The Intangibles: Ethics In Sport Are A Reflection Of Collective Morality

Through the travails of my twisted career path, one of my favorite roles was teaching health care students at our local community college. A significant part about what I was blessed to share with students was on the subject of medical ethics.

It’s a topic I’ve written and discussed in presentations, journals, and texts on oncology nursing since 1977. Understanding how to facilitate patients and loved ones through a tortuous path of decisions regarding end of life treatment requires the ability to set aside personal morals and remain as objective as possible. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

One of the difficulties students often grappled with was being able to distinguish the differences between morals and ethics. The reason this is important is because morals are personally defined principles that guide our decision making in life.

Ethics are the standards derived from a collective set of morals or moral principles. Ethics reflect the underlying beliefs of a society, and form the basic constructs for promoting law and order.

This distinction is so important that you may wish to examine an explanation about the similarities and differences between morals and ethics.

The reason this is so important to understand is that as we move forward discussing ethics in sport is because it is easy to get swallowed up by issues that are essentially irrelevant to the purpose of the discussion. Your personal “right or wrong” must be taken in the context of the greater whole.

Oh, and here is where I toss up my regular disclaimer that if wyobabble isn’t your thing, stop reading now and move along to something more interesting. No hard feelings because I’m really only interested in directing this to people that live outside a “tl;dr” world. So if you’re ready to ride, let’s giddyup.

What in the heck do morals and ethics have to do with being a fan of NFL football? Sadly, it’s because the league is now embroiled in yet another crisis of integrity as a result of (another) cheating scandal by the New England Patriots. That it is occurring on the eve of the biggest sporting event in the country only amplifies its significance.

The first thing that’s important to do when forming an opinion on the subject of “deflategate” is to figure out where your personal beliefs fall along the following line:

Winning is most important thing ________________________ Winning is less important than public perception

This is mission critical to get right, because it forms the basis for understanding behavioral orientation. Pared down, what “behavioral orientation” means is that there are two extremes regarding how people process data and form a point of view, and then behave.

On one side of the continuum you have people who are what we in the psycho world refer to as externally oriented. These individuals cue behavioral responses based upon variables outside of themselves. Huh?

In basic terms, this means the individual cognates through their world using the environment outside themselves to cue their responses. They form their belief system based upon what others say, do, act, etc. This pattern is usually in place, and although it is my belief that this orientation can be modified to some extent, it is usually hard wired into the individual.

On the other hand, internally oriented people process their data through a different filter. They process data by examining their belief systems are formulate opinions based upon what makes the most sense to them. This distinction is so important to understand in self discovery, because it explains how individuals construct their personal paradigm, and how they will likely interact with the rest of the world.

One other note about behavioral orientation, many clients over the years failed to grasp how important it was to correctly identify how they process data because if not, the rest that follows is a house of cards. Interestingly, I’ve found over the years that clients sometimes see themselves the way they wish they were, rather than how their behavior reflects their true orientation.

Again, huh? Let’s leave it at the notion that it is not necessarily ‘cool’ to acknowledge that you are deeply affected by what other people say about you. Most of us would like to believe that our behavior is reflective of our own thought processes, not someone else’s. Truth be told, all of us are cognitively affected by the people around us, it’s the degree to which that forms a pattern of behavior that is important to distinguish.

Why? Because what makes us who we are is the basis that forms our personal moral compass. For fans of professional football faced with trying to form an opinion about the allegations of cheating being made against the New England Patriots, it’s important to be clear about why you feel whatever way you do about this ‘scandal’.

OK, let’s get back to the dot on the line I asked you to consider regarding where you stand on the importance of winning and perception of honesty. Where you fall on that line will shape every opinion you make about this as a fan of professional football.

billLet’s use the press conferences by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as an example of how differences in orientation can affect one’s perspective on the topic of cheating in sports. Externally oriented individuals may consider different variables in how they determine whether or not the data presented was truthful or not (measuring veracity).
Internally oriented people might consider other variables such as statistical analysis, as well as subjective data they intuit in a variety of ways throughout their life experience. So, in order to effectively evaluate the situation, all paradigms must be considered.

What in the world am I trying to explain? Basically, that people are most often a combination of both types of orientation, and the extent to which we lean one way or the other has everything to do with how we formulate our opinion on this latest “cheating scandal”.

Where I’m going with this is to suggest that when discussing this “deflategate” controversy, it is important to operationally define how you formulate your opinion. It matters. In fact, it matters a lot.

It’s pretty clear that the NFL is experiencing a crisis of integrity at the moment. Their collective eyes are both blackened from being dragged through one scandal after another. The interviews by both Belichick and Brady left more questions than answers. We are likely to view them as either saints or sinners, or somewhere in between based upon our perception of them.

It’s interesting to read what Patriots fans are discussing on Twitter and message boards regarding this scandal. Understandably, most are quite defensive about the accusations of cheating being made regarding deflated footballs.

Their perception of Tom Brady as a hero is being assaulted by evidence that he may have been somehow been involved in making sure footballs were deflated beyond NFL regulations. Although this hardly seems egregious, it is the pattern of behavior by the Patriots organization that is coming under fire.

In determining your own opinion on the matter, what factors do you consider to be most relevant? How much do you weigh the opinion of someone like Troy Aikman, or Mark Brunell that stated they do not believe Tom Brady was being truthful when talking to the press?

Or, do you look at statistical analyses such as this one from Slate magazine that breaks down the nearly impossible likelihood that the low fumble count by the Patriots was due to chance? Do you value this type of information more or less than what an expert like Troy Aikman might say?

The point is that we all consider a myriad of data points to formulate our opinion on any subject. We also bring in to each situation a history of bias based on life experience. For example, I am much more likely to view Tom Brady as a sinner than a saint because I am a life long Buffalo Bills fan. Furthermore, because he was born on my birthday, it made me dislike him even more. I jest, but you get the point.

A New England Patriots fan isn’t likely to enter the processing of information regarding what happened with deflated footballs in the AFC Championship game in the same way I would do so. That may seem obvious, but what is less clear is exactly how others value and prioritize the evidence.

Where differences of opinion exist, one is encouraged to examine exactly how and why the opinions of others differs from your own. Instead of reducing ourselves to becoming trolls on social media and firing back with incendiary responses, we would probably be far more productive by simply stepping back and examining how and why perception varies from person to person.

This may seem obvious, but when you really think about it, how often do you find yourself reacting to a person or situation without really thinking about the ‘how and why’ before responding? Social media exacerbates the problem by forcing you to contextualize in confined platforms. Twitter is notoriously bad in this regard because it is really a challenge to put things in context in 140 characters or less.

If we accept that perception differs because we use a variety of senses and methods of processing data, then we must also consider that our values will also differ in terms of how we prioritize the evidence. For example, in the “deflategate” situation, the son of “The Wolf of Wall Street” might value making money as much more important than having the reputation of being an upstanding citizen.

In his world, it’s inconceivable that anyone would care more about their reputation than making money. That doesn’t fit his paradigm. Huh?

Our thinking is shaped by our environment and experience as much as the genetic potential we are given at birth. So, another person raised in the midwest by highly religious people in a highly religious community might be appalled by people who value making money more than being a ‘good’ citizen in their community.

Bringing this back to “deflategate”, of course there will be great differences of opinion on what is the proper way to discipline a team that consistently breaks rules and promotes a culture where “gamesmanship” is highly revered. Each of us possesses a unique set of values based upon our own genetics and life experience, so it is not likely that any course of action the NFL takes to address this latest scandal will satisfy a significant majority of fans.

This issue became radioactive specifically because it addresses the fundamental value of fairness in a way that almost everyone in our culture can relate, through playing sports. The very nature of sport is a reflection of societal values going back to the dawn of humans.

I encourage fans to consider “deflategate” as one more opportunity to evaluate your own value system. The challenge is in accepting that our own viewpoint is just that, ours. Others are neither “right or wrong” in their opinion, they are based upon their own set of “truths”.

As a society, scandals provide a chance for people to share their point of view and shape the direction of the future. It wasn’t long ago that same-sex people could not marry, or that marijuana was illegal in Colorado and Washington.

Values change, and it’s critical for each of us to listen, evaluate, and participate in the collective discussions that shape our society, and scandals provide the chance to do so. Who knew deflated pigskin could generate such a national debate?

About Robyn Mundy

Robyn Mundy is Editor-in-Chief of the BillsMafia blog at She's a retired oncology nurse & psychotherapist who loves to write about her life-long passion for the Buffalo Bills, and occasionally something of clinical or social relevance. Robyn lives with her husband Gary and their dogs in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. Robyn is also a proud founding sponsor. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynMundyWYO.

5 Replies to “The Intangibles: Ethics In Sport Are A Reflection Of Collective Morality”

  1. I very much appreciated reading this, Thank you very much for taking the time to write it. Very thought provoking.

  2. Well stated. I still fight that internal battle of hypocrisy, as most of us do. If it were the Bills that cheated to win, wouldn’t most of us defend them? I hope the Seahawks kick the snot out of them and Brady retires.

    • Thanks for commenting. Indeed, in fact one of my greatest internal struggles these days regarding sports is whether or not I want to continue to spend so much time watching a game with little integrity.

      You bet… Go Seahawks!

  3. Thank you for insightful article. As a non-sports fan, I have found this controversy facinating. I believe the Patriots did dliberately alter their footballs. I think it gave them an advantange, but no enough to say their win over the Colts wasn’t genuine. I am curious as to how much the NFL values its integrity at at time when it faces one of its greatest challenges. Most fans I talk with (admittedly Seahawk fans), presume the NFL will do the mildest of slaps but nothing to really make a point. Most fans are cynical and believe money, ratings, corporate interests will win. They also accept that this sort of corruption is inherit in the game. Sounds terrible.
    The worst part of this while mess is the lack of objectivity of Boston fans even the press there. Most appear to sound off, who care’s if the Patriots cheated. Most say its time to move on. They appear to want to win no matter what.
    What happened to wanting to win the right way? What happened to morals?