opportunistic behavior and apply moral judgment to support social welfare. The author, nonetheless, does not want to argue that this is a general rule and that sportswomen and sportsmen are generally immoral. The intent of the aforementioned discussion was rather to show possible ethical pitfalls if we too blindly accept sport as an inherently ethical activity from which lessons can be conveyed to other areas. It could be shown that there are connections and interrelations between business and sport, but one need to carefully select which of those to transfer from one field to another. Also, in reflection of Mill, Hobbes, and Kant, sport appears to be somewhat of a paradox. On one hand, sport appears to fulfill a social contract by restricting selfish behavior through rules, yet violating utilitarian assumption that it is inherently ethical by either overly accepting the performance ethic of sport (i.e. dismissing normative restriction) or being incapable of equating the morally good. On the other hand, if we contend that rules need to be violated in order to balance the right for the overall good, then we similarly infringe Kant’s categorical imperative, which claims that ethics must be always consistent.
The arguments provided above shake common beliefs that sport metaphors, athletic heroism, and celebrity role models are the right ingredients to teach ethical business behavior. But if we agree with Delaney and Sockell that ethical programs are beneficial, how can we make sure that their execution doesn’t diminish those benefits? This paper would like to argue that it appears unreasonable to teach ethics in theory, because the risk that it is interpreted in a way that there is no right or wrong answer might tacitly encourage immoral behavior. If we want our business leaders to be taught conventional principles which lead them away from egocentric behavior and towards a broader perspective on general welfare, then the author of this article would like to claim that we need to teach moral judgment (Kohlberg, 1964). Something which, based on the arguments given above, cannot be delivered by former athletes, because they are most likely in the same pre-conventional stage (i.e. egocentric) than business leaders might be nowadays. Even further, maybe because their moral judgment appears to be in the same stage companies consequently might try to find answers to ethical questions in the field of sport. Kohlberg described moral judgment as “the capacity to make decisions and judgments that are moral (i.e., based on internal principles) and to act in accordance with such judgments” (p. 425). Coaching, in general, might be the right approach, but the application must be long term. One needs to reflect upon all available information and decide what to do and what is right or wrong. It could be argued that information in the business world is both asynchronous and incomplete and thus moral judgment will always be difficult. However, if we base our decisions on social patterns and rules, asking ourselves what is best for the good of society, we are already moving away from our pre-conventional decision models. Kohlberg even went further and argued that human beings would be able to apply a principled approach to moral judgment. Though this sounds ideal, this paper would like to argue that impartial and eternal principles will remain a far cry in a globalized world where the assumption of the rational nature of decision making has been proven wrong.
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