Friday, September 10, 2010

Thinking of Reggie Bush: Make coaches pay when athletes violate NCAA rules

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for Ethics

Published reports said in early September that Reggie Bush could be stripped of his Heisman Trophy because he accepted gifts and cash while he was playing football for the University of Southern California. A week later, the New Orleans running back announced he would relenquish his trophy. The 2005 Heisman, which Bush called "one of the greatest honors of my life," was being erased along with all his other college honors.

Georgia wide receiver A. J. Green has been suspended for four games for selling a game jersey for $1,000, which was a violation of NCAA rules that prohibit players from selling memorabilia. Georgia, without Green, lost to rival South Carolina, putting his team in a must win situation if it hopes to compete in the SEC.

College athletes are expected to resist all financial rewards for playing. Their compensation is tuition, books, room and board. Yet they see the institutions and the coaches of college sport make huge amounts of money. In Georgia, for instance, Head Coach Mark Richt makes $3 million per year. At USC during the Bush years, Head Coach Pete Carroll made more than $4 million.

The problems are clear from a rules-based perspective. If Bush and Green failed to abide by NCAA rules, they are subject to sanctions. They are expected to know the NCAA rules — all 434 pages. Before they play NCAA athletics, they’re must sign documents to that effect.
However, a rules-based perspective may be blind to the real world of college athletes. A rules-based system assumes athletes know the rules, even if they probably don’t. One athlete at the University of Idaho described his introduction to NCAA rules where school officials sat him down with a pile of documents: “They said if you don’t sign, you can’t play. So you sign.” When we recently asked a group of athletes in class if they actually read the documents before signing them, none of them had.

In an educational institution, one might expect to see some educational program surrounding the rules, one where students learn about the reasoning and principles behind the rules. At the very least, we might expect that training in the rules is provided to athletes before they’re asked to sign them. Wouldn’t it be better to spend time teaching athletes about the principles and responsibilities they’re expected to uphold rather than wait until someone catches the next Reggie Bush taking money from an agent or booster. In the absence of such an educational program, it would appear that the rules — and the signing ritual demanded of athletes — are mostly for a tool to penalize athletes after they err.

Bush and Green may not understand, but the people who paid the real penalty for the violations are other students. They’re the ones who lose their opportunities to win a scholarship or play in a bowl game. When Green takes $1,000 for a shirt, his teammates suffer because they must play without him in several big games. If Bush and Green had learned to think about how others will be affected by their decisions, they may have come to a different conclusion. However, if all they think about are the “rules,” they may believe, as they do in games, that all is well if the referee fails to spot the violation.

How about creating models of ethical behavior within sports programs and making coaches responsible for the behavior of their athletes? No one is saying that athletes shouldn't be held personally responsible for their behavior, but they should not be held solely responsible. Any program that asks students to lie before they can play the game — in other words, asks them to sign a document saying they read and understand the rules, when they don’t — provides a poor ethical model. When coaches accept millions for work done by athletes who get almost nothing, they’re telling athletes that sport is not fair or just. The huge disparity in benefits between the coach and the athlete may encourage some to seek professional benefits before they’re truly professionals.

Of course, if the coach was required to give back some of those millions if members of his team are found to be violating NCAA rules, perhaps the coach would may more attention. Here’s a thought for institutions: If you give bonuses to coaches when they’re athletes win games, why not ask coaches to personally take responsibility when their athletes violate NCAA rules? Would that encourage them to educate their athletes about making good ethical decisions?

Here’s what Dr. Sharon Kay Stoll says on the issue:

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