Home Pro Is There an Ethical Line in the Sand That Can’t be Crossed?

Is There an Ethical Line in the Sand That Can’t be Crossed?


During a press conference held on March 7 at Ohio State University officials confirmed what media outlets such as Yahoo.Sports and USA Today had already reported.   Jim Tressel, the highly successful coach of the Buckeyes’ prominent football team, had misled officials for months by not revealing information he possessed about the involvement of Buckeye football players in selling signed memorabilia to a person with a criminal past who then sold the items on Ebay.  In addition to receiving cash, the players also were given free tattoos at a local parlor.

It was announced that Coach Tressel was being fined $250,000 and suspended for two games during the 2011 football season.

Officials confirmed that the NCAA is investigating the incident further.  Just before the recent Sugar Bowl in which the Buckeyes played and beat Arkansas the NCAA had announced that it was suspending several players for five games in the upcoming 2011 season and requiring to pay to charity the value of the impermissible benefits they received.

This story has been widely reported in numerous media outlets.  Many commentators have focused on how differently the Ohio State players and Coach Tressel have been treated by the NCAA compared to penalties handed down by the University of Tennessee against men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl this past fall for misleading school and NCAA investigators last summer.

This is not the forum for a discussion of the specifics of these two situations.  What must be considered, however, are the underlying problems all athletic administrators at any level are faced with.  In 2011 money is scarce for education at all levels.  At the same time spending on “big time” college athletics continues to escalate at a rapid pace.  There are many people who wonder if the huge amounts of money that many major Division I athletic programs generate have created a situation where ethical considerations can get lost.  At the very least many people find it unseemly that major institutions of higher learning are scrambling to find money to preserve staff and programs while athletic departments spend money as if they have printing presses installed that spit out money.

Related to the question of priorities is the question of ethics.  Commentators have noted that Gordon Gee, the President of Ohio State, actually made the situation worse in some ways during the recent press conference when he downplayed the severity of the issues involving Coach Tressel.  Dr. Gee appeared to give an unqualified vote of confidence for Coach Tressel and to attempt to minimize the coach’s actions.

Therapists of all persuasions routinely talk to clients about accepting responsibility for their actions.  What is a sports administrator to think when a coach tries to justify withholding evidence of potentially criminal activity on the part of some of his players on the grounds that he was afraid for their safety?  Likewise, what lessons are to be drawn when a school president states that he trusts his football coach 100% and knows that he will always do the right thing when he just admitted in a press conference that the coach had for several months not “done the right thing”?  Where is the acceptance of responsibility?

It seems as though many officials in college athletics (and at other levels as well) take the approach that “truth” is whatever works at a given point in time.  This is not the lesson colleges and universities need to be teaching their students.  In this case the old bromide holds true, “If it walks like a duck; quacks like a duck; and smells like a duck it’s a duck”.  In early 2009 Indiana University fired its then head basketball coach, Kelvin Sampson, after an investigation revealed that he had been less than forthcoming during a school and NCAA investigation into possible impermissible phone calls to recruits.  Contrast this action with recent events at the University of Tennessee and at Ohio State University.

Ultimately it is up to each person to make his or her own ethical judgments.  All any of us can do is to try and make all of our decisions concerning  issues involving sporting teams as though we are teaching values to our own children.

Anyone interested in reading more about this subject can go to:

  • http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/stewart_mandel/03/08/ohio.state.jim.tressel.sanctions/index.html
  • http://msn.foxsports.com/collegefootball/story/Ohio-State-Buckeyes-athletic-director-Jim-Tressel-allegations-030811

Fred Cromartie, EdD
Dr. Cromartie is the Dean of Academic Affairs and the Director of Doctoral Studies at the United States Sports Academy. He has masters and doctoral degrees in sports management from the Academy and has a professional background in human resources and management.


  1. There is obviously no doubt that the money is a major decision
    factor for schools.  However, it is not a
    deciding factor on whether or not to follow the rules.  It is a temptation.  These are programs that have staffs whose
    only charge is to advise the coach/AD on rule compliance.  It is usually a conscience decision to act,
    or not act in cases such as Ohio State, by these programs.  The rules are clear, and violations are
    punishable.  The argument has been made
    on countless forums and open source media that the rules are unjust to the
    players.  This is a different
    discussion.  One can easily argue that player’s
    rights are compromised to the point that the temptation to break the rules is
    too great.  This is very similar to the many
    scandals that plagued international rugby players that eventually led to a
    Player’s Union and certain rule changes that degrade the urge to break the
    rules.  However, none of that changed the
    sentences levied to those that were found guilty of knowingly broke the rules.  For more see: Once Were Lions by Jeff Connor,
    Harper Collins UK, 2009.

  2. As an athlete and coach I have first hand knowledge of how winning can change the culture of the entire school and how it is viewed by others. I have never  coached in a big city but have talked to many athletes who attend  city schools and they always want to go to the schools with winning traditions. This is the same for college. Therefor, when a college wins and gets national exposure on TV they can have huge enrollment increases. Example being Butler after winning the national championship this past year has experiences an enrollment increase of 41% from the year before. This is the reason why winning is viewed so highly by all colleges. So when they are recruiting and see an opportunity to get an athlete they do everything they can to get him  or her.

  3. Fortunately or unfortunately in this day and age money is the bottom line.  As stated at the beginning of this article colleges and universities are cutting back on many departments and staff because of budget constraints while giving more  money to many sports programs. What many people don’t understand that the two are more connected then they seem. College Presidents of many Universities realize that having winning athletic programs while increase there application pool for the student body. Schools such as the University of Connecticut have seen a dramatic rise in applications to the university since its basketball team has been nationally competitive. Adversely behind closed doors, will giving more money to Science department have that much of a application increase for a school? I don’t know the answer but it is a common thinking point (not talked about) around large universities especially state universities.    


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