The following was extracted from a Guest editorial for the NCAA written by:
Dr. Russell Gough
(used by permission)
Ethics is a matter of being good (character) and doing right (action).
As with ethics, when we talk about "sportsmanship," we are talking about someone's character and actions, but specifically in the context of sports. Here is a general definition for sportsmanship: Sportsmanship is a matter of being good (character) and doing right (action) in sports.
Given these two definitions, we see a connection between sportsmanship and ethics, that they both involve character and action -- but so what? Why do they necessarily go hand in hand?
We can get to the heart of this connection by asking one more question: How many unsportsmanlike acts can you think of that would not be called unethical? In other words, if unethical acts are wrong because they are unfair, dishonest, disrespectful or against the rules, how many unsportsmanlike acts can you think of that aren't wrong for the very same reason?
Precisely why are unsportsmanlike acts wrong or bad?
Here's the point: The majority of acts that we consider bad in sports and call "unsportsmanlike" are bad precisely because they are unfair, dishonest, disrespectful or against the rules. They are unsportsmanlike because they are unethical.
In most cases -- and especially in the most important ones -- sportsmanship and ethics turn out to be two sides of the same coin. That coin represents our standards of right and wrong, of good and bad, of fairness and unfairness, of honesty and dishonesty, of respect and disrespect, of following and breaking the rules, among other things.
Notice that it ultimately makes no difference whether we are talking about sports or not. Most of the acts we call unsportsmanlike are going to be wrong or bad outside the sports arena as well. The same goes for sportsmanlike acts.
A cheater is a cheater. An act of respect is an act of respect. Breaking a rule is breaking a rule. A good role model is a good role model.
So, when all is said and done, we could say that "sportsmanship" is the sports world's all-encompassing word for "ethics." That being sportsmanlike is being ethical in sports. That being unsportsmanlike is being unethical in sports.
And we can better appreciate why calling someone unsportsmanlike can be just as serious as calling someone unethical; why describing someone as sportsmanlike can be just as complimentary as describing someone as a very ethical person.
We can also better appreciate why there's no concept or value more important to sports than sportsmanship. It's our foundation, our starting point. it gives us our very best reason to play fairly, to show respect to opponents and officials, and to follow the rules -- because all that is the right thing to do. The ethical thing.
With sportsmanship, we see that there's simply no escaping the ethical dimension of sports.
Without it, the game's over.