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.
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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.