Feature: Athletes Ethical Currency

Athletes Ethical Currency: I Have to Earn it

Australian athletes and supporters don’t like cheats.  Whether that means taking performance enhancing drugs, tanking a game, or dirty on-field play. The more money that changes hands, the more results focused sport becomes. Athletes can then look outside of themselves to remain competitive. Are we pushing athletes towards cheating to meet unrealistic expectations? Are the motivations of local punters, big corporations or government agendas pushing too far? Agendas that look at how best to market sport to obtain the greatest return on the dollar in the shortest possible period of time? I was invited on ABC’s Moral Compass program “What Price Glory?” to take a closer look at the topic. 

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Photo: blog.tennisplaza.com

In the 1960’s there was the famous Marshmallow Experiment on delayed gratification. Small children were placed in a room and given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat the marshmallow now or if they waited 15 minutes they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Some of the children couldn’t wait and ate their treat straight away. Others delayed their gratification and were rewarded for doing so. When these children grew to adulthood, those who showed the capacity to delay gratification were found to have better life outcomes.

Smart coaches know there are times when they have to manage the desire to win today for longer term goals. This is one of the things the Australian Women’s Water Polo team did to win their gold medal in Sydney Olympics. After losing the World Championships two years earlier, the younger players were provided with the opportunity to step-up under pressure. Senior players were instructed to restrict their communication and play to support younger athletes in developing a leadership role.

The dilemma for the national federation was a willingness to lose games in the short term, in order to provide the opportunities required for athlete development in the longer term.

When government funding and sponsorship depends on immediate results, coaches are under pressure to keep winning at the expense of long term development.

Australians have long displayed ethical behaviours over an obsession for winning. Cricketer Adam Gilcrist was known to declare himself out before an umpire’s decision if he knew he edged a caught ball.

Being fortunate to work alongside the Australian Men’s Volleyball Team, I noted players would put their hand up and declare a net touch and lose a point that the Umpire may have over-wise missed.

An increase in pressure to produce results NOW, may end up overriding the previously valued ability to delay gratification for long term gains. This moral dilemma isn’t limited to our athletes. Many of today’s youth chase feel good neurochemicals that have historically come from playing sport. Interacting with hand held technology with little or no effort. As our young people become increasingly consumed by their technology we risk raising a generation who are rewarded without working for it. Who can’t delay gratification and look for easy ways to obtain it.

A generation of unrestrained individuals who will eat their marshmallow now, then look for a way to sneak another one? This is a social issue not a sporting one.

Money is not the reason athletes become athletes. Athlete’s love striving towards perfection. They will get up time and time again to have another go, provided they are given the time to do so. Playing seasons are becoming longer. The intensity of competition is becoming harder and performances are being reduced to a money logarithm.

When the market becomes obsessed with an immediate dividend return on investment, performances slide. Bodies and minds break and athletes may look to cope anyway they can. Fortunately for now, Australians still respect an ethical loss to a false win.