What sport can teach us about ethics

A recent conference examined moral values in sport

"Sport is a parable – it can show us the best we can be as a people and as a society,” said Dr John Scally opening the ‘Ethics and Sport’ conference hosted by the Department of Religions and Theology in Trinity College Dublin. Dr Scally organised the conference, and as an Assistant Professor in Ecclesiastical History and a huge sports fan with many sporting books and biographies under his belt, this was a subject very close to his heart.

“Part of the reason for today is that we think sport is important and want to protect its beauty,” he said. “Sport faces serious challenges, and does not always meet these challenges. In terms of an ethical challenge, one of the biggest is whether we can hand over sport and capture as much of the purity as we can and pass it on to the next generation.”

Recent scandals

The conference discussed recent scandals which have blighted the image of sport, from doping and cheating, to racism and sexism, but also asked many questions on how competitive sport and the model of winners and losers, affects our society and culture.

Pat Gilroy, a former Dublin All Ireland football winner both as a player and a manager, said one of the most unethical things he sees in sport is pushing young people into situations too early – “because a manager wants to win an under 21 final he plays a 15-year-old”.

“Other things I see are pushing young people into a situation where they are playing with a top team and they are just not able for it, and they are put up on a pedestal and then they are cut down because they don’t make it and they are just cast adrift,” he said.

Dr Katie Liston also expressed concern for how competitive sport can effect young people, with many “competing at senior level at 14 before physical maturation is complete”. She said the sports ethic or the performance model is the norm and “reinforces the myth of supermen or superwomen” with athletes feeling like machines. She suggested that we should separate sports policy from health policy.


Pat Gilroy warned that status can become like a drug tand people are often not prepared for the end of their career. “There are some terrible sad stories in the GAA – we regale about some character and say he was some man to drink, but then he is dead at 50. That’s not a good story,” he said.

Pat said sport extends far beyond the reach of the sportsfield and has an influence on culture, both positive and negative.

He suggested taking the strengths and building on them, while accepting the weaknesses for what they are – such as mixing together the respect for authority evident in rugby, the levelling equality of soccer and the social network of the GAA.

Enda McNulty, an All Ireland football winner from Armagh, talked about the importance of mental training as well as physical training, and incorporating your ethics and values into your sport, and the importance of having your community behind you.

Enda now runs his own company focussing on improving sports performance for organisations such as the Leinster rugby team and athletes like Brian O’Driscoll. He suggested five key pillars for coaching children in sport: facilities, financial, coaching & strategy, team behind the team and values & culture.

Someone who perhaps best captures this mix of being a top athlete with a strong personal code of values, is the late Ulster and Ireland rugby player, Nevin Spence.

Nevin, his father Noel and his brother Graham died tragically in a slurry pit last year on their farm in Co. Down attempting to rescue the family dog. Nevin was the first inductee in the ‘Fair Play Hall of Fame’, which was launched at the conference in TCD to honour those who represent what is best in sport, and his sister Emma received the award from rugby legend Ollie Campbell.


In July the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications recommended that the sponsorship of sporting events by the alcohol drinks industry should remain in place until such time as it can be replaced by other identifiable streams of comparable funding.

Just last week Sports Minister  Leo Varadkar argued strongly against a sponsorship ban, saying it would financially cripple sport bodies.

Professor Joe Barry, Head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Trinity College expressed concern at the Government’s attitude to alcohol sponsorship.

He quoted ESRI figures which showed that participants in sport had a higher consumption of alcohol, and warned that if drinks sponsorship continues in sport then the culture of drink in Ireland will continue. “Induction to drinking at a young age will continue, harms in later life will be inevitable and I think ultimately sport will be the loser.

“Sport, and particularly rugby, needs to be reclaimed back from the drinks companies. In 15-20 years people will look back and say in surprise, ‘God, did they really allow sporting bodies to be fronted by drinks companies’. It is something I would like taken a bit more seriously by the sporting bodies than I saw at the Oireachtas Committee,” he said.

Looking at the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, Athony Moran explained why he resigned from the Board of Cycling Ireland last April, in protest at the board’s vote to nominate Pat McQuaid for a third term at the helm of the sport’s International governing body.

After reading the details of Lance Armstrong’s doping he said he lost any belief he had in pro cycling. He held Pat McQuaid accountable and felt his chequered reign should come to an end to allow the sport to start afresh in the new post-Armstrong era. This led to a vote by the entire membership at an emergency general meeting in Dublin and ultimately Pat McQuaid lost his position.

“What disappointed me about the board is that they didn’t have the guts, even though he was Irish, to stand up and say look what’s gone on in this sport. This is unsustainable. We are pushing kids out into an environment where drug taking is the norm – it’s acceptable. Thankfully that is changing, but I couldn’t have that, I would rather see them playing golf than in that environment,” he said.

Jason Sherlock, a former Dublin  Gaelic footballer for 15 years, spoke of how racism has affected his life as the son of an Irish mother and a Chinese father growing up in Finglas. He talked of the difficulty in being accepted by his peers as a child because he was different, but also the open racism he experienced in football both from fans and other players, and how this affected his self-esteem.

“I think the GAA have a super opportunity to the flagship on this. We all know how big and important it is as part of Irish society and they could take the bull by the horns and stamp this out.” he said.


“I feel racism is a part of a bigger issue in the GAA, sport and society, and I think education is the crucial thing. I am not going to get any satisfaction if someone slags me and the referee hears it and suspends him, the damage is already done. It’s not the punishment and the procedures, but education which is most important,” he said.

“I think the GAA is a powerful tool and they have the opportunity to grasp it, but I appreciate that racism is a small part of it. I think respect in GAA is minimalistic to say the least. Look at any game and the way referees are received.”

Ireland’s most famous Olympic gold medallist, Ronnie Delany, also talked about the importance of respect in sport, saying it was one of the great lessons he learned. “Respect for the colours you wear, respect for your club, your county, your country, your province. Respect is an enormous attribute for the younger athlete I think,” he said.

“Now arrogance prevents that respect coming through. Often times they don’t have respect, they disrespect, their values are different.

“I represent a different era, I represent where we have been, but I also illustrate that the change is in different areas,” he said.

“Change is not in the dedication that is required, the change is not in the application, the change is not the race, the change is the subjects aired today.”