Ethical Issues in Sports

Ethics  is  the  investigation  of  the  primary  moral assumptions held by individuals, organizations, or professions  that  are  used  to  help  members  make sound decisions about what is right and wrong. To expand on this definition, ethics refers to an organization’s attempts to protect the welfare of clients by developing, adopting, and enforcing guidelines that regulate member conduct in professional and scientific  settings.  These  ethical  guidelines  are essentially  a  set  of  values  that  have  been  agreed upon  by  the  members  of  an  organization  or  profession. By developing ethical guidelines, the organization  or  profession  is  protecting  the  welfare of  those  they  serve  but  also  communicating  their values to society. Ethics in sport psychology have been an area of concern, as the discipline grows in research, education, and practice. While psychologists are encouraged to behave in socially acceptable  ways  within  their  personal  lives,  the  ethics codes  are  only  designed  to  govern  their  actions in  professional  settings  (research,  education,  and practice) in their work as psychologists.

Many consistencies exist in the codes of ethics between general psychology and the field of sport and exercise psychology. In fact, as a subset of psychology,  many  of  the  sport  and  exercise  psychology  codes  of  ethics  are  closely  based  upon  those previously written in psychology.

Ethical  practice  can  be  considered  to  be  the coin  of  the  realm  for  psychology  and  sport  and exercise  psychology  practitioners.  It  is  through ethical  behavior  that  professionals  take  steps  to protect their clients from harm. Ethical guidelines of  ethical  behavior  are  aimed  at  helping  practitioners  make  decisions  in  difficult  situations  that could prove to be harmful to the client or related person.

Components of Codes of Ethics

It is common for ethical codes to have several sections to them, each serving its own purpose. These sections  often  include  an  introduction,  preamble, principles, and standards. The purpose of an introduction is to discuss issues such as the intent of the code of ethics, as well as to provide procedural and organizational clarity about the codes and their use. The purpose of a preamble is to outline the value structure  of  the  organization  and  to  encourage practitioners to meet the highest possible ideals set by the organization and outlined within the code.

Principles   are   commonly   seen   as   general statements  about  the  codes  of  ethics  that  give background  context  into  the  rationale  for  the development  of  the  specific  standards  and  guide practitioners  toward  the  highest  ideals  for  practice.  In  essence,  the  principles  are  aspiration  and unenforceable value-driven statements designed to provide guidance to individuals who are faced with ethical  decisions.  While  principles  may  change from ethics code to ethics code, the most common psychology based principles involve such things as

  • Do no harm (non-maleficence)
  • Help others (beneficence)
  • Respect and promote autonomy
  • Treat others fairly and equitably
  • Be trustworthy
  • Respect dignity

Ethical standards are the enforceable and more specific  portion  of  the  ethics  code.  These  aim  to influence  the  conduct  of  psychologists  in  professional  settings.  While  ethical  standards  are  more specific than principles in terms of directing behavior,  they  are  often  written  somewhat  broadly  to help psychologists make difficult decisions across a broad array of situations. Because of the many different   settings   in   which   psychologists   practice, general  standards  help  them  make  difficult  decisions which vary in their working.

Role of Ethics Codes

Students  and  professionals  generally  understand and  appreciate  the  usefulness  of  codes  of  ethics, but that is not always sufficient to keep individuals behaving ethically. To consistently behave in an ethical manner requires practitioners to possess a number of skills and attributes. While knowledge of  and  familiarity  with  the  appropriate  codes  of ethics  and  a  sincere  desire  to  act  ethically  are  a good starting point to help people behave ethically, this  step  in  and  of  itself  is  not  enough  to  ensure that professionals will behave ethically when faced with challenging and complicated scenarios. Other factors  that  help  practitioners  behave  ethically include the following:

  • Being able to recognize when challenging ethical situations arise
  • Having and using maturity, judgment, discretion, and wisdom in one’s decision making
  • Understanding the competing influences affecting one’s judgment
  • Thoroughly considering the consequences of one’s actions
  • Having a clear understanding of the principles behind the code and using them during the decision-making process
  • Understanding and utilizing problem-solving models
  • Developing and using a professional consultation network

Important Ethical Issues in Sport and Exercise Psychology

While many codes of ethics for sport and exercise psychology  organizations  may  closely  resemble codes  of  ethics  from  general  psychology  organizations,  differences  do  exist.  These  differences, some  stated  and  some  implied,  are  important  to consider, as they are often created or maintained to  help  deal  with  the  unique  field  and  setting  of competitive sport. Further, there are many ethical situations or dilemmas that are unique to specific sport and exercise psychology settings.


Confidentiality  is  probably  the  most  commonly  cited  ethical  concern  within  the  field  of sport  and  exercise  psychology  and  is  commonly identified as the most important ethical standard. Confidentiality  relates  to  practitioners  not  allowing  others  to  know  their  client’s  identity,  as  well as not letting others know the client’s concerns or related treatment. There are some common limits to the confidentiality that are commonly addressed with a client at the beginning of the service delivery via a consent form.

While confidentiality is important in sport and exercise  psychology,  the  guidelines  by  which  it is  judged  are  different  from  those  in  traditional psychology.  Because  of  their  high-profile  status on  campus  and  in  the  community,  athletes  are often  more  identifiable  than  other  individuals when  they  enter  an  office.  Further,  because  of their  time  commitments,  travel  schedules,  and performance  requirements,  it  is  not  uncommon for  a  practitioner  to  work  with  a  client  out  in the open where others can see them talking with each  other.  This  may  happen  on  a  pool  deck,  in a gym, or on the side of a field. Under these circumstances,  the  goal  changes  from  not  allowing others  to  know  that  the  practitioner  is  working with  a  client  to  not  allowing  others  to  know what is being said.

Multiple Roles

A  multiple-role  relationship  can  be  described as  having  a  professional  relationship  with  a  client  and  at  the  same  time  interacting  with  the client  or  a  close  friend  or  family  member  of  the client  in  another  role.  Multiple-role  relationships are  not  necessarily  unethical  if  handled  properly. However,  practitioners  should  avoid  entering into  multiple-role  relationships  that  could  cause harm to the consulting process by affecting objectivity  or  causing  exploitation.  If  a  multiple-role relationship  is  entered  into,  the  consultant  needs to  be  mindful  of  the  potential  problems  and  be willing to stop the consultation process if any are perceived.

Multiple-role  relationships  may  be  more  common within the field of sport and psychology than in the general psychology. This may be due to the limited  number  of  sport  and  exercise  psychology practitioners. For instance, on many college campuses,  sport  and  exercise  psychology  professionals  often  serve  in  other  roles.  A  practitioner  may consult with individuals and teams as well as teach classes  and  advise  students.  With  such  a  multitude  of  responsibilities,  practitioners  are  likely  to have contact with clients in more than one setting. Therefore, it is essential that practitioners discuss possible multiple-role relationships with athletes at the outset of services.


The  ethical  issue  of  competency  relates  to  the necessity for practitioners to practice only in areas and  with  people  whom  they  have  the  requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities to provide quality services. To be viewed as competent, an individual must understand the domain-specific issues, demonstrate  skills  for  interventions,  and  be  able  to assess their outcomes. Common forms of competence include (a) intellectual competence, which is gained from formal education; (b) emotional competence—the  ability  to  emotionally  deal  with  clients and limit personal biases; and (c) experiential competence  or  the  wisdom  gained  from  previous professional experiences.

It is difficult to identify the distinction between competence and incompetence with a given client or  presenting  concern.  For  the  most  part,  competence  is  determined  by  ones  knowledge  and experience  that  is  generated  through  education, training,  supervised  experience,  and  professional experience.  However,  competence  does  not  last forever,  and  to  remain  competent  in  a  particular area,  practitioners  must  update  their  knowledge through continuing education, consultation, study, or additional education.

Individuals who are licensed psychologists, but receive  little  training  in  the  sport  sciences,  must take  steps  to  gain  the  sport  science  training  necessary  to  understand  the  athletic  context.  Sports science trained practitioners who are not licensed need to understand the limitations of their training and  their  inability  to  provide  therapy  to  clients. It  is  essential  that  practitioners  understand  their training and only provide services that are in line with their competency.


Teletherapy  can  be  described  as  the  use  of technology  to  deliver  services  to  clients  from  a distance.  Teletherapy  services  can  be  delivered asynchronously  via  text  or  e-mail  platforms but  can  also  be  delivered  synchronously  via phone  and  video  conferencing  platforms.  There are   both   strengths   (e.g.,   service   availability for  remote,  disabled  and  traveling  clients;  cost effectiveness;  access  to  self-help  resources;  client  disclosure  and  anonymity)  and  limitations (e.g., concerns about confidentiality, relationship development,  limited  accessibility,  credentialing across  state  and  provincial  lines)  to  the  use  of teletherapy.

Clients are some of the primary driving forces behind  the  use  of  teletherapy.  Because  of  their age,  comfort  level  with  technology,  busy  training schedules, and constant travel, athletes often feel  comfortable  with  the  use  of  technology  in their  consultation  sessions.  However,  practitioners  need  to  be  aware  of  several  issues  before agreeing to provide teletherapy services: (1) legal issues  for  those  who  provide  psychological  services  across  state,  provincial,  or  national  lines; (2)   malpractice   insurance   for   such   services; (3)  personal  competency  in  the  use  of  technology;  (4)  maintenance  of  confidentiality;  and (5)  appropriateness  of  teletherapy  for  client’s presenting concern.


Sports  are  often  perceived  by  people  and  the public at large as very prestigious, and thus many wish  to  be  associated  with  it.  As  such,  it  is  not uncommon for individuals with only a peripheral connection to teams, to identify themselves closely with those teams. This is also true of practitioners who consult with teams. While overidentification with  a  team  does  not  always  cause  problems,  it has  the  potential  to  cause  bias  and  the  loss  of objectivity in the practitioner.

Identifying the Client

An  ethical  situation  that  commonly  occurs  in sport and exercise psychology is the identification of the client (Who is the client?). In an athletic setting,  one  may  question  if  the  client  is  the  athlete who has been referred for help, the coach, or the athletic department who is paying for the services. While  this  answer  may  seem  simple,  it  becomes less clear when the practitioner is employed by the athletic  department.  In  such  cases,  employees  of the  athletic  department  may  question  how  much information they have a right to know. Such situations  arise  more  often  when  the  practitioner  is an  employee  of  a  referring  agency  or  is  receiving payment from a third party.

Ethical Decision Making

The  principles  and  standards  identified  within an  organization’s  code  of  ethics  are  intended  to support and guide professionals in the process of making ethical decisions. However, making sound ethical decisions can be complicated since ethical principles and standards oftentimes contain gaps, contradictions,  and  grey  areas  because  of  the multiple  considerations  that  must  be  addressed. To  help  combat  these  concerns,  ethical  decisionmaking  models  can  serve  as  a  practical  framework  that  professionals  can  use  to  resolve  these situations.

Theoretical  perspectives  serve  as  the  foundation for ethical conduct in each of us and influence how  we  interpret  situations  and  potential  outcomes, as well as how we use the decision-making models.


Teleology  is  an  ends-oriented  approach  that evaluates  actions  based  upon  the  consequences of those actions, regardless of the intended consequences or the means used to achieve those ends. From this perspective, actions that lead to the most good  for  the  most  number  of  people  are  deemed to  be  ethical,  with  the  opposite  being  perceived as  unethical.  Teleology  can  be  viewed  from  both an  act  and  a  rule  perspective.  Act-Utilitarianism is  a  perspective  that  focuses  on  the  ends,  achieving the greatest good for the most people, with no regard for the means of achieving this result. RuleUtilitarianism  is  a  perspective  that  encourages focusing  on  the  ends,  while  following  previously established rules to achieve those ends.


Deontology can be defined as a means or principled approach to ethical decision making. From this perspective, behaviors are evaluated as ethical or unethical based upon the intentions and quality of the actions rather than the outcomes produced by  those  actions.  From  this  perspective,  ethical behavior  should  be  grounded  in  principles  that would be applicable in different settings.

Models of Ethical Decision Making

While  there  are  similarities  and  differences  to each  decision  making,  there  are  components  to them  that  are  consistent.  Ethical  decision-making models often include the following suggestions or steps:

  • Identify and prioritize the relevant ethical issues, practices, and values.
  • Identify the people affected by this situation.
  • Identify the relevant ethical principles and cultural issues underlying the situation.
  • Consult with other professionals about the situation.
  • Identify personal factors that may distort ones perspective of the situation.
  • Brainstorm alternative courses of action.
  • Analyze the short and long-term risks and benefits of each course of action.
  • Choose a course of action and inform the stakeholders of the decision.
  • Act on the situation and assume responsibility for the consequences.
  • Evaluate the results and make changes if necessary.
  • Document decisions and the decision-making process.

Common Factors That Influence Ethical Decision Making

When making ethical decisions, it is important for practitioners to understand and take into consideration  the  environmental  influences  that  may affect their decisions. Ethical decisions do not happen  in  vacuums,  and  making  decisions  without taking external influences into consideration may risk  these  factors  unconsciously  influencing  one’s decisions.  The  primary  environmental  factors influencing professionals in sport and exercise psychology are likely (1) individual influences, such as moral and cognitive development and world view; (2)  situational  influences  like  the  culture  related to this issue in one’s workplace; (3) external influences, such as politics, economy, social issues; and (4)  significant  other  influences,  such  as  how  will others perceive one’s decisions and how have they influenced one’s beliefs about this situation.


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