Monday, May 2, 2011

Lying in College Sports Violates Heart of University

The NCAA indicted Ohio State and coach Jim Tressel for multiple counts of lying and hiding violations. The NCAA concludes that Tressel’s lying conveniently permitted Ohio State to play ineligible players on the way to a 12-1 season. This means Ohio State gained a significant illegal competitive advantage similar to if it had been covering up academic ineligibility of players. If Ohio State is guilty, the NCAA could justly vacate Ohio State's record and season. I will leave the NCAA to pursue its justice, but want to continue my earlier discussion of why lying is so deeply wrong in sports and especially college sport.

If we leave aside Ohio State's President Gordon Gee’s concern about being fired by his football coach, if we leave aside Ohio State’s absurd wrist slap on Tressel for his lying, we need to remember that honesty and truth telling lie at the heart of the university's mission. We teach honesty as a bedrock virtue to professors, students and scholarship. No university is perfect, but honesty remains a bedrock virtue in the pursuit of knowledge. Our coaches are expected to teach honesty to their student athletes.

The expression "to live a lie" hints at the fundamental moral problem with lying, it violates a person's integrity. The person pretends to be a person other than the person they are. A person lives a "secret" life that he or she hides from others. “Living a lie" besmirches all the accomplishments because they are not really earned; they are misbegotten by cheating.

Lying in sports, as Tressel, Bruce Pearl, Marion Jones or Barry Bonds demonstrate, not only perpetuates a living lie, it encourages others to lie. Lying is like Gresham’s law in sport; lying drives out honesty. As more competitors win by cheating and lying about it, the honest competitors lose. They not only lose races or game, they lose their jobs and livelihood. The good ones are tempted to cheat by the success of the liars and cheaters. The norm and excuse become "everyone does it." When the honest ones defect to lying, the norms of the sport reach a tipping point where cheating and lying become the new norm, much like the dark mirror world of AAU basketball. Little by little the moral quality of the entire sport declines as happened to baseball when more and more false sluggers living a collective lie made baseball the sport of drug enhanced behemoths.

Lying starts at the top. In baseball it meant coaches simply looked the other way and owners handed out high salaries to cheaters they all knew were cheating. In college sports lying coaches who win get rewarded with contracts or hired by other schools. Sport like all life can be subject to denial. When we live in denial, we have all the evidence before us, but we do not put the dots together; we do not push to ask the harder questions behind the surface. Denial is not about not knowing, it is about having the information but refusing to acknowledge it and make sense of it, much like a parent sees all the symptoms that their child is abusing drugs, but never puts it all together. The USC athletic department specialized in this approach for years. Gee seems to be working on the same principle.

In college sports, this means that the coaches teach their student athletes, let me repeat, they teach their students (athletes) that lying is OK, not only OK but it is the way to get ahead. Tressel's players listened to his sermons on integrity and virtue, they might even read his books (remember I taught one of his book chapters)  but they KNEW HE LIED. The players learn about how hypocrisy is rewarded and lying to win is condoned.

A couple years ago I watched a coach at UW ask a player to lie. The player had injured himself, and the coach convinced the 20 year old to lie to the media and everyone else about how the injury occurred. This was an obscene moral act for a university official to suborn a young player under their charge to lie. Tressel acted by omission, the UW coach by commission, but both taught their players that the man who controlled their destiny and who preached virtue to them, believed in lying when they needed to.

The NCAA needs to act aggressively against Tressel and Ohio State's twitterpated  President. The only way to protect honesty as a value and integrity as a lived reality is to draw powerful and strongly enforced boundaries around lying. Transgressions must be punished, wins must be vacated and coaches should lose their jobs. If the boundary is not clear and enforced, the NCAA simply encourages other coaches to defect in order to keep their jobs. If the boundary is not clear, the University collaborates in teaching its students and its public that truth only matters if it does not get in the way of winning.