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.

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