Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sleaziness rises in college football

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Coverage of sleaziness in college football this week has rivaled the Barry Bonds trial. We learned about the "money handshake" and sexual favors offered to recruits at such schools such as Ohio State and Auburn. As HBO reported on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," former Auburn players say they were given cash payments in book bags and envelopes, as well as offered sex.

In another story, Jim Tressel, coach of Ohio State, is being assailed for covering up NCAA violations by his players. Tracee Hamilton of the Washington Post says Tressel betrayed his duty to his players. She writes:

"If I were a coach and I knew that five of my players were not only violating NCAA rules, they were doing it with a man being investigated by the federal government for drug trafficking, I wouldn’t turn to a 'mentor' of one of them. I’d turn first to my athletic director and the university counsel to see how best to keep these five players from ending up on the wrong end of a very unpleasant federal investigation — or worse.

"That’s your job as coach: to protect your players. You go into parents’ living rooms and promise them you’ll take their kids, coach ’em up, give them an education and keep them out of trouble. You don’t make promises to their 'mentors.' And if you do, you’d better stop. 'Mentor' is a word that should be raising eyebrows at the NCAA all the way to the ceiling."

And then there's the case of Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker using money from the non-profit organization to pay for strip clubs, birthday parties at Pebble Beach and sending friendly politicians to football games in Chicago and Boston. Junker said he needed to take clients to the strip club because athletes are known to frequent such establishments and that makes them a good place to do business.

Some female sports fans are disgusted. Here's what The Stir said about the allegations involving Ohio State: "And it's gross. Morally. Ethically. Legally. Buckets of cash dropped on college athletes are an insult to the other hardworking students of the university, and we've been promised plenty of money stories on tonight's Real Sports broadcast. But a case of prostitutes sent to players is demoralizing to the tens of thousands of women who make up the Buckeye nation."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hold Fiesta Bowl as accountable as errant athletes

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

"It is expected that all parties contracted with the BCS will live up to the highest standards," said BCS director Bill Hancock following revelations about mishandling of Fiesta Bowl funds.

How refreshing.

Fiesta Bowl executives were caught taking lawmakers on junkets to football games in Chicago and Boston. They held fundraisers to support various politicians. They gave away game tickets to politicos. And they concocted a scheme to funnel Fiesta Bowl money directly into political campaigns. All those things  violate the Fiesta Bowl's non-profit status.

The political contribution scheme involved employees being pressured to give money to politicians, then being reimbursed with "bonuses" from the Fiesta Bowl. And don't forget the $1,200 tab for a strip club for Fiesta Bowl executives, or the $33,000 birthday bash at Pebble Beach for Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker.

Junker was fired following an investigative report on the Fiesta Bowl fiasco released Tuesday. Now Hancock and the BCS are reviewing whether the Fiesta Bowl should remain a BCS game.

Given that NCAA athletes are held to such high standards, it seems appropriate to hold the Fiesta Bowl no less accountable. If an athlete sells a bit of memorabilia, he or she can be suspended for several games. That makes suspending the Fiesta Bowl from the BCS for several games sound like an extremely appropriate punishment.

And perhaps it will send a message about the purpose of sport to college football leaders. The college game is supposed to be about education. When executives at the Fiesta Bowl are allowed to use the game for self-serving and illegal purposes, they teach athletes that all the talk about building character and seeking excellence is just a bunch of hot air.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sordid tales in the Barry Bonds trial

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

The mistress of Barry Bonds told a sordid story about the ballplayer's physical changes during the years that he was allegedly taking steroids.

As you can read in the Twitter reports from George Dohrmann, Kim Bell testified that Bonds developed acne, suffered sexual problems and began making violent threats toward her. In tears, Bell testified Bonds threatened, "He would cut my head off and leave me in ditch.... Would cut out my breast implants because he paid for them," according to Dohrmann.

Bell also testified that Bonds directly acknowledged using steroids. "He had an injury on his elbow, big lump, but started out loose conversation, how it got that way, he said cuz of steroids," Dohrmann tweeted. 

Here's an AP story about the trial discussing those issues.

In opening statements, Bonds' attorney admitted that Bonds used steriods, though the did so without the knowledge he was using them. Supposedly, he was being duped by his trainer into thinking he was using flaxseed oil and arthritis medicine.

But when Bell testified about the dramatic changes in Bonds' physical and emotional condition, there's no question but that Bonds and those around him must have recognized that this was no side effect of flaxseed oil. These are classic side effects of steroid use.

And young athletes should see this as a powerful reminder of the consequences of the drug. Yes, Bonds got bigger and stronger. Yes, he will be remembered as the home run champ. But in our minds there will always be an asterisk beside his name reminding us that he was also that man who threatened to rip off his girlfriend's breasts and failed in his bedroom performances.

Is winning worth that? And even if it was worth it to Bonds, what was the price for those around him?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Are you sure Jose Canseco signed that?

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Jose Canseco and his twin brother Ozzie were caught trying to play bait-and-switch in a celebrity boxing match, according to ESPN.

Jose was supposed to fight in a match at the Hard Rock nightclub in Hollywood, FL. However, patrons saw that it was actually Ozzie, primarily because the two men have different arm tattoos. Sleeves matter. Apparently they've pulled this trick before at autograph signings, ESPN said, where tattoos would be less visible than in a boxing match.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel noted this might seem like just an off footnote to the ballplayer's career if it weren't for Jose's past: "It's one thing to roll your eyes at a faux boxing event that fizzled. It's another to hear how the man who brought down baseball with steroid charges allegedly tried to pull off this silly switcheroo."

Now Jose is in a legal fight with the promoter over the $5,000 he was paid in advance. Perhaps Jose was a respected millionaire athlete at one time. Now he's looking more like Tonya Harding.

Like Harding, he's not much of a boxer, either. As the Sun Sentinel reported, Canseco has lost two fights already and fought to a draw with Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce.

Is this is the same Jose Canseco who recently said the Barry Bonds trial was a waste of time and money because there were more important issues in the world than steroids? (Like celebrity boxing, for instance?) His point in the article was that people lie all the time and get away with it.

Well, perhaps Jose will one day learn that lying is not the best policy -- or even an acceptable policy. But for now, he doesn't inspire much trust.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sport and public health

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Is sport becoming a public health problem? And if it is, do we, as members of the sports community, have a duty to address that problem?

This a tough question being addressed at multiple levels of sport. In Sunday's New York Times, they address the issue of knee injuries in female athletes, who are five times more likely than men to face ACL injuries. And those injuries have the potential to create osteoarthritis 10 or 15 years down the road. According to the Times:

"'This is more than a sports medicine problem,' said Dr. Edward Wojtys, the director of sports medicine at the University of Michigan. 'It’s becoming a public health problem.'

"A number of coaches and trainers have criticized youth development in sports, where far more attention is paid to winning and athletic skills than to injury prevention. [Connecticut's Geno] Auriemma and other coaches also wonder whether girls are reinforcing poor biomechanical behavior by specializing in a sport too soon."

In hockey, we're seeing growing concern about concussions. Boston Bruins center Mark Savard is suffering serious memory problems following a concussion, according to ESPN. He complains of being sleepy all the time, that things seem to move slower, and of depression. In a game where fighting has been a key part of the sport, the NHL now struggles with the health ramifications facing its multi-million dollar players.

In the NFL, where concussions are up 21 percent, the league is changing rules to try to reduce the problem. Kickoffs have been shortened. And the NFL now supports changes in laws to help protect young football players from head injuries.

But as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, it's going to require a change in culture to change our attitude toward injury in sport. We often see injury as an accepted risk of the game. But that attitude seems to ignore the player.

We need to put ourselves in the place of, say, football player Kort Breckenridge, whose story you can see at The New York Times site. The Idaho high school player suffered severe mental problems following multiple concussions. After listening to Breckenridge's slurred speech, no coach could say the young man's mental disorder was a fair outcome of a game of football.

And as a grandfather with a touch of arthritis in my hip, I can't imagine my granddaughter facing the same pain at age 30 simply because she wanted to play soccer or basketball. She deserves a game that maximizes the fun and educational value of sport, without placing her long-term health at risk. If that means better educated coaches who clearly understand the biomechanics of athletes, as Auriemma suggests, that should become a priority for sport. If that means new rules for sport down to the high school level, as Goodell suggests, that should become a priority, also.

Health is more important than a game. The game can survive changes of rules, but our kids may not survive intact if the hazards are not contained.

Friday, March 25, 2011

HGH testing in the NFL

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

The NFL is insisting that all players in the league be tested for human growth hormone (HGH), according to ESPN. Owners want the testing as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, saying that it's important to the integrity of the game.

No one knows how widespread the use of HGH may be. FDA regulations restrict its use and say it must be administered by a physician. However, movie stars such as Sylvester Stallone have promoted HGH as part of their fitness regime. And tests for HGH have generally been regarded as ineffective, in part because they can only catch someone who has used it within 48 hours -- or perhaps less.

But new tests are in development that could increase the testing window to two weeks. Terry Newton, a UK rugby player, was the first professional sport star to be caught by an HGH test when he tested positive and accepted a two-year suspension last year. But his story ended in tragedy when he killed himself a few months later.

In an interview before his death, Newton admitted he became a cheater, in his own words, as he tried to resurrect his career following an injury. He'd heard gossip that there were other players using it and that it was undetectable. "I was cheating, but I thought other people were cheating too – and that there was no way of getting found out," he told the The Independent. But even after admitting his own failings, he refused to name others who he knew were using HGH.

That's another sad part of his story. Newton had so much loyalty to his former teammates that he allowed them to keep cheating, even though he knew the consequences for the game and for other users. Loyalty trumped his sense of right and wrong.

That Newton would allow his mates to use the drug suggests that he still saw success in the game as more important than long-term health. As the Independent also reported, HGH can have even more dangerous side effects than steroids: "It can lead to swelling of the body's soft tissues, abnormal growth of the hands, feet and face, high blood pressure, blood clots, diabetes, increased sweating, and excessive hair growth. Organs including the heart, liver and kidneys, may also grow excessively, leading to potentially life-threatening problems such as cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. Researchers have also linked HGH to an increased risks of cancer and overloading of the adrenal glands, which can result in infection and illness."

One sense you get from the NFL negotiations is that attitudes regarding the health of players may be slowly changing. The clamor for rule changes to prevent head injuries and concern about testing for performance enhancing drugs may be an indication that long-term health costs are beginning to take on greater importance.

In the Barry Bonds trial
, his old friend Steve Hoskins testified, "I was the one trying to stop him from taking steroids because I thought it was bad for him." That's the kind of refreshing attitude that would be as valuable to sport as testing for HGH.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Self-regulation and boosterism

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

With so much money riding on sport these days, self-regulation has begun to look a lot like self-justification.

At Washington State University, player DeAngelo Casto was cited for marijuana possession and suspended from the team shortly before the team's NIT game with Northwestern. He was the third Cougar this season to be suspended for marijuana, and the other two sat out short suspensions. But Athletic Director Bill Moos said there were special circumstances in this case, and reinstated the player just before the game. Casto proceeded to score the first four points of the game and contribute to a narrow victory by WSU, one that sends the team to New York for the NIT semifinals.

One can't help but wonder if those special circumstances Moos observed in this case include the tremendous desire for a financially beneficial Cougar victory.

That's not so different from the case of cyclist Alberto Contador. After he tested positive for a banned substance during the 2010 Tour de France, international officials recommended a one-year ban from cycling. Contador appealed, saying that he ingested the substance unknowingly when he ate contaminated meat.

Following the international body's ruling, the Spanish cycling federation had to decide the case. It was heavily lobbied by higher officials, including the Spanish Prime Minister, who said there was no legal justification for sanctions against Contador. The Spanish cycling officials then lifted the ban on Contador.

Contador said the decision was not the result of patriotism, but that's not what it looked like from outside. Contador is a hero in Spain. And the Spanish cycling authorities could sidestep political problems by reinstanting Condator. They knew that international officials would likely step again again, as they have. The International Cycling Union is appealing to the Court of Arbitration of Sport to have Contador's suspension reinstated.

But the Spanish officials have satisfied Spanish fans, and can now wash their hands of it.

Or take a look at the case of Ohio State and football coach Jim Tressel. Six football players were caught breaking NCAA rules on selling memorabilia last year. Tressel failed to report that violation to the NCAA after he learned of it. Ohio State disclosed a five-game suspension against the players in December, although the players were still allowed to play in the upcoming bowl big-money game. Later when Tressel was penalized, he was given only a two-game suspension. After public cries of unfairness, he asked to add three more games to his own suspension. But if all was fair, suspensions would be leveled immediately and decisively, not sent up like trial balloons to see which way the wind was blowing.

Give credit to Brigham Young University, which placed its honor code above the desire for victory when it suspended a key basketball player for what seemed to many on the outside as a minor violation -- having sex with his girlfriend. But that was violation of his promise to the university. They held to it even when it threatened to cost the team a shot at a national title.

That's a rare show of moral courage.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gladiator sport

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

"You can't eliminate injuries from football. It's a gladiator sport," said Cleveland Browns returner Josh Cribbs, according to ESPN.

That's why Cribbs is unhappy with the new rule on NFL kickoffs, which moves the kickoff point from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line and restricts the kickoff team to a five-yard running start. The NFL committee rejected two other proposals, one of which would have eliminated the two-man wedge from kickoffs and a second that would have brought touchbacks out to the 25-yard line.

Cribbs said the new rules will take kick returners out of the game. He said the NFL is trying to "hide behind safety," appealing to some safety proponents with this move in a gambit to add two more games to the schedule.

Two more games will likely mean more injuries. But Cribbs eagerness to maintain the "gladiator" nature of football suggests a very short-term view of life. It has only been a month since former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson shot himself and requested that his brain be examined for evidence of chronic damage due to a lifetime of football hits.

Perhaps Cribbs and other professionals accept the risk of injury along with their paychecks, but millions of younger players have little understanding of the possible long-term consequences of repeated hits to the head. Football would survive even without kickoffs, just as basketball as survives without repeated jump balls.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Barry's defense: I didn't know

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

In opening statements, Barry Bonds' attorney said Bonds' personal trainer misled him when he gave him steroids, according to ESPN. Bonds, the attorney said, was deceived into thinking he was using flaxseed oil and arthritus cream.

"I know that doesn't make a great story," attorney Allen Ruby said. "But that's what happened."

Actually, it sounds like moral justification. That's what happens when people get caught with their hand in the cookie jar and try to justify it by saying they didn't realize what was inside the jar.

Moral justification normally has a negative connotation, but it can have a positive connotation, according to some ethical experts.

"The positive sense of justification, on the other hand, involves bringing others to see our actions as reasonable. In this sense, a course of action is justified if there are better reasons in favor of it than there are against it. Preferably, these reasons should be ones that other people could agree are good ones. It is this sense of justification that is important for morality. Moral justification, then, means showing that there are more or better moral reasons weighing for a course of action than against it," writes Chris MacDonald on EthicsWeb.

If we want to remain morally positive and responsible in this case, however, we must ask of Bonds: Was it reasonable to see huge gains in muscle mass from flaxseed oil and arthritis cream? If he was really being duped by his trainer, he must not have questioned the treatment. Is Bonds that oblivious to the truth (which, he now admits, was that he was being treated with steroids)?

Perhaps that's why ESPN describes Bond as "slouched in his chair" during his federal trial on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Part of the defense appears to be to present Bonds as somewhat less than the sharpest tack on the bench. However, that runs counter to Bonds' educational history. He graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in criminology. If I was on the jury, I'd have a hard time buying that.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pearl without wisdom

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS

Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl was fired this week. But was he fired for recruiting violations or for losing to Michigan by 30 points?

If Tennessee was going to fire him for recruiting violations, one would think the university would have moved more quickly and decisively. According to ESPN, Pearl was informed on Monday that his tenure at Tennessee was over. Supposedly, Tennessee Athletic Director had been extremely supportive of Pearl, but then changed his tune in the last week of the season, when he announced there had been a lot of "soul searching" about whether to keep Pearl.

According to ESPN, officials at Tennessee have known since mid-December that Pearl's promises to abide by NCAA rules were worth little more than the crocodile tears he shed last Sept. 10. In a press conference that day, Pearl admitted misleading investigators who were looking into possible recruiting violations. But in December, Tennessee officials were informed that Pearl would be charged with another recruiting violation, one he's accused of committing on Sept. 14, just days after his tearful press conference.

But Pearl had developed a winning program at Tennessee, leading the program to six straight NCAA tournament appearances. That made him popular, with a recent poll showing that 70 percent of Tennessee fans supported him. Students still love him, even after the firing.

Fox Sports says the fear of NCAA sanctions pushed Tennessee to dump Pearl. But the university has know about the possibility of sanctions for months. If the university was going to fire Pearl because he misled investigators, and continued committing NCAA violations even after feeling the heat, the university should have fired him much sooner. But it's hard to fire a winner. It's much easier to fire someone who just got bounced from the tournament by 30 points.

And Sporting News points out that Tennessee leadership had some responsibility for the Sept. 14 recruiting violation. After learning of the NCAA investigation and that Pearl had misled investigators, Tennessee placed a self-imposed a recruiting suspension on Pearl and his staff. If the university had imposed that ban after the tearful Sept. 10 press conference, Pearl would not have been on the recruiting road on Sept. 14, when the NCAA says the latest violation occurred. But Tennessee wanted Pearl to be out recruiting during that critical period in September, so the university delayed the suspension. And that's when the NCAA slapped him again.

Bonds' steroid question may go unresolved

by Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

The trial of Barry Bonds has begun. He's accused of four counts of perjury and one of obstruction of justice. But as reports, he could be convicted even without proof that he actually used steroids.

Three of the perjury counts accuse Bonds of lying about using steroids or human growth hormone (HGH). The fourth perjury count, however, merely accuses Bonds of lying about receiving an injection from his former trainer, Greg Anderson. So to convict Bonds, the prosecution must prove only (1) that Bonds received that injection from Anderson, and (2) that Bonds knowingly lied about receiving the injection. What the injection contained would be irrelevant.

Such is the way legal strategies work.

However, it seems likely most sports fans want to see the prosecution prove its case is a more straightforward manner. A recent poll by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) reported that most Americans see performance enhancing drugs as the most serious problem facing sports today. Yes, lying is unethical and Bonds should be responsible for his lies. But the poll finds that 75% of the respondents think using steroids or HGH violates the ethical standards of sport. And they're concerned what that says to children.

Athletes are role models, regardless of how they posture on the issue. And many Americans worry that if professional athletes use steroids or HGH, they're telling younger athletes that such use is acceptable.

"The [USADA] study also showed 41 percent of children believe if a well-known athlete breaks the rules it makes children think it is acceptable to break the rules to win," the Los Angeles Times reported.

If prosecutors in the Bonds case hope to send a counter message to children, a message that using steriods is unacceptable, let's hope they can prove their primary allegations -- that Bonds knowingly used performance enhancing drugs.

In the Wall Street Journal, one expert says the case is not really about steroids and HGH. "This is not a steroid case per se," said Richard Collins, a criminal-defense attorney specializing in cases involving athletes and performance-enhancing drugs, who has no involvement in this case. "This is the same as anyone who is accused of lying under oath."

But for most of us, this is a case about steroids, not lying. And after seven years of hearing about it, we want to see prosecutors to prove the steroid use. Only then will be truly believe that the legal system can catch up to cheaters, not just with fancy legal strategies but rather with hard facts that a jury will understand.