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July 19, 2005

Mobley: Ethically Speaking

Commentary by Phil Mobley.

I'm under no illusions that intercollegiate athletics are merely about providing opportunities for success to people who might otherwise never go to college. I understand that Division I sports are now big business with a lot of stakeholders, and that there are enormous pressures and incentives to succeed at any cost. I also get that many of the rules are stupid, that everyone pushes the limits and that the privileges of being a varsity athlete come hand-in-hand with the hard lessons of life's uncertainty. I'd like to think that I have a clear-eyed perspective on the way this all works, even if I'll never understand all the whys and hows. None of this changes the fact that the events leading up to the news of last week are deeply troubling on a number of levels. Let's wade through why this is the case.

A Spade is a Spade

First of all, it's important to face the truth: Carolina's football program broke the rules and deserves to pay the appropriate penalty. The actions of a "senior athletic department official," particularly his deceitful efforts to cover his tracks and intimidate others into helping him do so, were despicable. There is no other word for it. It doesn't matter that it happens everywhere, or, that it was "just" about tutoring, or that it wasn't what the NCAA was originally looking for. The shameful lack of integrity shown by this individual rightly cost him his job, and he deserves a big share of the disgrace he brought on the Gamecock athletic department. Beyond this, remember how sad it was to observe Alabama fans screaming about conspiracies when the hammer fell on their program. The guilty have no right to complain about being caught, so there's nothing left for Carolina to do now but take its medicine and move on.

Who's Minding the Store?

There's already been too much ink spilt debating Lou Holtz's responsibility for this mess, not to mention the spate of other issues affecting the program since the Clemson game. I can only offer an opinion based on my perception, but it is this: Coach Holtz failed to keep tabs on his team to the extent necessary by a modern Division-I head football coach. I do not believe that Holtz knowingly engaged in any unethical behavior, nor do I believe he condoned it among anyone on his staff (that goes for Mike McGee, too). I further do not believe that he intentionally took the course of plausible deniability. Even so, we have all been forced to confront the reality that Holtz was too much grandfather and not enough Godfather to his players. Whether due to lack of energy or an inability to recognize the severity of problems, the well-intentioned Holtz was too distant from his team. The argument that most of the NCAA trouble was in the athletic department, as opposed to the coaching staff, rings hollow. Who is the ambassador of a university's football team if not its head coach? Though the head coach certainly doesn't have authority over those outside his staff, he sure ought to know what they're doing with his players, even more so than the athletic director, whose attention is divided among multiple sports. The deceit could not have lasted as long had Holtz pried as a head coach must.

Seek, and Ye Shall Find…Something

What follows needs to be taken in the context of the previous two paragraphs, but it is still important: the NCAA ought to be humiliated by the entire process that led to last week's report. I say this not because the organization was wrong to investigate, but because it is painfully obvious that it botched the investigation. The tattletale system of reporting violations is in place to help the NCAA spread its thin resources since it can't continually examine everyone, or so goes the argument. If that's true, then the three-year crusade in Columbia is either the most inefficient search since the snipe hunt, or, more disturbingly, evidence that an ulterior motive to "find something" was afoot. While some of the violations uncovered were indeed serious, any investigative body worth its salt would have completed its work and published its report in 3-6 months if unbiased fact-finding was really the goal. Who knows how many hundreds of players received thousands of dollars while the NCAA's "thin" resources were involved in this exercise? I'd go so far as to say the organization exhibited a clear "lack of institutional control" in this instance. In corporate America, the person in charge would be canned faster than six ounces of Star-Kist dolphin-free tuna.

A Man of His Word

Something else unsettling happened last week, and that was the non-renewal of the scholarships of a few Gamecock players. I believe Coach Spurrier to be a man of high principles, and I have no doubt that his players have always understood that there are no guaranteed free rides in his program. Still, I have a difference of opinion with him on this issue. When a student receives an academic scholarship, there are very clear criteria for what he or she must do to maintain it, usually things like staying out of jail and maintaining a 'B' average. I'd like to suggest that a football player who keeps his grades up, comes to practices, works hard in the off-season and keeps his name off the police blotter should be rewarded with a scholarship extension. If it turns out that he is not able to help the team on game day, then that's more an indication of the coaching staff's failure to properly evaluate his potential than of his failure as a player. Practically every student who can get accepted into college can also maintain a 'B' average with enough effort, but a football player may never grow into his frame or shave that extra 0.2 seconds off his 40 time. That's not his fault, nor is it his fault that the coaching staff may have changed. Of course, it may be that factors other than sheer talent played into Coach Spurrier's decisions about these players. Regardless, pulling scholarships is a legitimate practice, and when everyone knows up-front that it can happen, it's also an ethical one; however, it's just a little uncomfortable to me.

Going Forward

With any luck, the NCAA will be eager to put the South Carolina debacle behind it and accept the school's self-imposed sanctions. The effect on the Gamecocks' competitiveness will be minimal, and, given Coach Spurrier's track record, there will be no more problems for years to come. The most unfortunate consequence of all this is the smudge on the record of Mike McGee. I've always been a big fan of his, and I just won't believe he would ever tolerate cheating. Nevertheless, he was in charge while it happened, so, like Holtz, he must always bear some of the blame. Perhaps the best news of all is that by mid-September, all this will be forgotten and football will once again be about football. That's what I'm looking forward to.

To contact Mobley or view other articles he's written, click here.

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