Bottom Line Ethics - Part 6

Lead Story

Harambe and Polyanna

Michael K. Shaub, July 21st, 2022

I recently wrote an essay describing my view of the impact of the accounting profession’s latest cheating scandal. My basic view is that we have proven repeatedly as a profession that we do not deserve to be self-governing, with the latest example being firm personnel cheating on CPA ethics exams. Some people in the profession who like me have been checking on my emotional health after reading that piece. Others just doubt my mental acuity and would consider my view of expecting truth-telling and honesty in the profession as being a “Polyanna” approach to our problems.

My friend Matt Morton recently spoke about the incident a few years ago involving Harambe the Gorilla (may he rest in peace) at the Cincinnati Zoo. When a little boy fell into his enclosure, Harambe decided to investigate, dragging the boy around and not heeding the zookeepers’ calls to come inside. This led to a difficult decision for the zookeepers, who shot the gorilla for fear that a tranquilizer would not work quickly enough before the boy was harmed.

After this incident, people blamed the zoo for the exhibit’s design and fencing, and the mother for losing track of her child. Some even blamed the existence of zoos. The hashtag #JusticeForHarambe circulated on the internet. But no one blamed Harambe because, in Matt Morton’s words, “That’s what gorillas do.”

This reminds me of the argument being made to explain the behavior of young professionals and students who get caught up in cheating scandals. You must expect that people are going to cheat given the opportunity because they must keep up with their peers or they are biologically inclined to do so by evolutionary responses to their environment. All we can do is put in the types of controls that will be effective in preventing and detecting it, hoping to reduce the opportunity, or even the motivation, to cheat. Telling people to be better is just spitting in the wind. Those who hold these views do not consider themselves cynical in the same way that I do not consider myself naïve. We may both be fooling ourselves.

But I have seen throughout my career, and particularly post-Sarbanes-Oxley, many students whose perspectives have been changed through an extensive consideration of their duties as CPAs, particularly in the accounting ethics course. A recent paper by Zach Kowaleski of the University of Texas and his co-authors provides evidence that financial advisors who receive more training in rules and ethics actually behave better.

In fact, I think it is silly, and an abdication of responsibility, to say that we cannot significantly influence the ethical behavior of our students or of those under us in the accounting firm. We influence studying behaviors, love for the material, and student interaction behaviors every day in the classroom. Accounting firms influence employees’ views of working late, teach them to sell better, and force feed them technical skills. Why are people’s moral views somehow unassailable by those who lead them?

There is nothing magical in moral learning that is less able to be shaped than any other type of learning. Of course, there are powerful incentives internally that cause people to cross lines, and human nature is unreliable when it comes to doing the right thing. Give a child no moral direction and see what happens.

But the claims of powerlessness in moral education and training are overstated. I have heard for many years that students are fully formed morally by the time they reach the university, and there is little that you can do about it. This has been a sort of received wisdom applied to no other area of reasoning. Despite that, numerous student organizations are designed entirely to change people’s views on a variety of moral issues—to morally educate them.

I need moral education. There are ethical issues I have not encountered yet and that I need to be prepared to navigate effectively. I need to be a better moral leader for people who come from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is not easy work. But in the accounting profession, we are used to undertaking difficult tasks without complaining, of adapting to environments without losing our north star, of overcoming obstacles, of speaking the truth even when it makes others uncomfortable.

We have a chance to preserve something important, not given over to the cynicism of the day, but battling against it by relentlessly speaking truth into society in reliable ways that require others to pay attention. It also requires not undermining our objectivity by selling out to the inevitable temptation to be a hanger-on rather than a true friend to our clients. We need to be “trusted advisors” not because we will tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to know. And the same holds true for us to be “trusted professors” who will help to preserve a profession we all love. We need to tell our students, our clients, and ourselves when we are crossing lines that harm others and undermine a society and an economy that rely on being grounded in truth.

You are not going to learn this on social media. Some will learn the principles in their families or in their faith settings. But you certainly ought to be able to learn it in the accounting classroom. And it is incumbent upon the Big 4 firms, the AICPA, and the rest of the accounting profession to make it a priority to do this before we lose our trusted role in society.

Call me Polyanna if you like. But I am not teaching Harambe in my classroom. I am teaching incredible minds capable of doing far more than settling for whatever makes them richest or most “successful,” regardless of the impact on others or on their own souls. And for as long as I am in the classroom, they are going to be treated with that level of respect.

I may not change a profession. But I am going to change some lives.

As I begin the final week of Accounting Ethics, I am overwhelmed by the ground we have covered and the issues we have encountered over the past five weeks. Of course, many of them have been centered in Arkansas: the firing of head football coach Bobby Petrino for lying about a relationship with someone hired in the athletic department, the questionable hiring of his replacement who had only been head coach at Weber State for 4½ months, and the burgeoning Wal-Mart Foreign Corrupt Practices Act scandal. We have heard first-hand accounts of events at Adelphia and Enron, and we have been face-to-face for a conversation with an insider trader waiting to be sentenced.

By the middle of next week I will have read something close to 2000 papers and exams written by my students. I can only imagine that they are, as I am, sometimes overwhelmed by the constant drumbeat of bad behavior and excuses. It is only too easy to become cynical as we constantly focus on the bad guys and try to examine the motives for unjustifiable actions.

But there is something going on in some of my students that gives me a sense that they understand the importance of struggling with these issues now, rather than waiting until they are in the midst of an ethically problematic situation in a few years. I have seen leaders emerging in the classroom in ways that are not as evident to me when I teach Auditing, because they must wrestle with challenging one another about what is true and right, while still respecting one another enough to listen to opposing viewpoints. As usual, their freely chosen outside reading is varied, but I have had a number of students take on very challenging thinkers. Many of these students would not embrace the viewpoints they are reading, but they want to understand why others have come to different conclusions.

At the end of the week the students will submit to me ten or fewer principles to guide their professional lives, and their reasoning for anchoring on those principles. Some will arrive at them through their reading, some despite it. Some of those principles will be influenced by other members of their ethics accountability groups; many will come from their historic commitments to faith, to family, and to habits that already exist in their hearts.

For six weeks I am the conductor, not so much of an orchestra as of a train. I set the thing in motion in a direction, and a number hop on for the whole ride. As I look in my mirror, I can see others bailing out of a boxcar and rolling down the embankment along the tracks. I even get the occasional call from someone who was left behind in the station.

But there are some who will discover at the end of the week that this train is just a short hop run to the central station, and they will have to make a choice about which train they will hop on next. What is exciting is that I can already see some of them pulling the money out of their pocket to buy that next ticket, because their ultimate destinations matter to them.

They are well aware that they could be headed for honor or for shame, and that the choice is largely theirs. One of the most frequently repeated words I have seen used in their weekly reading summaries is “courage.” It is a virtue that they will need in great measure if they are going to swim against a societal current that does not always value ethical leaders.

But as I turn the train around and head back, I can tell you that I am hopeful. I have had long conversations with students in this class that give me great hope that they will choose well. If they do, it will not be because of me. But they have learned something of valuing the company they keep and the habits they build.

What lies ahead of them, on tracks that will never be seen by me, is the great adventure of a life lived well. It includes investment in people, valuing others and not simply personal gain. It includes the ability to say no to bad priorities and unethical people. It will also involve saying yes to things that matter and things that cost them something.

Of course, some of them will sit in the station, look at the choices, call a cab, and go home. I am not teaching this course for everybody, but for somebody. I may never know who that somebody is. But I have no need to, as long as that somebody catches the right train.

That is why I teach ethics.

Categories: Texas A&M

I have written on multiple occasions about the tendency in our society for competence to trump integrity. Highly skilled individuals who accomplish the goals of those who hire them are regularly given free rein to succeed by whatever means necessary. People with integrity who fall short of the goals, and who refuse to compromise their integrity to get where they need to be, are often cut loose.

Since Bobby Petrino’s much publicized motorcycle crash on April Fool’s Day with a 25-year-old football program employee on the back, there has been significant discussion about how the story would end. Athletic director Jeff Long announced yesterday that Petrino was being terminated immediately “with cause,” meaning that there would be no buyout of his contract. Long determined that Petrino had violated the morals clause of that contract, something pretty much everybody else had figured out by the end of the day on April 1.

But the morals clause didn’t require that he be fired; it only allowed it. And in the current environment of intercollegiate athletics, it is pretty easy to be cynical about what administrators will do in these types of situations. A CBS Sports report indicated that the value of the football program to the university has increased 59 percent since Petrino became the coach, and his last two teams finished in the top 10. With Arkansas playing in the SEC West along with the two teams who played in last year’s national championship game, this is no small accomplishment. Athletic directors are hard pressed to move against coaches who have the support of the university’s board and of boosters.

But when Long looks in the mirror, he knows that, as the incoming athletic director, he was the one who hired someone with a reputation for lying and dissembling. He also stole him away from the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of the NFL season; the coach left notes in his players’ lockers letting them know he was leaving rather than meeting with them as a group. From the moment he was hired, Long knew that this was a high risk, high reward hire. He was hiring a ticking time bomb. Some boards of directors hire CEOs using the same reasoning. And Long was smart enough to structure the contract to make it very difficult for Petrino to leave on a whim, and easy to fire him if he went off the deep end. Long thought that he had largely controlled his risk.

Petrino, using the terms of my profession, is a walking control weakness. He is the type of person who can override all the systems you have in place to insure compliance with the rules. And he did just that. He not only had an affair with a former volleyball player who worked for the university’s foundation, he allegedly gave her a $20,000 gift, and then he hired her over 158 other candidates for a position within the football program. The collateral damage is not just to Petrino’s family. He leaves behind him evidence of sexual harassment and violations of explicit university policy, if not state and federal law. It is hard to fathom the amount of time that university attorneys will spend cleaning up the Bobby Petrino mess. And that is assuming that there is not another shoe to drop. As an auditor, I would be reasonably skeptical about rules being followed in other areas of the football program.

Adam Smith once said, “To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions.” I am pretty confident that the road that Bobby Petrino was traveling down with a blonde on the back of his motorcycle was not the road to virtue. And from all appearances, despite his driving record, Razorback boosters were hopping on the back and hitching a ride. Kudos to Jeff Long for catching a cab back to town to begin the process of rebuilding Razorback integrity.

Categories: Athletics

Beren Academy is a modest sized school in southwest Houston, one that values both academics and athletics. This year their boys basketball team has experienced a successful run through the state basketball playoffs of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). They dominated their quarterfinal opponent, Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills, 69-42, advancing to the state semifinals this Friday evening in Mansfield. It is a game they will never play. You see, Beren Academy is an Orthodox Jewish school, and the game is scheduled for the Sabbath.

Coach Chris Cole readily admits that school administrators knew that this was a possible outcome for the team. Beren is only in its second year in TAPPS after competing as an independent in sports. Led by a slippery point guard and a skilled post player with a deft outside touch, the Stars were clearly the best team in their district, and they have been untested so far in the playoffs. Despite the fact that the semifinal and final games of the state championship have long been scheduled during the 24-hour period in which the Stars are unable to play, a past exception made for a Seventh-Day Adventist school in the state soccer tournament gave Coach Cole and his team hope that accommodations could be made.

This story has been picked up by the major newspapers and ESPN, so it is not my intention to belabor the issues involved. This story is somewhat personal because my son plays basketball in the same district as Beren, and the Stars were the only team in the district to defeat his school twice. The district is made up of four Christian schools and Beren. All of the district schools readily adjusted their schedules so that games against Beren could be played on Thursday night instead of Friday night. Coach Cole has been outspoken in his appreciation of the schools’ flexibility, as well of that of their quarterfinal opponent.

There are big problems in the world, and this does not qualify as a big problem. But there is a principle at stake. From Beren’s perspective it is a principle of honoring the Sabbath. But from most people’s perspective, it is an issue of justice. Perhaps Beren should bear some additional cost if arrangements have to be made that inconvenience other schools. But it does not seem like that cost should include not competing for a state championship.

TAPPS was in the news a year ago for its decision to oust Allen Academy, a Bryan private school, because of questions regarding allegedly improper tuition breaks to recruit players. Rather than accept probation from TAPPS, Allen joined an alternative private school association, the Texas Christian Athletic League, and has won the last two TCAL state boys basketball titles. But the decision made by TAPPS in that case was arguably a defense of the integrity of the association, one intended to insure fairness in competition.

This situation is different. The only thing TAPPS is really protecting is convenience, and perhaps the pocketbooks of TAPPS members. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario by which TAPPS could find an alternative location for an early afternoon basketball game Friday Then, if Beren makes the finals, the game could be played Saturday night at 8 p.m., immediately following the last game of the day on the current schedule.

Is there a religious freedom issue here? Probably? Is there a religious accommodation issue? Certainly. But this is not about legalities; this is an opportunity for TAPPS to demonstrate something that you would think would come readily to an association that is primarily made up of schools that are explicitly identified with Jesus Christ—grace.

TAPPS cannot win this dispute in the court of public opinion, but that is not why they ought to let those Beren boys play. They ought to do it on priniciple. They ought to do it as a demonstration of respect for the convictions by which Beren unapologetically operates.

But, most of all, they ought to do it because it is the right thing to do.

Categories: Athletics, Religion

As I walked out of Kyle Field following the season’s last painful field goal, I could hear the interview beginning with Mike Sherman over the stadium speaker system. I had trouble understanding a lot of what he was saying, but the pain in his voice was clear. It was the same pain I could see in the faces of the mass of Aggies who were shuffling slowly down the ramp, periodically stopping for the human traffic jam at the bottom. Even the Longhorn celebration was muted in the mob.

I have seen this before. I am not talking about coaches being fired, though that is true; this is the third “final game” I have attended of an A&M head coach. What I have seen before is that I have seen people do everything right and then get punished for it.

What came to me in the days after the game was Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” “If you can keep your head when those about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you . . . .” I have rarely seen a better example of this in my years than Mike Sherman. I have never heard him blame others. He has never thrown players or coaches under the bus when it obviously would have been easy to do so. Pick a game this year, and any Aggie fan can identify the players who made the critical mistakes that changed the outcome. Not Mike Sherman. As much as he knows about football, when it comes to blaming he simply pleads ignorance.

As head football coach, Sherman had his own standard for character and performance. If you were unwilling to live by that standard, you would not see the field, and you might not even see the locker room. That was apparent during his first year in which he sacrificed a completely winnable game because of what seemed to me to be the obstinacy of a player who did not want to pull his weight. I knew then that he was not about records, but about developing a system of excellence, one that valued integrity and character above outcomes.

I do not mean to imply that outcomes did not matter to our head football coach. With each excruciating loss, he suffered openly, but with composure. He modeled for the men in his locker room, and even for middle aged men like me, what it is to walk through the fire with your head held high. He removed a popular quarterback last year for productivity reasons, just as he had removed the popular quarterback before that one. And yet both those quarterbacks were completely loyal not just to their team, but to their coach. This is leadership that is rarely found in the business world or in athletics.

Mike Sherman is not an eloquent man, and he is not a schmoozer. He is a football coach who worked his way up and has had the bright lights shine on him at both the professional and college level. He seems to never have lost the sense of who he is. I read this morning that he told one of our top recruits that he ought to come here anyway and have a great career. I am confident that he will stay in touch with that recruit to make sure that he does, and that he will offer that young man any help that he needs.

We ought to attract coaches like that to Texas A&M, and we did. I heard on the radio this morning that the groundwork that Coach Sherman laid will provide the next coach the opportunity to succeed early in his tenure here. A statement like that has to make Mike Sherman smile wistfully. Doing things right may enable another man to succeed in the place that I am convinced he really wanted to finish his career. But I am sure he recognizes that those kinds of comments create exactly the kind of expectations pressure that a nine-win season does. And I am guessing that he has empathy for what that new coach will face in the SEC environment.

But I don’t think he will sit around feeling sorry for himself. It is our loss that Mike Sherman will not be a part of the Aggie community in the days ahead. As with Kipling’s poem, his goal with his players was to help them develop the perseverance through hard times that builds the character that would lead to the poem’s final line: “And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”

I have sat in a large auditorium and watched Mike Sherman march his players in to listen to a lecture on integrity. But I can say with confidence that he was wasting his time doing so.

Because all those players needed to do to learn about integrity was to watch what Mike Sherman did.

Categories: Athletics, Texas A&M

A former student recently asked me to write about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Today’s paper reported our own OWS march in College Station though, admittedly, it consisted of only about 60 people. I read an interesting article the other day in The Wall Street Journal that focused on the legitimacy of concerns that college is overpriced, one of the causes of debt that has led OWS supporters to argue that the American system is unjust. The link between quality and price in American universities is worth a column, but I will save that for another day.

What I would like to focus on instead is a common thread in many problems today—our addiction to debt. There is a proverb that says, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” In my view, this has always been true. I find it humorous that people protest “greedy bankers.” It is like protesting hot summers in Texas. Bankers are greedy because they make money off their money. Ethics and banking are the lubricants of the capital markets, as we teach in Mays Business School. Only one is free and the other is a $500 oil change. Bankers do not produce anything; they enable others to produce things. And their goal is to make as much money off their money as possible.

All the big banks recently decided to raise debit card fees. Since it included bailed out banks, many people objected strenuously. The main problem I had with the policy change is that banks have spent the past ten years offering incentives to addict people to their debit cards, and then they turned around and charged for the behavior they incentivized. But how is that different from almost all marketing ploys, like satellite TV services offering me a twelve-month entry price and then continually increasing my bill once I am addicted to ESPN? Airlines have used checked bag fees to become profitable. But the master of this technique is the federal government. Just read your cell phone bill for all the fees they have dreamed up to charge you.

We still have control of the situation. Debit cards are broadly available from other financial institutions, and for most people a credit union will do everything a bank can do. And my biggest problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it implies that we have no choice in matters that lead to bankers being the master and borrowers being mistreated. Most debt is volitional, whether we admit it or not. Even where it is necessary, the amount of debt is volitional. If you speculatively borrow to buy a bigger house than you can afford because you think its value will increase, or because you want to live a certain way, you expose yourself to risk. I know, because I once bought a house that I could not afford. When I finally sold it, I walked away with $400 of my equity and the charred smell of the flame that almost consumed me financially. But it was my choice to do it.

In contrast, my son, who has had a good job for five years and is wealthier than I am, lives in a 500-square-foot apartment. And that is a step up. He used to live in somebody’s basement. If you use your student loan to fund a Starbucks lifestyle or an apartment in one of the high end complexes with all the amenities, you are presuming your ability to repay. And you have put yourself in a position that you may seriously regret one day.

There was a time when people saved to go to college. People argue all the time that the cost of college has escalated so fast that there is no way for most people to do that anymore. I empathize, as my fourth child is in college, and my fifth is a year and a half away. But my father fought a world war, and worked, and saved, and scraped to get his bachelor’s degree at age 31. He did not feel he had the inherent right at age 22 to become the research physicist he eventually became. He was convinced he had other duties, and he fulfilled them. He was a mechanic, and a bus driver, and a Marine before he was a white-collar worker. And while he was in college, he lived with my Mom and my brother in a small trailer that they pulled behind the car.

The debt that homeowners and college students burden themselves with is no different than Greece borrowing itself into oblivion to finance a welfare state. People riot rather than give up their benefits and say that their treatment is unjust. But Greece is a slave to their lenders, whether they are French, German, British, or American. And if they will not adjust their behavior, their economy will collapse completely. Even now, consideration is being given to their ejection from the European Union.

We are well on our way in the U.S. to doing the same thing. We are continuing to run obscene deficits that are unnecessary because we are addicted to our lifestyle. Serious discussions of how to cut are dismissed, and state-level cuts are objected to as cruel and unjust. We can yell all we want, but this will not go on forever. There is a day when you have to pay. And our “bankers” are not letting us borrow with our best interests in mind. They are doing it to make a buck. And when they can’t, they will call that loan.

So occupy Wall Street if you must, but you can’t change the proverb. The borrower is slave to the lender. What I plan to do is figure out how to eliminate my remaining debt and determine how much extra work my kids and I need to do to pay for their college.

And when it’s all paid off, I’ll get my lawn chair and come out to watch the protests.

Categories: Business, Society

Rich Kinder is a living parable.  Fifteen years ago he was denied the job he really wanted—CEO of Enron.  Instead, he was passed over for a financial engineering wunderkind, Jeff Skilling, who famously went on to crash and burn the seventh largest U.S. company.  Kinder went his own way, purchasing a modest pipeline operation that Enron no longer valued because of the “sleepy” nature of the business.  To Enron’s executives, there were better ways to make money, and they were the ones smart enough to leave the old ways behind and create new and better markets.  Jeff Skilling is serving 24 years in prison; Rich Kinder, on the other hand, is reportedly the richest person in Houston.

Kinder took that modest pipeline and transformed it through a series of acquisitions into what is now Kinder Morgan, Inc., which just announced that it would purchase El Paso Corp. for $21.1 billion, creating what would be the fourth largest American energy company.  It is a company with the potential to dominate the movement of natural gas across the U.S., particularly from the rapidly developing shale formations that are transforming the face of the energy industry.  Speculation that those formations may hold 100 years’ worth of natural gas has led to an explosion of capital investment, despite depressed prices for natural gas.  And Kinder Morgan will essentially charge for the transport of this gas, regardless of energy prices.

One can imagine the disappointment that accompanied Kinder’s denial of the Enron CEO job by Ken Lay, someone he had known since their days at the University of Missouri.  There was no way he could know what he was being protected from, but he did not go quietly into retirement or rest on his laurels.  Kinder knew pipelines, and Enron’s roots were as a pipeline company.  He knew what he had to offer, and he knew there was real value in that business, regardless of whether Ken Lay valued it or not.  And he went on to take his company private, then IPO it again, while maintaining a massive personal stake.  Forbes estimated his net worth this past March at $7.4 billion.

Here at Mays Business School, we do a good job of preparing our students for success.  What is much harder to do is to prepare students to fail, to fall short of goals, to finish second when only winning seems important.  The character that comes from remaining true to who you are in the face of obstacles, of unfair decisions, of shortsightedness on the part of others, is only developed through painful transformations.  Sometimes unfairness and failures make the wheels come off of lives that seem to be doing just fine.  Other times, these injustices fuel future successes.

But it is important for me to remind my students that they always get to choose their response to circumstances, even if they do not get to choose the circumstances themselves.  It is easier to complain than it is to get better.  And there are always sympathetic ears ready to help us wallow in our misery.  But that path is a dead end.

When we send students out from this place, they are works in progress.  What they are made of can only be revealed by time and experience.  They can protest in parks if they are unemployed, or they can improve their resumes and knock on doors.  They can leave when they are passed over for a promotion, or they can use that motivation to chart a different course, perhaps one they had not thought of before.

I meet very few students who expect to go out of here and fail.  And those who have failed are too seldom invited back to our classrooms to tell their stories.  The irony is that the very seeds of our success often dwell in the rotting fruit of our failures.  The opportunity to become someone they have never imagined comes when the barriers in their planned paths are insurmountable.

There is more than irony in Rich Kinder’s story.  There is the sweet fragrance of justice, of the end result being beyond all expectations.  In the end, Rich Kinder’s bio is a demonstration of the victory of substance over form.  And in a world that glorifies vacuous entertainers and makes people rich who have not really created anything, it is nice to see someone succeed who stuck to basics, thought long-term, and connected with other people of substance.  Whether the Justice Department allows the acquisition or not, I have no doubt that Rich Kinder will continue to overcome obstacles.

What I hope to learn from him is how to turn my biggest disappointments into greater opportunities.  Is anyone out there with me in wanting to learn how?

Categories: Business

We were driving to a former student’s wedding in west Texas this weekend, and our trip provided an up close and personal look at the damage that has been done by the wild fires raging across Texas this summer. Virtually every mile of the landscape was bone dry, but parts had been ravaged. We had to detour around Bastrop, which would have been our normal route, because the largest wild fire in Texas history had wiped out hundreds of homes and much of the state park. It likely will never be the same in my lifetime.

West of Austin, near Spicewood, the ground was charred on both sides of the road. The Pedernales River had no water in it where we crossed. Once we passed Brady, we were moving into what is traditionally west Texas, where the ground is always dry in the summer. It looked more natural there.

The winery where the wedding was held, near Christoval, could not have provided a starker contrast. Massive oak trees shaded the folding chairs from the evening sun, offering a majestic backdrop for those watching the ceremony. On either side were the rows of grapevines, lush and full, with a slow drip of water falling to the ground below them every few feet. The grass under the chairs was a luxuriant green. Everything about the setting, including the ceremony, spoke of tender care and careful attention.

Two west Texas families, one dressed mostly in cowboy formal, embraced the couple and one another in genuine joy. My wife and I were invited to join a table reserved for wedding party members that included two other former students. My primary observation sitting there was that I could not remember seeing more couples who were genuinely enjoying dancing together, not just dancing. I kept sensing that there was nowhere those couples would rather be than in each other’s arms. Daddies danced with daughters while Moms took pictures. The pastor danced with every woman who wasn’t chained down. There was the deep and unmistakable smell of life in the place. I was reluctant to leave, even though virtually everyone there was a stranger to me.

There is a tendency to take for granted the reliability of the seasons, of rain, of the essentials being provided when we need them, of life. This summer has made me less complacent, and more conscious of preserving the things that sustain life. We are living on the edge. A friend recently had to call 911 because someone’s cigarette butt had started a grass fire in her neighborhood. One moment she was trying to beat it out with a blanket, the next it was a 20 by 40 foot fire ready to take off down the street. Only a quickly arriving pumper truck prevented a serious problem.

I have noticed that, for many people, relationships are a tinder box as well, ready to catch fire and run out of control. And what catches them on fire are careless words. Speaking without thinking, angry words stretch and break relationships that have held together for years. Economic pressures make people self-interested and magnify others’ offenses.

We have even seen it in the process of Texas A&M detaching from the Big 12, and not just in blog posts. People are ready to set on fire longstanding relationships, and they make comments designed not to persuade, but to anger and to cut.

It may be time to leave, but bridges burned are not easily rebuilt. I know that many Aggies are tired of one school being condescending and another clinging on for dear life. But there are also legitimate concerns when we walk away from commitments, whether or not there are official contracts. We ought to patiently listen, even if it can be tiring and unnecessarily contentious. We could have left last year when it would have been easier. But we didn’t. We cannot control what others say about the situation, but we can make the choice to say less ourselves.

The ground is really dry out there. What we need is the drip, drip, drip of wisdom to bring back some life to the soil, and to the vines. It is a lot easier to toss the cigarette butt out the window and see what happens than it is to stop the vehicle and stomp it out on the pavement. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the pumper truck doesn’t get there in time to prevent some unintended consequences.

Categories: Friends, Society

I have a high school friend who told me the other day that she could guess what I was going to write about this week. I am quite confident that more than necessary has already been written about the latest New York politician to implode. I watched a brief press conference today in which the moral high ground was held by a celebrity lawyer who specializes in taking high profile clients and ratcheting up the public embarrassment to squeeze additional dollars out of people who have morally compromised themselves. At least I think she held the moral high ground. It might have been the dancer next to her who just wanted her life back.

Anthony Weiner seems oblivious to the damage he is doing to his reputation, to his party, to his marriage, and to his causes. It is clearly all about him, with his life meaning inextricably tied to his ability to retain power and the benefits that go with it. He is what he does. It is hard not to wince.

But he is not the only one. West Virginia University head football coach Bill Stewart recently resigned under pressure after being accused by a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter of asking the reporter to dig up dirt on head-coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen, who is now the head coach, made the job somewhat easier a few weeks ago by allegedly being escorted from a casino at 3 a.m. by security personnel, leading to other rumors. WVU athletic director Oliver Luck thought that it was a good idea to hire Holgorsen while telling Stewart he would be gone in a year. This was despite the fact that Stewart had been hired after being the interim coach for a huge upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, and followed that up with three nine-win seasons. This is roughly equivalent to being asked to wash the socks of your girlfriend’s new boyfriend (only you get paid seven figures to do it). I think it is safe to say that we will not see any more head-coaches-in-waiting.

Stewart was understandably upset at being dumped. But he managed to take a bad situation that elicited sympathy even from people who thought he should be fired, and turn it into a permanent divorce from the university. He could not accept that it was time to move on.

Last year’s news was dominated by this same story involving Brett Favre, whose closing chapter of his career managed to combine both football and sexual harassment. As his body and his season fell apart, he finally found it in himself to say that it was over.

UPDATE: Shortly following the publication of this column, Rep. Anthony Weiner held a press conference announcing his immediate resignation from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Or did he? Few believe that John Edwards can ever be a viable presidential candidate again after his scandal. But apparently the taste of power, and fame, and money can make men do strange things. Some things are apparently so precious that they must be secured at any cost, regardless of the damage to others.

Maybe we can think of Weiner, Stewart and Favre as the Fellowship of the Ring. But what they bring to mind for me is a song from the early 70’s that the Jackson Five made famous—”Never Can Say Goodbye.”

One day they will ask me to walk away from the classroom and not come back. My name won’t be on any statues or doors on the campus. My day will have passed. And that day will be here before I know it.

I only hope, when it comes, that I have what it takes to say thanks and walk away. Because, if what you do is who you are, you never can say goodbye.

Categories: Athletics, Politics

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

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