According to sperm competition models, a male spawning in a disfavoured role should have spermatozoa with higher velocity but shorter longevity compared with a male spawning in a favoured role. Moreover, immunosuppressive androgens are needed to produce both secondary sexual characters and sperm cells. The ‘sperm protection’ hypothesis suggests that the immunosuppressive action of androgens has evolved to protect haploid spermatozoa, which are antigenic, from autoimmune attacks. Therefore, a male with high sexual ornamentation may be more susceptible to diseases but may possess better quality ejaculate than his less ornamented rival. We studied sexual ornamentation (breeding tubercles), ejaculation quality (sperm concentration, longevity and spermatozoal velocity) and intensity of parasitism in the cyprinid, Rutilus rutilus. Sperm longevity and spermatozoal velocity were positively correlated. Males having elaborated sexual ornamentation had longer-lived sperm and more Myxobolus mülleri parasites in the liver compared with males with low ornamentation. However, no difference was found between males with different degrees of ornamentation with respect to sperm concentration, spermatozoal velocity or other parasites. Since the highly ornamented males had higher sperm longevity, the present results are partly consistent with the predictions of the sperm competition models and the ‘sperm protection’ hypothesis. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 81, 111–117.