Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Integrity of game play: Unethical leadership by coaches

This is the fifth in a series of five posts on the topic of integrity of game play. The first post in the series was about the negative impact of player misconduct on sportsmanship and game outcomes. The second post pondered whether tanking can ever be ethical and judged numerous examples of the practice in different sports to assess potential morality of these actions. The third post covered referee bias in different sports, analyzing its prevalence or presumptions of it and how this type of bias may relate to overall ethical decision-making and choice theory.  Last week’s post discussed examples of organizational cheating operations by teams.  Today’s post, the fifth and final in the series, will delve into examples of unethical leadership by coaches.

Coaches are some of the most popular, visible, and influential leaders in society. Their tone and conduct can have a ripple effect on the behavior by and achievements of the players and teams they influence. To the public, coaches often provide the institutional identity for the team, expressing their mission and values in the media as well as defining the terms on which the organization wishes to compete and be known. Within team organizations, coaches are the most important people managers, tasked with both developing individuals and demonstrating operational commitment to the team’s strategy for the game, season, and beyond.

Due to this broad influence they possess, coaches who engage in unethical behavior, make morally-dubious statements in private or public, or fail to rise to the challenge of leading with integrity and vision, can have a chilling effect on engagement with players, fans, and the public. The integrity of game play relies upon vocal leaders who abhor cheating, effectively identify and punish misconduct, don’t reward dishonesty, and value the protection and development of individuals. Coaches who do not meet this standard do not contribute positively to the ethical character of their players, team organizations, and the leagues in which they play.

Some examples of unethical leadership by sports coaches have included:

  • Bob Davie – The head football coach at University of New Mexico, Bob Davie, has been suspended on suspicion that he persistently interfered with administrative oversight of his team and players. It’s significantly concerning from a compliance perspective that Davies reportedly sought to obstruct investigations around player misconduct, including those involving criminal activities: New Mexico suspends football coach Bob Davie amid misconduct probe
  • USOC cases – Following the massive public reckoning against the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) for their failure to act and protect athletes, and indeed in some cases enabling violators due to their lack of adequate controls, sexual misconduct and abuse cases have continued to emerge. For more on the culture of non-compliance at the USOC, check out this post, and for more on the Larry Nassar case and its importance to progressing the #MeToo movement forward, check out this post. Figure skating coach suspended amid sexual misconduct probe & USA Gymnastics Bans Coach for Sexual Misconduct with Athlete
  • Michigan State University – Larry Nassar abused the athletes who relied upon him as a medical professional by taking advantage of his position of authority not only within the USA Gymnastics program of USOC but also the student gymnasts at Michigan State University. As with the USOC, internal investigations of wrongdoing at Michigan State University have also kicked off in the aftermath of Nassar’s sentencing.   Football coach Mark Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo have both been accused of failure to supervise and/or report in various instances of sexual misconduct and violence by players. These individuals’ possible roles in the institutional cover-up of abuse by Michigan State University would be unethical and immoral, preventing the efficacy of organizational justice: Report details pattern of misconduct inside Michigan State football, basketball
  • Cheating in soccer – Check out this commentary on the tendency of coaches to permit or even encourage cheating in soccer with their actions and statements, and the troubling impact that has had on the culture of soccer: Why is it okay for coaches to advocate cheating?
  • Immorality and trust – As coaches take on a special kind of fiduciary responsibility with the individuals they oversee – responsible for developing their skills, assessing their achievements, and setting the tone for their ideas about competition and success – when they are dishonest, they impair the status of truth and honesty in society more than others. Therefore the unethical behavior of trusted and admired coaches can highly diminish the status of trust and the reliability of authority. With great power comes great responsibility, and this is especially true in the expectations for the conduct of coaches:  Immoral coaches’ behavior reinforces importance of trust

Hope you have enjoyed this series on integrity of game play. For more posts that match sports with compliance and ethics, check out this series on ethical leadership by coaches or this series on fraud in sports. Both of these links lead to the last post in the series, and each contains links to the prior entries in the set.


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