Moral Values and Attitudes in Sport

The  study  of  morality  in  sport  has  attracted  the interest   of   many   sport   psychologists,   partly because  of  the  pervasive  and  long-held  belief across  many  scholars  and  lay  people  that  sport builds  character.  Research  in  this  area  of  sport psychology (SP) has looked at whether sport participation  is  indeed  linked  to  moral  behavior  by examining  issues  pertaining  to  moral  development, moral reasoning, and an array of prosocial and antisocial behaviors. This entry presents work on values in sport, pioneered by Martin Lee, which was  based  on  research  in  social  psychology  conducted first by Milton Rokeach, and subsequently by  Shalom  H.  Schwartz.  This  entry  also  outlines parallel work by Martin Lee on ethical attitudes.

Values in Sport

Rokeach defined values as a set of beliefs individuals have concerning desirable modes of behavior or  goals  (e.g.,  kindness,  success,  independence, security). Values represent the standards that individuals  and  societies  set  for  themselves.  Values motivate  behavior  by  guiding  action  and  choice of  activities.  Individuals  vary  in  the  importance they  place  on  different  values.  Thus,  individuals and societies rank values hierarchically in terms of importance  by  developing  value  systems.  Values differ from attitudes; the latter have been defined as  predispositions  to  respond  in  a  favorable or  unfavorable  manner  with  respect  to  a  given object.  Values  provide  standards  and  transcend actions  and  situations,  whereas  attitudes  are  not hierarchically valued and usually refer to specific actions  or  objects.  Thus,  values  are  fewer  than attitudes and are usually considered as their antecedents.  For  example,  a  positive  attitude  toward cheating in sport might reflect an underlying value system  in  which  achievement  is  highly  ranked. Further,  attitudes  can  be  positive  or  negative, whereas values are considered only as expressions of desirable ends.

Schwartz  presented  an  influential  model  of human  values  that  distinguishes  10  universal values  according  to  the  motivational  goal  they express.  Schwartz  proposed  the  values  of  self-direction  (independence),  stimulation,  hedonism, achievement,  power,  security,  conformity,  tradition (respect for customs), benevolence (preserving and  enhancing  in-group  welfare),  and  universalism  (preserving  and  enhancing  the  welfare  of  all people).  These  values  reflect  the  satisfaction  of biological  needs,  demands  of  coordinated  social interaction,  and  survival  and  welfare  needs  of groups. Schwartz mapped these 10 values in a circular structure that has two dimensions. The first ranges  on  a  continuum  from  self-enhancement (power,  achievement)  to  self-transcendence  (universalism,  benevolence).  The  second  dimension ranges  on  a  continuum  from  openness  to  change (stimulation, self-direction) to conservation (security,  conformity,  and  tradition).  The  closer  the values  are  in  this  structure,  the  more  compatible they are (e.g., power and achievement). For example,  pursuing  achievement  in  sport  is  congruent with  the  pursuit  of  power.  In  contrast,  values far  apart  from  each  other  are  conflicting;  pursing  achievement  in  sport  often  conflicts  with  the value of protecting the welfare of opponents (i.e., universalism).

Research on values in sport has been conducted chiefly  by  Martin  Lee,  who  distinguished  values  from  attitudes,  followed  Rokeach’s  lead  and operationalized  values  as  guiding  principles  and conceptions of desirable end states and attempted to  measure  these  values  in  ways  compatible  to Schwartz’s  work.  In  initial  research,  Lee  posed sport-specific   moral   dilemmas   to   athletes   on the  assumption  that  a  moral  dilemma  provides the  basis  for  a  discussion  that  can  elicit  athletes’ values.  Possible  and  desirable  reactions  to  these dilemmas  were  explored  via  semi structured  interviews.  This  line  of  work  eventually  identified  18 values:  enjoyment,  personal  achievement,  sportsmanship,  contract  maintenance  (play  properly), being  fair,  compassion,  tolerance,  showing  skills, obedience,   team   cohesion,   conscientiousness, excitement,  health  and  fitness,  self-actualization (feel  good),  public  image  (show  a  good  image  to others), companionship, conformity, and winning. In subsequent work, Lee and colleagues developed a questionnaire of values in youth sport that taps five  moral  values  (obedience,  fairness,  sportspersonship,  helpfulness,  and  contract  maintenance), three  competence  values  (achievement,  showing skill,  and  self-direction),  and  three  status  values (winning, public image, and leadership).

Ethical Attitudes

As  explained  earlier,  attitudes  differ  from  values  in  that  they  are  bipolar,  specific  to  a  particular  object,  and  have  no  hierarchy  of  importance. An  attitude  could  reflect  one  or  more  underlying value. Lee investigated attitudes to moral decision making  (DM)  in  youth  sport  in  parallel  with  his work  on  values.  Lee  was  particularly  interested in  the  endorsement  of  attitudes  toward  unethical behaviors.  Based  on  the  youth  sport  literature, interviews  with  British  young  athletes,  coaches, and  sport  administrators,  Lee  and  his  coworkers developed and validated a questionnaire that measures three key ethical attitudes in sport: endorsement of cheating, endorsement of gamesmanship, and keeping winning in proportion. The first two factors capture attitudes toward antisocial behaviors.  Endorsement  of  cheating  refers  to  attitudes toward  violating  the  written  rules  of  the  game (e.g., using hands to control the ball in soccer) or the  employment  of  deception  in  order  to  gain  an unfair  advantage.  Endorsement  of  gamesmanship refers  to  attitudes  toward  unwritten  rules  of  the game in an effort to upset the opponents but without actually violating an official rule. For example, in  a  soccer  game,  an  opponent  might  try  to  psychologically unsettle a player just before he or she takes a penalty kick by making a reference to unfavorable weather conditions. Last, keeping winning in  proportion  represents  a  prosocial  attitude  to restrain the pursuit of winning when this compromises ethical principles. An example of this would be of an athlete who feels that winning is not valuable  if  it  is  achieved  in  a  dishonest  manner;  as  a result  of  this  attitude  he  or  she  might  reveal  to  a game  official  that  a  call  to  his  or  her  advantage was incorrect.

Research  on  values  and  ethical  attitudes  has examined  the  links  between  these  constructs  and motivation, given that values can guide choice of activities and that attitudes toward prosocial and antisocial  behaviors  reflect  different  motivational influences. In a study involving British youth sport athletes,  Lee  and  coworkers  explored  the  links between values, ethical attitudes, and achievement goals  proposed  by  the  classic  achievement  goal theory  (AGT)  (i.e.,  goals  that  individuals  have  in achievement situations and which reflect different notions of how ability is construed and success is achieved).  This  study  tapped  not  only  attitudes toward  negative  behaviors  (namely,  endorsement of  cheating  and  endorsement  of  gamesmanship) but  also  attitudes  toward  positive  behaviors.  For the  latter,  two  factors  from  Robert  J.  Vallerand’s work  on  sportspersonship  were  chosen:  commitment  to  participation  and  respect  for  social  convention.  The  results  of  that  study  showed  that competence and moral values positively predicted what the authors labeled as prosocial attitudes. In contrast,  antisocial  attitudes  were  positively  predicted  by  status  values  and  negatively  by  moral values. Furthermore, competence and status values predicted task achievement goals (i.e., emphasis on individual  improvement  and  hard  work)  and  ego achievement goals (i.e., emphasis on showing superiority over others), respectively. In further analyses, the authors were interested in the mediated or indirect effects of values on achievement goals via attitudes.  The  results  indicated  that  task  and  ego goals  partially  mediated  the  effect  of  competence values on prosocial attitudes and of status values on antisocial attitudes, respectively.

In a different study linking ethical attitudes and another  theoretical  framework  of  motivation— self-determination  theory  (SDT)—it  was  shown that  autonomous  motivation  for  sport  participation  (i.e.,  motivation  based  on  enjoyment  and valuing  of  sport)  was  positively  linked  to  prosocial  attitudes  and  negatively  related  to  antisocial attitudes.  The  opposite  pattern  of  results  was observed  between  controlled  motivation  (i.e., motivation  based  on  feelings  of  guilt,  external rewards or pressure) and prosocial and antisocial attitudes.  Thus,  there  is  evidence  in  the  literature to suggest that values are important precursors of achievement motivation and that ethical attitudes can be meaningfully predicted by the achievement goals and motivation of athletes.

The  empirical  evidence  regarding  values  and ethical  attitudes  in  sport  is  relatively  limited  in breadth  and  applications  on  various  accounts. First,  it  has  concentrated  on  athletes  in  youth sport.  Second,  some  of  the  questionnaire  items that  purportedly  tap  ethical  attitudes  seem  to  be capturing self-reported behavior. Third, there have been  no  studies  employing  objective  outcomes of  values  and  ethical  attitudes  (e.g.,  disciplinary records  of  athletes,  recorded  cases  of  cheating), nor  any  experimental  work  that  draws  from  the values  and  ethical  attitudes  identified  in  Lee  and coworker’s research. Despite these limitations, the work by Lee and his coworkers represents a promising  initial  step  in  mapping  the  value  system  of young athletes and understanding how this might be implicated in observed variations in their ethical attitudes and motivation in sport.


  1. Lee, M. J., Whitehead, J., & Balchin, N. (2000). The measurement of values in sport: Development of the Youth Sport Values Questionnaire. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 22, 307–326.
  2. Lee, M. J., Whitehead, J., & Ntoumanis, N. (2007).Development of the Attitudes to Moral Decision-making in Youth Sport Questionnaire (AMDYSQ). Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8, 369–392.
  3. Lee, M. J., Whitehead, J., Ntoumanis, N., & Hatzigeorgiadis, A. (2008). Relationships between values, achievement orientations, and attitudes in youth sport. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology,30, 588–610.
  4. Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advancesin experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 1–65). London: Academic Press.
  5. Whitehead, J., Telfer, H., & Lambert, J. (in press). Values in youth sport and physical education. London: Routledge.