May, 2011 | Bottom Line Ethics

Life has thrown me a softball. As an ethics commentator, the Jim Tressels of the world are red meat. He has made an almost unimaginable series of ethical blunders in the whole Ohio State fiasco, leading to his resignation as the Buckeyes’ head football coach. And the “leadership” and “oversight” of those at the university could only be characterized as indefensible. Some of the statements that have been made seem like the definition of “lack of institutional control.”

But who wants to cast the first stone? One of the major reasons for the moral agnosticism that characterizes big-time collegiate sports is that every coach, every athletic director, and every president knows that they are one e-mail away from a disaster that draws the NCAA to campus. I am very grateful not to read about these things regularly around here, but I am not naïve. I know from speaking to student-athletes that there is a compliance environment that sometimes seems overbearing to them. But it is there for a reason. And who is to say it will be effective tomorrow? We have failed here before.

No one in intercollegiate sports wants to cut off the lifeline, which is access to student-athletes when they are in high school. And that environment is arguably getting worse, not better. A recent ESPN report on the 7-on-7 summer football leagues that have proliferated in recent years makes it clear that they are the avenue to being recruited by the top football schools. They are run by folks that are, for the most part, not high school coaches. They are the equivalent of the AAU leagues that have taken over the placement of high school basketball players. And the “coaches” often end up being channels that college football coaches must use to have a chance to sign a particular player. That can lead to booster involvement, side benefits for student-athletes, and hiring go-betweens into coaching and other roles at universities.

In other words, it’s a market. You can use pejorative terms like “meat market” if you like, but it’s a market. Milton Friedman, one of the great defenders of markets, still insisted that participants in markets had to “play by the rules.” But you can make a lot of money if you don’t, and you can even feel good about yourself if you play before they even make the rules, as folks running the 7-on-7 leagues are doing right now. Talking “duties” and “responsibility” in this environment is laughed at by the markets’ participants.

But when you fail to self-regulate, you always get regulation, and the NCAA is cracking down in unprecedented ways. USC will not just lose post-season eligibility for two years for its recruiting of Reggie Bush, but it will sacrifice ten football scholarships for each of the next three years, taking them from 25 to 15. Good luck to head coach Lane Kiffin staying on the straight and narrow during those years. It could happen, because he has a straight arrow athletic director in Pat Haden, and because USC could realistically receive the death penalty for another serious infraction. But when you can only take 15, you had better take the right 15, and that will introduce dangerous temptations.

It is clear that the NCAA no longer believes that big-time programs will hold to a duty to protect the university’s reputation, so they are changing the consequences. I would not be surprised to see them come down very hard on Ohio State, which has protected its coach much as Tennessee did basketball coach Bruce Pearl after he knowingly broke rules.

Many people have suggested paying athletes in order to solve the problem. But this will simply change the price of the market; it will not eliminate it. And the same types of differential incentives will be offered to get the next Reggie Bush to enroll, over and above what the athletes are paid. This is assuming Title IX issues could be worked out about which athletes are paid, and how much.

As cheaters in business have found, modern technology, including e-mail and texting, has made it much easier to build a case against you when you are lying and covering up. In the absence of any sense of duty in intercollegiate athletics, the NCAA will just ratchet up the consequences to go along with the increased probability of being caught. And self-interested young people who have been on the take often like to tell their story after they are no longer relevant, as Ohio State is currently finding out, which will help the enforcers. But in intercollegiate athletics, as in the business world which is usually the focus of my attention, the incentives to win and the money tied to winning are so strong that the NCAA has no choice but to step up the penalties significantly.

As I said, life threw me a softball this week. But in a world that is sadly unable to self-correct, and in which no one is listening, I can’t bring myself to lecture folks one more time. I think I will just turn around and walk back to the dugout.

Categories: Athletics

I have been in the back yard too much lately, pulling weeds and putting down mulch. But the biggest problem has been my lawn. I don’t take great pride in my grass, but I try not to let it become a basis for neighbors to storm my castle bearing torches. A large section of my lawn has a burned out appearance, which I attributed at first to the lack of rain and a badly functioning sprinkler system. But the news is worse; I have grubworms.

What a name—grubworms. It must be a bummer to have a compound name where each half is a really negative word. When they get into your lawn, all you can do is nuke them and lay down new grass. So this past weekend I bought half a pallet of grass and started putting it down. This is way more work than I really wanted to do, but I didn’t have much choice. When I was done, what came to mind in looking at my back yard was a badly fitting toupee. There were parts of the lawn that clearly needed more living grass coverage, and parts that had lumps that should not be there.

But it seems to me that watching people try to recover their integrity after a public fall is much like watching someone whose hairpiece falls short of the ideal. This is particularly true when they seem ambitious as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is discovering this as he puts himself forward as a presidential candidate. If he implies any change in a position, as Gingrich has with requiring Americans to purchase health insurance, people roll their eyes and say, “There he goes again.”

This may be less true with entertainment figures; Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to find out. But it is still awkward to think about Eliot Spitzer being a talk show host rather than the governor of New York. And trying to see Tiger as the good guy becomes a bit tiresome. His string of injuries, which prompted his drop from the world’s top ten golfers for the first time in 14 years, has almost served as a relief from constant discussion of his character and attitude.

I have concluded that though folks largely want to read these stories, they quickly move to a stage where they do not care about these people any more. It is really difficult to gin up the emotion time after time that would somehow make these people an example not to be followed. Instead, they are a news item, and then, history.

Andy Fastow of Enron fame has been transferred to a halfway house prior to his release from prison later this year. He is 49. What hope does he have to regain his reputation? Perhaps more than you think. It is difficult enough to find people who finish well among the general populace, much less among those whose lives have cratered. But there are exceptions. Chuck Colson, famous for being one of Richard Nixon’s hatchet men and the first member of the administration to go to prison for Watergate, bounced back from his prison term to found Prison Fellowship, an evangelical organization that has had significant influence for good. He went to prison in his mid-40’s, and he will turn 80 later this year. Perhaps Fastow will have a similar experience.

But it is not easy. Grubworms eat the roots, and that’s why my work in the back yard is so painful and unsatisfying. Who wants to stay after it year after year, when it would be much easier to move to a condo? (I have suggested this on more than one occasion to my wife.) It would be very difficult to do it to please others. There probably has to be a genuine inner transformation that withstands the catcalls, the snickers, the derision, and the lingering bitterness that big mistakes bring.

Because, in the end, recovered integrity is just like a badly fitting toupee. People may smile and treat you the same. But, despite their best intentions, they can’t help but notice.

Categories: Athletics, Business, Politics

In the biorhythm of the academic year, this time of year ties together all the loose ends, providing a sense of finality. Next week I will attend graduation again. This must be how my daughter, who is a pediatrician, feels when she attends a child’s birth. It is incredibly unique to the participants, but the doctor has seen this before. Actually, Linda and I have already attended nine graduations of our own children, and we likely have at least three more to attend, the Lord willing.

This does not count all the graduations I have attended in my 22 years as a professor. They have varied in size and approach, but I am taken by how the people involved always embrace the event. In my first academic stop, I was not a fan of attending what seemed an impersonal exercise. In my second job, all faculty members were required to attend graduation and, since there were only about 100 of us, you would be noticed if you didn’t. Faculty would wait at the end of the stage for students from their discipline to walk off, and the students would go through a receiving line of handshakes and hugs. It was a very personal experience, usually held on the college lawn in May. It is one of the reasons that parents spend inordinate amounts of money to send their kids to small liberal arts schools.

As everyone knows, the ceremonies themselves are inordinately boring, almost without fail. Because of the size of the graduation, Texas A&M hosts the keynote speaker at a commencement convocation on Thursday prior to the five graduation ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. This shortens the graduation ceremony considerably, but it also removes virtually all hope that anything memorable will be said. But this does not mean that the ceremony is unimportant.

If Muster is what brings us back and holds us together, graduation is what propels us forward. For students, it is the uncertain embracing of responsibility, a little like cliff diving when you are not exactly sure how deep the water is. For those of us who invest in these students, it is a bittersweet goodbye to conversations in the hallway and the classroom, and a recognition that we are largely unnecessary to our students’ future successes. This is healthy, because there are others who need our investment. To linger too long regretting our losses is to miss the opportunity to invest our lives again.

This morning at Starbucks I saw Jessica, who is two years removed from this place that she loves, early in her marriage and motoring forward with her accounting firm. It brightened my day to see her face. But it heartened me even more to hear that she is investing her life in ministering to the homeless in Dallas through her church, even while she assumes substantial responsibility running jobs at the firm. She is not simply pursuing wealth and building business skills; she is investing in people and leading, inside and outside the work environment.

Last weekend Linda, Nathan and I drove to central Oklahoma to meet our older son, Kenny, at a state park. We spent our time together hiking and playing games but, more than anything, we laughed. It was a celebration of life, both life as we knew it and life as it is. Our boys are ten years apart in age. One still needs us, to some extent, and the other one doesn’t. One has gone on to greater things, the other aspires to greatness.

Still, it is clear to me how important it is to plug back in, to recharge, and to remember. It would be sad for Kenny if he did not have a place to return to where he is loved unconditionally, not based on his performance as a line manager in a Cessna plant. It would also be sad if he had not moved forward into his life apart from us. We pray the same will be true for his younger brother, and we are grateful for how Kenny reaches out to mentor Nathan in making the transition, while affirming him in who he is as a high school sophomore.

We have seen this happen before with our children, but we are reaching the end of watching these transitions. On the other hand, as long as I have the privilege of entering the university classroom, I will watch this process repeat itself with my students. I will cheer from the bleachers for them, and I will pose for a few pictures afterwards. I will rejoice in the celebration of their accomplishments.

I will watch them walk across that stage, and down the steps, and into a world that desperately needs people of character who will invest themselves in others. I will watch them walk forward confidently, but not without a glance over the shoulder to remember what this place has provided them.

Because, on a May Saturday in a place like this, walking forward into the waiting world is exactly what you ought to do.

Categories: Family

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