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Journal of Business Ethics

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The college athletics environment within the USA is ethically complex and often controversial. From an academic standpoint, athletes are often viewed as a privileged class receiving undue benefit. Yet closer inspection reveals that student athletes are at risk psychologically, physically, and intellectually in ways that undermine development and flourishing. This reality stands in troubling contrast to the prosocial, virtue-based goals expressed by university mission statements. Given the role of sport in many university business models, college athletics invites scrutiny from a business ethics standpoint. Using a humanistic leadership perspective (Pirson in: Humanistic management: protecting dignity and promoting well-being, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017), we organize our analysis around three challenges facing the college athletics system: (1) navigating the tension between claiming college athletes are amateurs rather than professionals; (2) defining the ethical edge between winning and winning fairly; and (3) moderating the insatiable drive to win while protecting student athlete well-being. We then articulate three strategies for successfully addressing these challenges: leadership role modeling, putting structural supports in place and holding people accountable. We argue that humanistic leadership and a ‘balanced motivational drive mindset’ (Lawrence and Nohria in: J Bus Ethics 128:383–394, 2002,; Pirson 2017) could help move college athletics from an economistic model toward a more humanistic model that prioritizes the dignity and well-being of its participants, particularly student athletes.


Accepted version. Journal of Business Ethics, (January 29, 2022). DOI. © 2022 The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. Used with permission.

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