Wednesday, October 24, 2007


A somewhat related issue arises today. All too many of today’s “student athletes” seem to be “criminal athletes.”

One possibility is that they are behaving no differently than in the past, but their misdeeds, as with those of Hollywood celebrities, will no longer be ignored by reporters. A change in societal mores, coupled with the rise of talk radio, the internet, and blogs means few crimes of celebrities and sports figures will go unreported. The spotlight especially shines on wining programs.

A classic case from two decades ago involves Nebraska and its sensational running back, Lawrence Phillips. In an act now commonly referred to as ‘domestic abuse,” he dragged his girlfriend by her hair down a stairwell. He was suspended for a few games, but then started the Fiesta Bowl, rushing for 165 yards and scoring two rushing and one receiving touchdown. Both Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett and Phillips have enjoyed America’s prison system after their college careers ended.

Florida and Texas have witnessed an abnormally high number of football players arrested since they won their national championships in the past two years. For example, 6 Longhorn players were arrested between June and September 2007. Miami and Oklahoma acquired reputations in the 1980’s and 1990’s of running "out of control" programs. Notre Dame used to play the University of Miami annually. The 1988 game received the sobriquet “Catholics versus Convicts.” Notre Dame soon stopped scheduling Miami because of the behavior of Miami players. Colorado is recovering from player and recruiting scandals with its football team. A jury in September 2003 awarded $1 million in damages to a woman who accused three Notre Dame players and a former player of rape. Even highly respected programs, such as Penn State, have seen players arrested for alleged criminal behavior.

Whatever drives some of these players to success in a violent game may also move some of them to violent, anti social behavior in non-academic, non-athletic activities. Steroids also play a role in promoting player violence both on and off the field. Even today, all too many players start bulking up in high school.

Let us not forget my first alma mater, the University of San Francisco, which in 1982 suspended its then prominent basketball program for problems with tutors and a sexual assault by a player. The USF basketball program has not yet recovered.

Fans all too often also engage in boorish and loutish behavior. The retiring President of Ohio State recently stated in an interview that a culture of rioting existed at Ohio State when she became President in 2002: “When you win a game, you riot. When you lose a game, you riot. When spring comes, you riot. African-American Heritage Festival Weekend, you riot.”

Clearly, most Ohio State students do not participate in these riots. Nor is the problem limited to Ohio State. Michigan had problems a decade earlier when its basketball program was riding high. Kentucky’s students rioted after the upset over LSU two weeks ago. Maryland’s NCAA Basketball Championship was celebrated with similar destructiveness. University of Massachusetts students rioted after Red Sox victories in 2004 and after UMass beat Appalachian State a few years back for the National Football Championship. These are but a few examples of unruly common student behavior. Riots and demonstrations are not limited to sporting events. Anti-war, anti-military, anti-CIA, anti ROTC, anti draft protests, Civil Rights, diversity enrollment and the environment have drawn their fair share of demonstrations and riots at campuses over the decades.

A second explanation is that character is often not a factor in recruiting. Coaches whose careers depend on winning will recruit raw ability rather than character. In addition, many overlook transgressions in an effort to keep players happy. Professors have tenure. Coaches do not. Since many star athletes have been treated as royalty long before they entered college, their sense of entitlement is ever greater. Somewhere along the way, they lost their moral compass.

Let us look though at two great coaches from the past. Mike Warren was a star basketball guard at UCLA and has since achieved success in Hollywood. He left Indiana to play for Coach John Wooden. He said this about Coach Wooden in a recent LA Times article:

“I arrive and I am 18 years old, a grown man now, of course. And there are parties and something going on day and night in the UCLA campus. I’m there, enjoying it all.

Then I get a call to see Coach Wooden. I’m fine. Excited. Figure we would talk about basketball. Then I get into his office and he’s looking at me. Those beady eyes. He asks me if I know why I am here and I tell him yes, to play basketball. And he says no, I’m here to get an education and if I don’t shape up, I’m going to get neither basketball nor an education. He says my parents would certainly not appreciate the way I am conducting myself.

The next quarter I was on the Dean’s List.”

We also know today that, although he wanted no publicity at the time, Ohio State’s great, and sometimes surly and combative coach, Woody Hayes was deeply interested in his players receiving an education. So concerned was Woody that he personally tutored History and English to many of his players.

Where are these coaches today?

A third explanation is that sometimes players are victims of false accusations. The Duke Lacrosse players are a prime example of this phenomenon. The allegations initially had a degree of credibility because of past incidents with the players, but many in society, including Duke Faculty, were quick to jump on the bandwagon against the team and players.

Faculty, whose primary concern is the educational quality of the institution, are often upset by the independence of athletic programs, low admissions standards for the athletes, and their misdeeds. However, they also need to recognize the realities of academic life. If the students and alumni of many universities were polled as to which they would prefer for the school:

I) A faculty member winning a Nobel Prize;
II) A football player winning the Heisman; or
III) A national championship in basketball or football?

The Nobel Prize would probably come in a distant third. Even the Ivy League universities realize that their alumni want successful athletic programs. For example, Harvard must beat Yale on the fields of play and similarly Yale must beat Harvard.

T. Boone Pickens, a Oklahoma State alum, donated $165 million to his alma mater for athletic facilities. Phil Knight, a Oregon grad and founder of Nike, has been incredibly supportive of the Oregon athletic program, with over $100 million recently. Indeed, at one point Oregon students wanted to remove Nike clothes from the university because of overseas child labor issues. Phil simple threatened to remove his support from the University. He won; the students lost. His name is on several campus buildings, including the main library.

Schools, like Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Stanford with high admissions standards and supervision of their student athletes in big time sports programs should not incur the high number of incidents experienced by schools and coaches which recruit and then tolerate loose behavior by players. No school is immune, but some seem to have higher rates than others.

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