Why the “moral climate” of a sport club matters | New Zealand Amateur Sport Association Inc.

A 2018 study1 undertaken by the University of Amsterdam, identified the importance of the “moral climate” of sport clubs in influencing the behaviours of participants, particularly youth. The study observed that in playing a game, participants must make moral decisions about their behaviour that “increase or thwart their chances of winning, and that are in-line with, or contravene, the fundamental morals of sport”, (and by inference, what is acceptable to their community of sport followers and supporters). 

Various examples of anti-social sport behaviour are documented by the study’s authors, including “intentionally injuring an opponent, intimidating or hurting opponents, verbally abusing team members or opponents and being rebellious toward referees”.

The study suggests that all these behaviours have an association with the moral climate of a sport club. More broadly, the study found that anti-social behaviour is not limited to the playing arena and can take place before, during or after the sport has been played. The net effect of the behaviours experienced can have positive or negative consequences on the psychological and physical well-being of all associated with a sport team, sport club, or the sport itself.

While most clubs will probably feel that their moral climate is currently favourable, there are others that may have experienced (or who may be experiencing) their own form of “climate change” arising from factors relating to their vision and values. In some cases, (as with current changes to our natural environment), the symptoms will become increasingly visible.

Where a club's purpose in providing a community sport opportunity becomes confused, the optics from within (and from the outside looking-in), are also likely to become blurred. For example, where a sport club views its role as critical in providing a professional-pathway (coincidentally an area of investigation forming part of the 2021 National Sport Club Survey), there is the risk that community values may become compromised by commercial considerations. The overwhelming desire to succeed on-field in order to attract and retain players, may not only compromise the values being promoted off-field, but also how the game is played and the behaviour of the players. As Michael J. Sandel observes in his book "What Money Can't Buy", the most fateful social change of the past 30 years is “the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

Thriving clubs are probably those where, win-or-lose on the sports-field, they are seen as a safe, welcoming environments, encouraging interpersonal warmth and support. Creating and sustaining such environments requires as much training as it does physical conditioning to play the game. All clubs should devote as much resource to this goal, relative to "winning pennants".

Activists advocating for our natural environment stress the need for pro-active measures to stop the harmful effects of behaviours which have the potential to impact on our physical well-being. Similarly, all sporting codes must advocate for the elimination of social behaviours which have the potential to materially diminish the social good they can create for their communities.

1 The Relationship between Moral Climate of Sports and the Moral Behavior of Young Athletes