Okay to Cheat at Home but Not Okay to Cheat on the Field?

As the nation attempts to rebound from the latest sports ethics controversy, emerging research reviews public perceptions of on-the field ethics as compared to public opinion on interpersonal or moral behavior.

In the research, University of Michigan investigators attempt to explain why fans and sponsors dropped Lance Armstrong but stayed loyal to Tiger Woods.

Probably because Armstrong’s doping scandal took place on the field, unlike Wood’s off-the-field extramarital affairs, according to the new studies.

In a series of studies, doctoral student Joon Sung Lee discovered that when fans and consumers can separate an athlete’s immoral behavior from their athletic performance — they are much more forgiving than if the bad behavior could impact athletic performance or the outcome of the game.

The latter happened with Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, which fans viewed as performance-related, a reasoning strategy called moral coupling, said Dae Hee Kwak, a co-investigator onthe study.

Armstrong’s career suffered tremendously, and Nike eventually dropped him.

The opposite happened with Tiger Woods. The transgression wasn’t performance-related, and fans and consumers could more easily separate Woods’ extramarital affairs from his athletic performance, the researchers said.

They rationalized the behavior — moral rationalization — or deemed it irrelevant to the game, called moral decoupling. Woods’ career didn’t suffer nearly as much, and Nike continued its sponsorship and even developed ads to help Woods resuscitate his image.

When Woods shot to number one again after his extramarital affairs, Nike launched a marketing campaign that showed Woods kneeling on the golf course, leaning on his club, and intently watching the green as if eyeing an off-camera shot.

The photo is superimposed with Woods’ trademark quote: “Winning takes care of everything.”

“Based on our findings, one could argue that based on consumers’ views, Nike’s decision was a smart one,” Kwak said.

Researchers believe this information is valuable for sponsors and marketers.

“Sponsors can monitor how consumers view the transgression. They could look at social media, and also conduct surveys or focus groups to see if consumers tend to separate or integrate judgments of performance and morality,” Kwak said.

“Based on their target consumers’ views, marketers can determine when they should continue or discontinue their relationship with the athletes in trouble.”

In the study, investigators presented study participants with different athlete scandal scenarios. When they asked participants how they viewed a doping scandal, 59 percent selected moral coupling strategy and viewed the athlete negatively. When asked for their views on a tax fraud scandal, which is nonperformance related, only 28 percent selected moral coupling and viewed the athlete negatively.

Does this mean athletes get a free pass on tawdry, illegal, or violent behavior?

According to Kwak, the answer is no. For example, Procter & Gamble pulled breast cancer-related sponsorship after public outcry following several NFL scandals.

On the flip side, Baltimore Ravens’ female fans in taped interviews defended football player Ray Rice after a videotape of Rice allegedly beating his then-fiancĂ© aired nationally.

Psychological attachment with the team or athlete seems to play a role here and the researchers are currently investigating the influence of fan identification on making moral decisions.

The study has been published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

Source: University of Michigan

Picture: Tony Bowler / Shutterstock.com