Legal and Ethical Dimensions of Sports Public Relations


Public relations entail a tactical communication approach that constructs a shared association between organizations and the members of public. Public relations make use of various tenets of management where communication is essential with an aim of converging similar ideas, beliefs, and perspectives over an issue or an existing subject (Stoldt, Dittmore, & Branvold, 2012). In the sports world, public relations integrate fans and stakeholders, such as leagues and sponsors, who form a significant part of the sports fraternity (Gillis, 2009; L’Etange, 2013). Public relations entail projecting, assessing, and understanding views and concerns of the members of public, which may have a negative or positive impact on the organization. This process includes making constant studies or surveys from all perspectives, including response plans, decision-making, and considering implications and general responsibilities of the organization (Stoldt et al., 2012). Most of all, a public relations team sets the required resources to solve a crisis, which entails strategizing on the best way to shape or transform public opinion, setting goals, and allocating appropriate budgets.

As the sports organization grows on a daily basis, it encounters legal implications that cannot be ignored (Stoldt, Dittmore, & Branwold, 2013). In this regard, this paper puts emphasis on legal and ethical issues facing the sport public relations. Besides, ethical issues may not harmonize with legal issues. At times, some legal decisions may disregard the ethical concerns of sports stakeholders, organizations or the members of public. In this regard, the sports organization should try hard to integrate the ethical issues that can easily be omitted in the legal bracket in the sport public relations.

It is evident nowadays that the sports world is facing the challenge of fastly developing technological growth, which means that it substantially influences the sport public relations team. However, the area of public relations regulation in regards with technological advances lacks sufficient research (Stoldt et al., 2013). Therefore, there is a need for researchers to perform a thorough analysis of the ethical and legal issues in the sport public relations (Mullin et al., 2007; Stoldt et al., 2013; L’Etang, 2013; Irwin, Sutton, & McCarthy, 2008).

The sport public relations organization must integrate cultural concerns in the global perspectives, which include cultural practices, norms, and beliefs of the sports organization’s stakeholders and the members of public (Dutta, 2011; Shilbury, 2008). According to Edwards and Hodges (2011), cultural issues are invaluable, and public relations must always integrate culture in their practice. According to Curtin and Gaither (2002), communities keep altering, transforming, and replacing their cultural practices, and this fact frustrates the sport public relations. In this regard, the sport public relations organization must be informed about these changes and set measures that adapt to the cultural changes for the effective implementation of public relations strategies. In particular, they include creating a cross-cultural approach, where the sport public relations managers understand the social, economic, and political backgrounds of regions, including global relations, which shape the organizations’ performance in the global spheres (Giulianotti & Armstrong, 2007; Parent, 2008; Gillis, 2009). Researchers hold divergent views regarding the definition of public relations and sport public relations. However, they share similar views regarding legal and ethical issues (Bruce & Tini, 2008).

This paper explores sport public relations and the problems that public relations team encounter in a bid to streamline the communication process. These problems include ethical and legal issues, which are characterized by media in which public relations are altered (Mullin, Hardy, & Sutton, 2007). Furthermore, the paper highlights cultural issues and the way they affect success of sport public relations. This paper also presents the communication dimension in the sport public relations and, finally, makes recommendations to the sport public relations organizations.

A Legal Dimension of Sports Public Relations

With each year, the legal aspects of sports keep developing in value. In this regard, the means of sustaining beneficial relations between sports organization and stakeholders, including the teams and fans, mainly entails finding an acceptable position between the public relations effects of communication and the legal consequences of both the crisis and the mode of communication. According to Stoldt et al. (2012), the legal issues in sports public relations are related to the fair means of decision-making. However, it is apparent that not every legal decision made adheres to moral obligations. Besides, not every moral concern represents legal issues. There are instances where the issues of morality are abandoned in the process of addressing the legal concerns. In this regard, sports organizations have a duty to overview their decisions from the moral perspective, considering that the significant majority fall under the public/community settings, which is bound by morality and principles.

Today, the sports world is characterized by a rising technological growth pattern, which is attributed to the increased use of social networking features, such as social media sites and applications, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, and sports websites. Many people are making use of technology to access sports activities from every part of the world. In this regard, it is evident that technology has improved the way people perceive sports, especially by giving fans a chance to access sports services with ease. However, technology has also come with its fair share of demerits, which present the sport public relations a great challenge in communication. Today, athletes and the other sportsmen can make use of social media websites to interact with their friends and fans and share information and images with them. However, such activity poses great risks, for example it may have a negative influence on their reputation. In particular, there is a possibility that some private information or messages can be unveiled and shared with fans or the media.

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Nowadays, athletes, sportsmen, the media, and fans alike express their individual concerns, views, and ideas on social media. In this regard, there is a possibility of embarrassment in case pictures or crucial information is revealed to the public domain (Mullin et al., 2007). Furthermore, there is a likelihood of publishing poorly advised statements that the public can pick out of context, thus leading to legal issues. This means that sport public relations must advance their knack in this regard in order to avoid legal implications. For example, it can be done by sensitizing sportsmen about the legal implications of using social media sites to share vital information and much more creating effective ways of addressing the target audience in case of a crisis. Athletes can be advised about factors, such as slander, libel, violation of copyrights, privacy issues, and cyber bullying when they share their information, pictures or videos with friends or fans. This is also coupled with instilling effective monitoring and regulating systems, including punishment of athletes who fail to observe the set rules of social media practices (Stoldt et al., 2013).

The sports public relations organization must also adopt information protection approaches. In particular, there are many laws formulated with an aim to protect members of the public and athletes regarding information sharing on social media. Countries and governments strive to safeguard the public right of access to data, information or messages. This further entails a need for impartiality and transparency in the matters of the government and the subject of safeguarding the views, concerns, and perspective of individuals. Some laws are implemented to guide the sport public relations team in conducting their activities with an aim of streamlining the communication process of the sports organization. Mainly, according to Gillis (2009), the sport public relations team is required to be open and not conceal any information in how they conduct their activities, such as publishing their proceedings and documentations that will enable both the members of public, stakeholders, and athletes gain an insight of the happenings. This also includes getting the sport public relations team accountable for their actions.

The sport public relations organization and sports organization are also protected by laws that seek to control the critics. Mainly, the SLAPP and the anti-SLAPP law streamline the process that both the critics and the sport public relations settle issues that have legal implications. The SLAPP is the law that gives the sport public relations the power to face critics in a court of law and defend themselves through means that will frustrate critics and further discourage them from engaging in a baseless critiquing process of the organization. It helps the sports organization to run its activities with little or minimal worries about the critics. On the other hand, the Anti-SLAPP law gives the critics a chance to counter-attack the legal proceedings of the sport public relations team. It helps to create impartiality in legal issues, further helping the sport public relations organization be ready to deal with unexpected occurrences.

As much as the sports organization strives to streamline the communication process with the target audience and deal with critics in a bid to protect information, it has to ensure that its athletes, stakeholders, and members of the public address the legal issues that arise in the sport public relations sphere. Some of these legal issues include the following: intellectual property evolution, copyright law and commercial misappropriation, trademark law, rights of publicity and First Amendment, and federal law preemption of intellectual property rights.

Intellectual property rights and public rights entail ensuring that exclusive property rights of individuals and organizations are respected. Nowadays, the rise in technology also leads to the transformation of intellectual property, where people can have legal rights to ideas, information, items, and pictures. For example, non-copyright owners are criticized for using sports public relation organization’s information, materials, ideas, and items. It is done to ensure that there is some form of transparency in the way sport public relations organization conducts its activities versus the way critics will prepare legal criticism against them. Besides, the trademark law aims at protecting marks, signs, symbols, words, designs, phrases or combinations of illustrations held by organizations. In particular, the trademark law ensures that the brand of an organization is safeguarded, whereby it cannot be misappropriated by any party, such as logo, emblems or images. The sport public relations organization often has brand names and trademarks that they use when preparing media materials and information. These trademarks help the public and stakeholders know that the information presented in line with the trademarks refers to official communication from the sport public relations organization or a team. This shows that the sport public relations team must always scan the Internet and the other offline platforms in order to ensure that their trademarks are not used in the wrong way or without consent. If so, a legal process must be prompted to hold the perpetrators liable for their actions. The right of publicity entails the right of an individual to have his/her details, identity or information shared in the public or left private. This also entails respecting his/her identity or brand. Therefore, if the identity or information is used by another person under false pretext, the perpetrator must be brought to justice. Finally, the First Amendment and federal law preemption of intellectual property rights entail balancing the public rights of an athlete. This can be seen from the perspective of athletes versus their celebrity statuses and ensuring that their identities are not used maliciously. This is viewed from the perspective of balancing the First Amendment rights against the federal preemption of common law and statutory rights of publicity (Giulianotti & Armstrong, 2002).

An Ethical Dimension of Sports Public Relations

The ethical dimension of sport public relations is not a serious subject, considering that not many organizations put much emphasis on ethics as much as other invaluable facets, as seen in legal implications. However, it is apparent that the sport public relations organization must put considerable effort in preserving the ethical issues or moral concerns while managing athletes, stakeholders, and fans. According to Giulianotti (2010), the extent that the sport public relations organization considers the ethical dimension of sport public relations will determine how the people relating to the organization will view them. Ethics entails a set of standards, or codes of conduct, that present how individuals or organizations should behave or act in respect to the pertinent issues of concern. Every organization has its set of ethical concerns, which helps control how its stakeholders relate to it. Mainly, the ethical concerns of a sports organization vary from one organization to another. Besides, they depend on a wide variety of factors, such as organizational policies and regulations, devotion to management teams and leaders within the organization, respect for sportsmen, the nature of interaction with the media and other stakeholders, restriction levels of criticism of the managerial teams, and evasion of opinionated conflicts with services of the organization or stakeholders. However, regardless of the varying features of ethical concerns of sports organizations, sport public relations officers must demonstrate their professionalism when handling organizational issues or dealing with critical situations (Giulianotti, 2010). Sport public relations officers should ensure that they act in a way that meets the demands and standards of the sports organization. This entails creating positive information regarding the entire sports organization and its affiliates.

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One of the ethical concerns of sport public relations officers is the subject of fairness. It is common to find sports organizations worrying about equity, especially considering the coverage of sports by the media. The subject of biases has been evident in the sporting world for some time now, where the media cover sports news with an inclination to the other teams or famous sports, further not mentioning others on a matter of preference. Many media houses have been criticized for some time now, considering that they are believed to focus only on sports or teams that generate high revenues to the media, which is unfair (Shilbury, 2008). For example, men’s sports have been receiving high media coverage as compared to women’s sports. This is also common in male basketball games, which the media consider more preferred as compared to women basketball. However, with the onset of technology, sport public relations organizations have found websites and social media platforms, where they also share information about their teams and athletes objectively. It is an opportunity for the organizations to present information that the fans and the members of public find fair, credible, and reliable.

Sport public relations managers confront an ethical dilemma, when they do not know which sports to highlight or write about. This is because there are instances where some sports may attract sponsorships more than others, which means that sponsored sports demand high media coverage, which is unfair. Furthermore, it is also a major issue of concern for sport public relations leaders, who are in a predicament associated with the distribution of funds and personnel that will cover the sport. According to Bruce and Tini (2008), a sport public relations organization must show high levels of fairness in sports coverage. Mainly, they should ensure that every sport is highlighted in the media regardless of its reputation or attributions, specifically, sports that are always under-highlighted by the media. Furthermore, the PR team must integrate effective, fair, and justifiable ways of publishing information on the websites. In particular, they should ensure that every sport is given a fair share on the website regardless of the sports that may attract high traffic or revenue, such as football or basketball in opposition to hockey or table tennis.

Ethical issues differ in domestic and international platforms. It is apparent that many sports public relations organizations and managers put emphasis on ethical issues on an international scale, overlooking the invaluable ethical concerns on a domestic scale. According to Dutta (2011), ethics is rooted in a country, community, its cultural issues, traditions, norms, views, and perspectives. The way that people view sporting activities in one region may be different to the way people treat sports in the other cities, towns or even countries. There are cultural underpinnings that affect the perceptions of sports, which the sport public relations organization must integrate into its ethical policies. Mainly, according to Dutta (2011), people hold specific ethical concerns on the basis of the team support. When people support a particular team or sports, as seen in the football world, they hold specific ethical concerns that differ from those of their opponents. Specifically, the youths hold strong connection with sports affiliations. Besides, the socio-economic, religious, cultural, and demographic factors set people apart from one another regarding sports (L’Etange, 2013). Many fights occur because of ethical differences and concerns, especially at the stadiums, where members of the opposite camps, mostly with social, religious, and political insinuations, provoke the other groups into a fight.

Sport public relations officers must be aware of regional differences regarding sports and the way of managing fans, stakeholders, and members of the public from different regions in case of a crisis. Whenever a PR team is handling a crisis, where the affected people or parties come from different regions, he or she must prepare reports that are acceptable for the two opposing teams and fans. This entails acknowledging their deference to opinions, views, beliefs, and concerns regarding the sport. This will be made possible if the public relations team can conduct thorough research to establish ethical connections with the sport and further the possible implications. It will thus help the sport public relations team offer proper coverage of these sports and even reduce the possibilities of crisis or the extent of ethical damage in case a crisis occurs.

The sport public relations team must study the traditions of sports and regions in international platforms. This will help understand how people respond to crisis. For example, the organization can understand when to get close to the parties in conflict or even when to stop the conflicts. It also includes defining time when to maintain a safe distance. Reporting and covering sports stories in international platforms should be done with immense familiarity with the international sports culture and preferences. For example, the liberty that a sports public relations officer can enjoy in the USA may be different in Africa. It is, therefore, important for the sport public relations officer to interact with the other foreign sport public relations officers before covering the sport in a foreign land in order to understand which ethical issues can occur (Shilbury, 2008).

There are dilemmas inherent to the sports world, and some of them are hard to avoid. For example, there are instances when a coach or an athlete fails to decide on the best way forward. This can also be evident in an organization, where team members can be presented with dilemmas on the decisions to take. For example, there are times when a coach is in a dilemma whether to introduce a specific football player in his team or not, especially when his or her team is experiencing challenges, such as scoring. He or she may begin to worry about how fans will react if the team does not win, yet he or she had introduced a particular team player who made the situation even worse. A coach has to deal with this challenge in the sporting world (Gillis, 2009).

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Similarly, the sport public relations team can face a dilemma when coping with a crisis. In particular, the PR team may not know how to respond to a crisis issue. For example, the team may decide to remain quiet for some time until more information is received or until more facts are acquired to defend a particular stand or it may decide to tackle the problem immediately. Furthermore, the team may find it difficult to deal with conflicts that may arise after they take their stand regarding an issue or simply remain quiet. Most of all, accountability levels and organizational standards may affect the way sport public relations officers react to issues at hand, further creating more dilemmas (L’Etange, 2013). This includes cultural issues, including regional problems that have a significant impact on the welfare of the sport public relations organization. It may also be a situation of a dilemma when a sport public relations organization is compelled by the public or stakeholders to fire a coach or discipline a player in a team.

It is, therefore, essential to note that team players, athletes, and sport public relations officers must integrate professional approach in dealing with ethical dilemmas. First, there is a need to observe policies set in the organization, including rules and regulations. Sports organizations have systems of practice, including codes of conduct, which guide stakeholders and team players on how they will behave (L’Etange, 2013). It includes how to make decisions or plans that help overcome conflicting situations. Mainly, there is a need to consult the other members of the sports organizations, who will help make right and rational decisions in the organization. There should be a system of fairness, where the team player must adhere to professional ways of addressing negative issues or ethical dilemmas to an extent that the affected parties feel respected and fairly judged. For example, firing an athlete or a team player requires the sport public relations team to integrate professional skills that involve neutral judgments and resolution making (Parent, 2008).

A sport public relations team player must speak the truth when faced with issues of concern. There should be no favoritism with an aim of saving a member of a team or preventing an occurrence such as dismissal of a team member by the team leader. This is because everyone in a sports organization is obligated to the organization and much more holds allegiance to leaders and managers. In this regard, the organization’s stakeholders, team players, athletes, and fans must be respected at all times. The officials in a sport public relations organization must always strike a balance between the organization and the members of the public (Shilbury, 2008). This should concern fans, stakeholders, and the other affiliated partners.

The sports public relations team members must be keen to appear realistic in the face of stakeholders, team players, athletes, sponsors, and fans. The image of the sports organization is crucial, and every member should strive to protect it for the benefit of the entire sports organization. This includes ensuring that the coverage appreciates everyone, which implies that it should be in line with the tone that the members of public expect (Parent, 2008). There should be a clear element of positivity in the way the sports news is conveyed to the public or how it is shared by people from one point to another or from one team affiliate to another. This will prevent dilemmas and advanced crisis situations. According to Bruce and Tini (2008), there is a reason why teams are losing contact with team players, stakeholders, and even fans. These parties form a crucial part of the sports organization and must always be cherished for a great working relationship. Most of all, striking a balance in a point of ethical dilemma entails striving to deliver the truth and ensuring that everyone’s needs are addressed.

Communication Dimension During Crisis in Sports Public Relations

The sport public relations organization does not fail to encounter crisis situations where the stakeholders, athletes or fans are not in agreement. The disagreement may entail a breach of ethical or legal issues or a general communication breakdown where the sport public relations are forced to intervene. According to Bruce and Tini (2008), in a crisis, the ethical and legal issues can lead to negative outcomes for an organization. The ethical and legal consequences also impact employees of the organization, further jeopardizing their working process or relationship with the public and stakeholders. It is, therefore, advisable for the sport public relations team to adopt effective ways of dealing with a crisis in order to minimize or avert possibilities of legal and ethical consequences (Parent, 2008). In particular, the sports PR team can find reliable and authentic information or ideas about the crisis. For example, a sports firm must not delay making comments or reviews about an extreme incident in the organization, such as the demise of a team player or athlete, stampede or any instance that stirs a crisis. It is apparent that crisis situations may be sporadic, but mainly these instances leave the sport public relations team with minimal information to respond to (Shilbury, 2008). However, it is important for a team to make use of its skills and available resources to come up with statements and standpoints regarding the happenings as the event progresses. This is a sure way of giving public assurance of commitment and focus on occurrences. In case the sport public relations team fails to respond to a crisis on time, the public may blow the situation out of proportion, which is what the PR team does not desire to happen. According to Bruce and Tini (2008), the sport public relations team must create an official statement as information keeps coming.

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As the sports public relations team briefs the public and the media about the occurrences and their efforts, it is important for them to put into consideration ethical and legal aspects of the subject at hand to avoid further consequences. This entails ensuring that the statements made are clear and impartial. Furthermore, the statements or comments made must not lead to startling outcomes (Giulianotti, 2010). Mainly, the sports public relations team must make sure that they hold regular meetings with the team members and leaders to ensure that everyone equally participates in discussions. This will help reduce confusion and misreporting. It is always advisable for the PR team to delegate a communication representative who will be in charge of disseminating crucial information arising from a team’s decision-making point. This boosts objectivity and helps in tackling or responding to any questions raised by the public or stakeholders. According to Giulianotti (2010), comments and remarks that do not carry the team’s reasoning may lead to legal implications, especially if they contravene the law. This may be immediate or future legal implications, which can be supported by recorded comments or statements. Moreover, whenever a crisis arises, the sport public relations team must plan and create an effective crisis communication strategy that can help protect athletes, stakeholders, and the sports organization’s reputation at large (Gillis, 2009).


In conclusion, it is clear that sports public relations is a significant management function that helps in making sports institution effective and streamlined. Public relations managers play a crucial role in ensuring that both sports organization and the sports customers are at par as much as communication is concerned. Mainly, a sports public relations team works hard to set records straight, especially when there is a crisis. This means that the sports organization cannot do without public relations. Besides, public relations constantly face legal and ethical challenges on the daily basis. It is also true that the sports industry is changing every day and may lead to increased legal and ethical problems that must be constantly addressed.

As much as sports organizations put straight the public relations efforts to control occurring legal and ethical issues, there is still one factor that keeps bombarding the industry the onset of technology and its challenges. It is evident from the research that technology has been insufficiently addressed regarding legal and ethical issues in sports public relations. Nowadays, a new technology is setting the stage for the sports organization and customers, which implies that public relations professionals must integrate technological tools to mitigate legal and ethical issues associated with technology. This implies understanding how sportsmen, sports consumers, and the media make use of technology and its tools.

The sports public relations professionals must manage to find balance between the benefits arising from technological advancements and their disadvantages. Most of all, the sports public relations team must set strategies and approaches that project the potential legal and ethical implications arising from the use of technology. This will help create an effective and constant communication process amid the sports organizations and its stakeholders, such as the media and the sports consumers/fans.

Apart from the legal issues, ethics is a critical subject, which keeps changing in the sports industry. In this regard, sports public relations professionals must be willing to study the ethical realms of sportsmen, stakeholders, and sports consumers. This entails their cultural values, norms, and practices versus technological use. This is considering that ethical behavior tags along with the technological changes evident in the modern world. In particular, sports public relations professionals must seek to understand the age difference effect in the sports world, considering that the young and the old hold different ethical views and concerns. Most of all, this is because sports consumers are characterized by a large number of young, energetic, and dynamic fans. Ultimately, the sports public relations experts must integrate legal, ethical, and technological changes and implications in the sports world for a better communication process with stakeholders and customers, particularly in times of crisis.

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