An ethical dilemma that I have faced is whether to continue playing my current varsity sport that helped me get into the school, or quit and focus on school and social life.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

4 responses »

  1. Chris says:

    The current choice in this particular situation depends on the time of year. Generally, a varsity sports’ season consists of two parts: off-season and in-season play. Additionally, we are also assuming varsity coaches can only recruit and add roster players during the off season. This implies the roster during the season is frozen and resistant to change.

    In the generalization test, we assume every action is committed for a unique purpose or reason. In this case, the choice to quit playing a varsity sport may be for a lack of motivation, desire, or satisfaction with the varsity program. This is further complemented by your intentions of regaining the opportunities you currently forgo by participating in varsity sports in the areas of social interaction and school. These reasons must be consistent and broadly applied to all other athletes who face a similar choice. If you decide to quit, given the previously outlined reasons, then all athletes who desire to focus more on school and social life, or are currently unsatisfied, should also quit. Since social interaction is a necessary part of human existence, all students, as well as athletes, desire more opportunity for social mingling. Similarly, all athletes and students must focus on maintaining a set grade level for further participation, and thus, there is a desire to always focus more on school. If these two conditions hold, we may assume every student athlete would desire both, and therefore, quit the team. If everyone quits the varsity team, then a contradictory principle exists as a team can no longer function without a collaboration of individuals. In this case, it would appear an obligation holds an equal value to the concept of a contract.

    However, college athletes are not bounded by contracts; but rather, they are obligated on a yearly basis of verbal commitment. Under a utilitarian model of ethics, we assume an action is a means to an ultimate goal. In this scenario, quitting the team serves as a means for focusing on school and maintaining a social life. If you desire more time to achieve these goals, it is logical to assume you value the opportunities of social interaction and school more heavily than those opportunities associated with participating in a varsity program. If this is the case, regardless of any lack of motivation or dissatisfaction present, more utility will be realized by quitting the team and reprioritizing your commitments.

    In reality, the generalization test holds more strongly when the external setting revolves around in-season play. This is the period where rosters have been set and approved by the NCAA, or similar athletic institutions. During this time, the pressure of school and social life exist, but you are obligated to continue the season until the off season begins. By agreeing to be selected for participation on an athletic team, you have entered into a verbal commitment, or contract, with the team’s management for the current season. You have expressed a commitment towards the team members and the coaching staff, and both parties require your constant participation, regardless of your current intentions. The only way such a contract would dissolve would be through the mutual consent of both parties for termination.

    The utilitarian test holds for the off-season period. During this time, the roster is more variable and subject to departures and new arrivals, in the form of recruits. This is a time where the coaching staff reevaluates the team, its individual components, and the future action required to the betterment of the team in the long run. Coaches are willing to let individuals pursue different commitments during this time. Furthermore, your commitment for participating in the regular season has expired. If your interests lie elsewhere, your utility for playing on the varsity team is lower than the average player who is motivated and willing to commit themselves to the team. As a result, you only serve to disrupt and weaken the sense of team unity and utility as you are currently not buying into the intended system. In this scenario, the collective utility, as well as your own individual utility, can be maximized if you quit the team, even if you sense a degree of obligation. Everyone becomes better off if this course of action is taken. From a personal experience, coaches desire players, who are motivated to other tasks, to quit the team so the team may more fully realize its potential. This is not the case in a regular season environment where you have expressed a commitment to the team and the coaching staff requires your services.


  2. John Hooker says:

    Chris gives a thoughtful analysis of this issue. As he points out, a key question is whether you want to quit during the season or after it. When you sign up to play the season, there is a mutual agreement that you will play that season, barring unforeseen circumstances. It would be unethical to break that agreement simply because you changed your mind.

    Is there an express or implied agreement that you will play beyond one year? There is certainly no express agreement. Even players who sign a National Letter of Intent commit for only one year. It is hard to find an implied agreement, because nobody sees the school as having a commitment to let you play beyond the first year. There could be an issue if the school offered you a guaranteed multi-year athletic scholarship, but this seems not to be the case, and such scholarships are apparently very rare anyway.

    Given that there is no agreement, the utilitarian test governs, as Chris points out. If you are a star athlete whose absence from the team would cost the school millions in ticket sales and alumni donations, this could be a tough choice. Otherwise, your obligation is to shape a college curriculum that suits your interests and abilities and allows you to make a lifetime of positive contributions.


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