A key to establishing integrity and ethics on and off the field
Business enterprises and organizations that depend on their people to succeed, share several concerns. They are concerned with how to recruit the best people, how to get the most out of them, and how to keep them for as long as possible. There are no exceptions and there are no shortcuts.
College coaches have these concerns with both staff and players. In most cases, the best coaches at the best programs understand how to accomplish the first two and the perennial championship contenders understand how to accomplish the third.
Keeping the best players and coaches while immersed in today’s 24/7 perpetual news cycle and social media mania that produces too much information, too many personal posts and digital video/photo captures, has made it much more difficult. Add to this the agents, friends, and even family who may look at the best players as their meal ticket and protecting their most precious assets becomes extremely challenging.
It’s one thing to lose a key player to a season ending-injury because it’s painful to watch and difficult to survive, record-wise. But it’s even more difficult to accept when the season ending event is a drunk driving conviction, a bar fight at closing time, or an academic scandal because the student lacked the ability to keep up or, worse, the university provided eligibility in lieu of an education.
While one or more college programs always seem to be in the crosshairs of an investigator, the cost of failure continues to increase. It’s only a matter of time before student-athletes begin to seek compensation through the courts for broken agreements that promised an education in return for athletic performance. This is especially true when innocent players are injured, not physically, but athletically and career-wise because their program is placed on probation or otherwise penalized due to a failure to reasonably oversee the athletic program. No one would be surprised if a CEO was sued by an employee for breach of contract if they failed to meet the terms of the contract. Likewise, no one should be surprised to see a coach, athletic director, or school on the other end of a similar lawsuit.
University administrators, coaches, and boosters who invest so much in their programs would be wise to pursue integrity with as much intensity as they do winning. After all, you can’t win when your best players or the entire team has been disqualified or punished. Integrity, when practiced, protects against the creation of a dangerous environment, risky behavior, and outright criminal activity.
Any senior executive or CEO would be negligent in knowingly or recklessly allowing their key personnel to engage in conduct that threatened their ability to discharge their duties to the corporation. Why should an Athletic Director or Head Coach—certainly the equivalent to a CEO or COO—be treated differently. As a defense, the courts would not accept a simple lack of knowledge where a reasonable effort would have readily disclosed the risk. On the contrary, the failure to take reasonable steps is the definition of negligence. It would be worse if the coach unreasonably failed to take steps to address known or likely risks. Moreover, if it could be proven that the coach was willfully blind and intentionally or recklessly looked the other way and pursued, aided or abetted an effort to remain ignorant of the risks, such a course of conduct would itself become proof of negligence.
While not yet tested in the courts, law suits against schools and coaches cannot be far off, making it critically important to head this off at the pass. Keep in mind that the NCAA and its member schools are quick to hold out the value of the diploma and athletic development system that playing for a top Division I or II program provides. I agree that the value to a serious student-athlete of a full-scholarship at a strong academic school with an elite revenue sports program is certainly a fair-trade without more. However, the bargain struck with the student-athlete loses a great deal of its value when negligence on the part of the school or coach allows a risk to reduce the value of the education or athletic opportunity. Furthermore, simply transferring to another program may not mitigate the damage to the student it might actually add to it. (It should be noted that lawsuits by students who can’t find work after graduation from college or professional school are already on the rise. Allegations include fraud, breach of contract and negligence).
Adding a clause to a coach’s contract making a coach contractually responsible for successfully managing the staff and players’ behavior would accomplish what a compliance program is all about. There should be financial and other penalties or bonuses (and here a carrot and stick approach might work best), in the contract if under his watch, the school, players, or the program injure or are injured because of ethics or integrity violations. The coach would have a financial incentive to make sure that he focuses not only on what it takes to win, but the risks that enable and threaten failure. These risks include such things as academic fraud, loss of player eligibility, lack of proper supervision, player needs such as food and clothing, the athlete’s personal challenges, and the presence of dangerous individuals who pose a risk to any person or the entire program.
Now, this is not to say elite coaches have the time or the skills to engage in true risk and human capital management. They don’t. But once in the contract, the coach will demand and likely find the resources to hire experts who will do the work and report to him.
Few schools would task their top Humanities professor to teach Molecular Biology simply because he or she is tenured. Few schools would ask a tenured professor to take on additional classes in addition to their already full teaching and research portfolio. A coach should not be expected to do so either. The coach’s contract is the easiest place to put this to ensure it gets done, but it must come with resources to enable a coach to hire experts to see it through. Yes, it costs money, but it’s worth it because, in the long run, it saves money and helps a program keep their student-athletes for as long as possible. Recruiting, training, and building a brand are difficult and expensive to do. Protecting that investment is smart and if administrators don’t like lawyers, player unions, scandals and financial judgments it may just keep them from knocking on their doors.