Ethical guidelines and gender-based violence in sport

Sport is, by various definition a human activity that involves physical exertion, skills with the elements of competition od social participation. Sport can also include elements of culture, tradition and be a symbol of a nation, state or society. However, sport as exercise, discipline, activity, training, skills and human development must have certain rules, rights and obligations, learning and instructions on the one hand, and dedication, discipline, motivation, goal and sometimes teamwork on the other hand.

Sometimes sport may be presented as a form of entertainment, especially when it comes to team sports competitions. Athletes play a very important role in society. They are seen as role models responsible for setting an example for others to follow, especially young people. A question arises: Do professional athletes have an ethical responsibility to set an example for the people living in their communities? Or are they simply entertainers, providing a service?

We can say that athletes sometimes have a lot of pressure, but when it comes to sports activities and dedication, you have to have a certain approach. Therefore, we are talking about ethics in sports, which is reflected through the values that are nurtured in sports such as:

  • fair and honest game,
  • health,
  • excellence in performance,
  • character and education,
  • teamwork,
  • dedication and commitment,
  • respect for the rules, self-respect and respect for the other participants,
  • community and solidarity.

Problems in sports can arise when teams, managers, or coaches place more value on winning than on how they win. Acting ethically on the playing field—from the sidelines to administrative offices and beyond — should weigh more significantly than who wins or loses. Sports are played by rules. When athletes, referees, coaches, or administrators attempt to circumvent the rules of the game, they undermine the foundations of sport itself.

The value of sports lies in their ability to do more than identify the best athletes. Sports can instill important values as well as teach lessons about perseverance and honesty. As far back as ancient Greece, athletics have been seen as an important character-building tool that encourages discipline, collaboration, and responsibility. Sports without ethics do not live up to these values.

But what are the issues?

Ethical behavior in sports can promote ethics-driven behaviors in other areas, such as helping others in need, building trust, respecting dignity, and treating others equally. Additionally, a commitment to ethical behavior can allow athletic programs and athletes at any level to form better connections with their communities. Ethical problems can be understood as difficult issues requiring a moral solution. When solving ethical problems, we need to make choices on the basis of our beliefs and feelings about what is fundamentally good or right.

Despite the fact that sport promotes ethical values, fair-play and integrity, violence also occurs in the sport context. Violence is directed against a person because of her/his gender (including gender identity or expression). This phenomenon is understood as gender-based violence and may include sexual harassment and abuse, rape, physical or emotional-psychological violence, and LGBTQI2 –violence.

Gender-based violence in sport affects girls, boys, women and men. Gender-based violence has been noticed among peer-athletes, between coaches and their athletes, or between other personnel within the sports' entourage and athletes. Knowing that the general legal framework applies in cases of gender-based violence in sport is crucial to combat the problem. It is worth noting that the absence of specific legislation to prosecute cases of gender-based violence in sport, the lack of clarity in relation to what a 'sexual act' pertains, or the varied terminology used to refer to forms of gender-based violence across countries can pose some difficulties in handling cases of gender-based violence in sport.

The Council of Europe takes an active role in issuing policies to tackle gender-based violence in sport.

Examples of such policies include:

  • European Sports Charter (R (92) 13)
  • Code of Sport Ethics
  • Resolution on the prevention of sexual harassment and abuse of women, young people and children in sport (3/2000)
  • Recommendation on lesbians and gays in sport (1635 (2003))
  • Recommendations on gender mainstreaming in sport (CM/Rec (2015)2).

Sport organizations have established internal measures, procedures, structures and resources to protect their athletes. Examples include guidelines on how to handle cases of sexual violence in sport (including support to victims), measures to protect potential victims of gender-based violence and procedures to report incidents, or registration systems to record cases of offenders who had a disciplinary conviction in sport. Some policy recommendations from the Council of Europe to combat gender-based violence in sport are:

  • Adopt, implement and monitor policies and measures, in cooperation with sports organizations, to prevent and combat various forms of gender-based violence against women and girls in sport.
  • Devise and implement policies and measures to prevent and combat gender-based bullying, harassment and violence with regard to the practice of physical activity, physical education and sport, and encourage schools, local authorities and sports organizations and clubs to implement them and monitor their implementation.
  • Raise awareness about gender-based violence occurring in various levels and fields of sport.
  • Implement policies and adopt codes of conduct regarding gender-based violence against girls, boys, women and men in sport and clearly specify the complaint process, disciplinary actions and appeal procedures.

What causes gender-based violence in sport?

There is no single factor that can explain gender-based violence in our societies, but rather a myriad of factors contributes to it, and the interplay of these factors lies at the root of the problem and here are four factors identified as: cultural, legal, political and economic factors. All of these factors are related to gender- based violence in sport because of the lack of education, understanding and different traditional, cultural environments, habits and views.

"Focus, determination, pain, disappointment, excitement, suspense, anger, relief: it's all a part of the game whether you are a man or a woman." - Annie Spewak, former lacrosse player said this and let's highlight this in order to look at sport through sports ethics, duties and dedication and not through gender.

Several forms of gender – based violence is considered: verbal, non-verbal, physical, and sexual harassment and abuse. These forms are not mutually exclusive but overlapping categories. The concept of gender-based violence within sport incorporates harassment and abuse in its broad spectrum. Harassment is conduct, gestures or comments which are insulting, intimidating, humiliating, hurtful, malicious, degrading or otherwise offensive to an individual or group of individuals, and which create a hostile or intimidating environment for work or sports activities, or which negatively affect performance or work conditions.

How to combat gender-based violence in sport?

Beyond the social challenge, the application of sport in combating gender-based violence is practical. Physically when girls play, they become stronger and healthier. They develop a greater ownership and understanding of their bodies. Psychologically, sport can enhance a girl's self-esteem and self-efficacy. The physical and emotional strength sport offers can be a positive force in reducing a girl's risk of experiencing gender-based violence.

The environment can offer social support and a forum for girls to share their concerns and experiences, including those related to gender-based violence. It can provide girls with protected access to public space, such as playing fields and streets that would otherwise be considered as dangerous. Respect in sport is a basic value that determine level of ethics in sport. When sport shows and promote respect, athletes as role models are promoting respect in life as well. What society and organizations as well as individuals may do in order to decrease and prevent gender-based violence in sport?

  • Educate yourself and community on the root causes of violence (workshops, social media campaign)
  • Interrupt and stop sexist language (social media posts, raising awareness)
  • Be critical and question violent behavior (when witnessing)
  • Stop blaming a victim (social campaign and raising awareness, short video examples, posts.)
  • Stop considering violence in sport as a normal behavior.
  • Call gender-based violence what it is – violence, not "bullying",
  • Stop stereotyping men's and women's roles,
  • Individuals and organizations should raise awareness about public acceptance of violence in sport.

We should remember that violence is a choice, and it is preventable. We shouldn't make excuses for friends, coaches, or others and peers who are violent. Instead, we should be supportive and fight against violence. But society needs to be supportive towards athletes to encourage them to report gender-based violence. As a society, can we claim that all violence in sport is morally wrong and therefore should be penalized, but gender-based violence as well. We need to determine for each sport what constitutes crossing the line between playing the game and unacceptable violent behavior. That is why ethics in sports is a very important discipline and it is essentially about having good moral behavior. Solving ethical issues, preventing them and developing ethical values in sports are very important both for individuals and professionals in sports who are role models, as well as for teams and society in general. Ethics in sport promotes and preserves the values and spirit of sport.

Therefore, ethics in sport promotes four key virtues: fairness, integrity, responsibility, and respect. Bearing this in mind, we can say that every sport, through programs, educates athletes, and through athletes and sports values, educates society. This is why the topic of gender-based violence in sport is important because it appears as a spreading virus that should be stopped, especially for future generations.