August 16th, 2011

Morals, Values Sacrificed In University Settings


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Morals, Values Sacrificed In University Settings
Billy Reed

Administrators sacrificing morals and values 

In firing football coach Butch Davis, North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp said he had “lost confidence in our ability to come through this without harming the way people think of this institution.” He added that “our academic integrity is paramount, and we must work diligently to protect it.”

That’s at the crux of the current crisis in big-time college athletics. Too many presidents have allowed their athletic departments to stray far from the institution’s mission, ideals and principles. In some cases, the two entities, academics and athletics, are joined only in name.

Education? Who cares about that? It has become a crashing bore and distraction from the business of winning games. If a recruit can run a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash or knock down the three, who cares if he can’t read or write? It’s all about winning, baby. And cheating? Everybody cheats. What’s the big deal?

Much like the big-league baseball owners who turned a blind eye to steroid usage in the late 1990s because the drug-induced homer derbies were putting fannies in the seats, the university presidents have treated their athletic departments with what might be generously called “benign neglect.”

The presidents say that winning isn’t everything, but they’ll fire a losing coach at the drop of a whistle – and never mind his record as a builder of character. Who cares about character? Or, for that matter, who cares about sportsmanship and integrity? Coaches aren’t hired and paid obscene salaries to teach values. That’s as old-fashioned as leather helmets. They’re paid to win. Period.

Sadly, the embodiment of the clueless president is G. Gordon Gee of Ohio State. When the tattoos and memorabilia scandal first broke in Columbus, Gee was asked about firing Coach Jim Tressell. Trying to deflect the gravity of the situation with a bit of humor, Gee said it was the other way around – he hoped that the popular Tressell didn’t fire him.

As regrettable as that comment came to be, it got to the heart of the problem. At far too many institutions, the CEO of the Football, Inc., has more power than the president of the institution. It’s a system gone amok, out of control, and men and women of conscience should be questioning whether it’s worth their moral, emotional, and financial support.

One by one, the bombs have been dropping. Either directly or indirectly, scandals have rocked the football programs at Southern Cal, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, North Carolina, LSU, Ohio State, Oregon, and, most recently, Miami. At each place, the lack of institutional control is as shocking as the number of presidents and athletics directors who try to defend the indefensible instead of accepting responsibility.

The only surprise by the bombshell at Miami is that some fans, media types, and athletics officials are acting surprised by it. The reason is that nobody’s hands are cleans because everybody has a vested interest in the system. Here is what J. Brent Clark, a former NCAA investigator, told The New York Times.

“There isn’t a public outcry to do something about a system that is so terribly broken because the game is too popular and the money is too big.”

That’s exactly why reformers have such a difficult time. That’s why university presidents have abdicated their responsibilities. But if they’re waiting on a public outcry, change will never happen. All the public cares about is entertainment. So change must come from within the universities, in the name of academic integrity, and it must be done despite the protests of boosters, recruiting gurus, radio talk-show callers, and others who see athletes merely as disposable commodities.

The reputation of Donna Shalala, the president at Miami, already has been tarnished considerably by the scandal that this week exploded at her school. Once the revered Secretary of Health and Human Resources under President Bill Clinton, Shalala today is the punch line in a joke. She is the latest in a long line of respected scholars and administrators whose careers have been tarnished, even ruined, because they got burned by their athletic departments.

On a positive note, the Miami scandal was broken by Yahoo Sports, an Internet website. This is encouraging to those of us who worry that the demise of traditional newspapers means that nobody will fill the vital watchdog role. From all accounts, Yahoo did a thorough investigative job that would make any traditional paper proud. It even printed a photo of Shallala accepting a donor check from Nevin Shapiro, the scumbag wheeler-dealer and ex-Hurricane booster who’s currently in prison because of his role in a $900 million Ponzi scheme.

Yet you have to wonder whether Yahoo is an aberration. For example, if ESPN.com found out about rules violations in the Texas program, would it investigate them or sweep them under the rug considering that ESPN and Texas are now partners in a 24-hour cable channel?

Examine any scandal and you won’t get very far before you run into a booster – or two or three – more or less like Shapiro. Remember the big-time gambler who got Michigan’s “Fab Five” basketball team in trouble? These guys will do anything to get access and to secure the sort of athletes their program needs to win. Everybody inside the program knows who they are and what they’re doing. Yet nobody has the moral courage to do something about it.

Consider this character known as “Worldwide Wes.” Everybody knows he’s a flesh peddler who ingratiates himself with poor, but talented, young basketball players and then drives them toward the college programs he prefers, He has no business whatsoever being around any college program. None. And yet there are places where he’s treated as visiting royalty – much as Shapiro used to be treated at Miami.

It’s ironic that Creed Black, former publisher of The Lexington Herald-Leader and chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, passed away at just about the same time the NCAA seems to be getting serious about implementing recommendation made by the Knight Commission years ago.

Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland and current chair of the Knight Commission, said today that Black knew about the NCAA’s actions before his death. That’s nice. But it’s also sad that the university presidents didn’t begin getting serious about the Knight Commendation recommendations a lot sooner. Given a solid blueprint for reform, they conspicuously ignored it.

At their best, universities and college are places where some of the most important learning doesn’t always come in classrooms or from textbooks. They are places where students are imbued with morals and values that will help them make good decisions throughout their lives.

Sadly, far too many presidents, athletics directors and coaches are setting bad examples for students. They are teaching them to be hypocrites, liars, and cheaters. They are teaching them that when it comes to winning, the ends always justify the means. They are teaching them that values and principles can be sacrificed at the altar of the almighty dollar.

The chancellor at North Carolina got it right when he said that academic integrity is paramount. Only a cynic would wonder if he would have reacted as swiftly and decisively if the scandal had occurred in the sacred Tar Heel basketball program instead of the historically mediocre football program.     



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