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Why “Purpose” matters in Sport

6 Apr 2021   ·   

Sport has different “purposes” and they are all valuable. Each person may have a different “purpose” associated to sport, but it is important for the wider sports community to be proactive on the topic of human rights and social change. We all aspire to good sportsmanship and we all want to win, but we also don’t want to become known as “bad losers”. Being good at sport is more than just winning. A player needs to balance their performance with following the rules of the game and respect for the other players. A player’s behaviour needs to create fellowship with players on both sides as well as with the fans and the wider community. We know what’s right when we see it but it is hard to define.

Clubs attempt to inspire the players and the staff with a sense of sportsmanship by emphasizing the importance of leadership, doing the right thing and being part of the community. Nevertheless, cheating still happens and examples of poor sportsmanship abound. Lance Armstrong’s story was an incredible one. He won the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005 while being diagnosed with testicular cancer. This inspiring story crumbled to dust when he was found guilty of doping and was stripped of his titles. Sometimes the impression is that “winning at all costs” is more important to the club or the player than “doing the right thing”. Poor sportsmanship has a high cost – it damages a team’s morale as well as the fans’ trust in the club.

Inspire, engage, motivate

The best leaders inspire, engage and motivate people to play by the rules. Interventions to encourage sportsmanship and discourage cheating and other poor behaviour are often based on “compliance programs” which take a legalistic approach based on individual accountability. They set out the standards, teach everyone to follow the rules and punish wrongdoing by any “bad apples” who misbehave. Ethical standards and compliance programs are necessary but not enough.

Modern behavioural science has found that everybody has the capacity to behave badly in some circumstances. Individuals are especially likely to behave badly when people around them are behaving similarly. We all know the excuse of “we played dirty because the other side were fouling us all the time”. It’s more important to be an integral member of the team than stand out as a prig. A prig is someone who shows off their own good behaviour and who criticizes others for their poor behaviour. It’s not a good look!

People also behave badly when they think that nobody is watching. This means that there are limits to what externally imposed ethical standards can achieve. There will always be examples of non-compliance due to personal lapses and groupthink.

The most important factor in personal ethical compliance is the context. The context is the behaviour of people you respect, the attitudes of the people around you and the expectations of the wider community. Small changes in context can create large changes in personal behaviour. When athletes and clubs demonstrate good examples of sportsmanship, the fans value even more the victories and the effort. Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna enjoyed one of the closest rivalries in F1 history. However, the two always showed respect for each other. In 1991 at the British Grand Prix, Senna ran out of fuel in the last tap and Mansell offered him a ride back to the pits. This has become one of the most iconic moments in the history of Formula 1.

Walk the talk

In a club, much of the context is provided by the leaders. Leaders who inspire through living their moral values, create an environment of staff and players exhibiting the “right stuff”. They “walk the talk”. This environment leads to better personal behaviour because the individual wants to be part of the inspirational group.

As a lesson from the business world, Enron was notorious for its constant focus on stock price. After the discovery of Enron’s accounting fraud, its former CFO Andy Fastow said, “I knew it was wrong…. But I didn’t think it was illegal…. The question I should have asked is not what is the rule, but what is the principle.” People working in an ethical culture are asked to think “Is it right?” rather than “Is it against the rules?”. If nobody knows what is right, then nobody can answer the question. It’s leadership’s job to explain what is right by explaining the purpose.

There is evidence that talking about ethical lapses with players and staff leads to a culture which sees ethical lapses as normal. If other clubs are frequently cheating, then perhaps we need to be ethically flexible to be competitive. As a consequence, leaders should praise positive role models for their exemplary behaviour rather than scare people with ethical problems. Player of the Match awards should reward sportsmanship and ethical behaviour, showing the “right stuff”, as much as athletic performance. The NBA offers the “NBA Sportsmanship Award” to a player who most exemplifies the ideas of sportsmanship on the court with ethical behaviour, fair play and integrity. Grant Hill and Mike Conley have won the award three times, the most in NBA history.

Employees should easily be able to see how ethical principles influence a company’s practices. They’re likely to behave differently if they think the organization is being guided by the purpose. Indeed, in one experiment, 70% of participants playing an economic game with a partner cooperated for mutual gain when it was called the Community Game, but only 30% cooperated when it was called the Wall Street Game. This dramatic effect occurred even though the financial incentives were identical.

Penalise poor behaviour

In sports which have high financial rewards, there is often an assumption that paying people for the right behaviour is the most effective incentive. In addition, this leads to the opinion that fines for poor behaviour will also incentivise the “right stuff”. Financial incentives and fines undoubtedly have an important role by making it explicit what is “good” and “bad” behaviour. In clubs which have a bonus culture it would be interesting to include all aspects of the desired player behaviour.

But financial incentives are not the only way. So called “pro-social” incentives can have amazing results. The airline Virgin Atlantic introduced an incentive system to motivate airline captains to reduce fuel consumption. This resulted in donations to a charity of the captain’s choice. The program made a significant difference to the captains’ job satisfaction which was reported to be similar in magnitude to the change from being on poor health to being in good health.

In sports which already have strong charitable foundations there are clear opportunities to create non-financial incentives which support the charitable activities whenever players show the “right stuff”. When the club has a strong link with the wider community, connecting the players’ behaviour to benefits received by the community is a powerful force to remind everybody that their behaviour is under scrutiny.

No sport will ever be perfect, because no human being is perfect. Indeed, some sports have had serious ethical lapses. Real people are not purely good or purely evil but are capable of doing both good and evil. Clubs need to design a system that makes doing the “right stuff” as easy as possible. That means having a clear purpose for the club and talking about the purpose at every relevant opportunity. When the purpose is clearly understood there is a better chance of doing the right thing when all else fails. When a player is in the grip of their emotions and less able to think, doing the right thing needs to be instinctive and emotional.

David Carratt


Building the future of the sports industry