Saturday, February 25, 2012

Drinking Athletic Kool-Aid: Presidents & the U Conn Basketball Appeal

Last week the NCAA squashed the waiver appeal of University of Connecticut. U Conn was appealing their exclusion from the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament in light of a decade of academic negligence in its powerful basketball program. Its rolling average of graduating players fell significantly below 50 percent over the last two to four years. The appeal and its publicity were orchestrated by U Conn’s president Susan Herbst, a fine political scientist, who warned the NCAA that the school would be “deeply disappointed” if it’s appeal was denied.

Sometimes, but not often, I feel sorry for University Presidents who must defend their athletic programs. Poor Mary Sue Colman at Michigan had to stand on the same platform and defend Coach Rich Rodriquez, who could care less about educating his players. Graham Spanier joined several other Presidents and ended a marvelous 20-year career pulled down by Joe Paterno’s disgrace at Penn State. Only Gordon Gee seems immune from the disasters of his Ohio State program.

Some Presidents just drink the Kool-Aid and don’t really worry about the ordeal or humiliation of having to defend illegal or educational malpractice. Kentucky’s ex President Lee Todd, Jr. defended his basketball coach John Calipari as a model coach and “educator.” Annoucing his retirement Todd distilled a Kool-Aid presidency when he wished the UK could be as “good academically as it is athletically.”

President Herbst is doing her best to prove that athletics trumps academics. She has actively campaigned in the media against the injustice of her team missing the tournament for its long-term failure to worry about educating basketball players.

To understand the difficulty we need to remember that U Conn is already on probation and that Calhoun was prohibited from coaching several games this year. The team has also forfeited scholarships. Calhoun has always played rough and tight on NCAA rules. Like Kentucky’s Calipari or West Virginia’s Huggins, he epitomizes a breed of super coach for whom rules are a bother, not a guide. Educating and graduating ranks even lower, and two national championships persuaded the University to ignore his dismal graduation rate.

U Conn AD Jeff Hathaway also resigned under pressure. His relations with Calhoun and the basketball violations had a lot to do with his leaving. Herbst oversaw the his review and swift departure. Its unclear his departure was about violations, low academic standards, Calhoun's dislike or excessive power from angry boosters. 

The critical variable here is that like Paterno at Penn State, Calhoun’s success has woven into the texture of University of Connecticut’s brand and marketing. U Conn's rise to any national visibility is driven by its two basketball programs.  Whoever is President has to defend the program because the University’s reputation rides on the coattails of the basketball program.

U Conn’s appeal tells us about how important the NCAA tournament has become. The tournament overrides all other considerations. The school will give up all the money, cancel games, limit recruiting and even ask Calhoun to bring in old pros to talk about going to class, just let them go to the big dance. Herbst argues that “the university’s proposal” “fully accepts responsibility for past failings.”

In its willingness to jettison everything it can, U Conn identifies the deepest truth of college basketball—the tournament trumps everything. The publicity, story telling and reputation enhancement are invaluable to marketing and branding a school. It gains attention to schools that traditional academic standards would never gain them.

U Conn’s major argument “as an educator” is how unfair it is to change rules in the middle of the road and to punish the existing players/program for actions by past players.

If we accept her second argument, then no NCAA punishments could ever be levied against programs, ever. The basic unit of responsibility for the NCAA and American civil law is the institution. The existing players and coaches are almost always not the ones who committed the violations.  The players and coaches have often moved on and due process takes years. The point for the NCAA is that institutions are responsible, not just individuals. Using U Conn’s arguments no corporation could be held liable for past actions in pollution or discrimination because the people in place did not commit the violations.

As for the new rules changing, they have been discussed for years. U Conn was quite comfortable losing scholarships and doing recovery plans while not graduating students. The new rules were passed by the Presidents and immediately accepted. Everyone knew the time limits had changed. Thanks to the Secretary of Education everyone knew which  schools were in trouble for the last three years. The NCAA regularly changes rules with relatively limited run-ups in many areas such as rules governing games that might impact recruiting profiles of teams. The school had years to clean up its act, but no one bother to push the coaches.

I think the arguments are transparent attempts to get to the tournament regardless of costs. The recovery plan may actually make a difference but not until Calhoun is gone. The desperate desire to claw their way to the tournament suggests another danger.

The Kool-Aid presidents went along with the new reforms to increase standards and increase punishments. But Herbst’s reaction at actually having to live up to the standards and pay the cost suggest potential fissures in the presidential reform phalanx. She claims accepting responsibilitywould be a fundamental injustice to our team and to our university.”

If presidents, especially Kool-Aid ones, actually have to watch their schools live up to their standards, this could weaken the reform alliance already stressed by the passage of the cost of attendance and four year scholarship rules. Her claims simply repeat a threat other presidents cannot mention.

Now Presidents have to accept the consequences of their own right actions.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Mariners & Field of Hopeless

Mariners spring training started a week early! Feel good stories pour out of Peoria, lots of come from behind or overcoming adversity tales. The famous Mariner commercials have not yet surfaced. I understand that the sun actually shines in Arizona, unlike Seattle. Normally springtime harbingers hope and renewal. I know I experience it every year and usually write rhapsodically about it. So why does it already feel like autumn ripened endings fill the Seattle air.


Because we already know that the Mariners will finish last again. We already know they will have one of the worst offenses in baseball, again for four years running. This is not spring, rather it feels like the aborted and endless repeated cycle of spring in Bill Murray's Groundhog Day movie.

I am feeling flashes of PTSD from my years of watching the Kansas City Athletics (not so fondly known as atheloosems) stand as the worst team in baseball for 13 years running.  Flashbacks are one thing, but reliving it in HD is another.

I would like to blame this upon the unfair economic distributions of baseball, but cannot given the spate of recent wins by midrange budget teams like the Giants and Cardinals. No this grows from the amazing ineptitude of the Mariners. One of my favorite sites Fangraphs along with USS Mariners reviewed the drafts for the last ten years valuing them by WAR or wins above replacement level. The resounding conclusion: the least successful drafters and traders in baseball, hands down are my Mariners. How would you like a team that has  .45 WAR per year or total of +8 over 10 years. We make Pittsburgh and Baltimore look good.

Welcome to our team. The team’s big controversy focuses upon whether to start 10 million dollar a year bust Chone Figgins, once a good player until he arrived here, as third baseman and lead off hitter despite the last two year’s of 188 and 259 BA and 306 and 243 SLG. The hope is that this will somehow help him regain the √©lan and drive that made him such an effective lead off player for the Angeles.

The great hope is that the team can turn into the Florida, sorry Miami, Marlins (is it still the Marlins?) Or Devil Rays or Rays? I get very confused by Florida baseball; anyway, the team’s utterly non-existent offense depends upon four untested minor league players learning to play professionally OJT. Could be fun or it could be just time for NCIS reruns, unfortunately I have already seen most of them five or six times.

I guess watching Felix Hernandez keep growing will provide moments of baseball joy, although I still miss the Cliff Lee’s sojourn. Watching him pitch live was like watching clean, clear and crisp masterpieces air painted before your eyes. Felix may become an artist, but is not yet there.  But the team really has no places of grace such as that.

For me the anchor will be hoping that Ichiro Suzuki possesses one more brilliant year. He has labored so long and gloriously here on the moons of Jupiter in media land. His presence and performance provided a quiet place of grace and excellence year in and year out, day in and day out. Last year the cumulative impact of age and a frazzled culture unsure of what it wanted of him or its team took their toll. He had career lows of 272 BA and a career low of 184 hits.

Sabermetric projections suggest this is the beginning of the end of his phenomenal hitting and fielding. He may face a cliff drop off, not a slow decline like that afflicting Alex Rodriquez. Although, I must admit that actually watching Alex flounder will be another pleasure for the year.

I am relying upon Ichiro to defy the odds and the projections provide a ray of luminosity amid another squalid year of hopelessness.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

NCAA versus Presidents as Reform Opposition Mounts

With all the hoopla around signing day behind us, it might be a good opportunity to take a look at the NCAA reform agenda to help their student athletes. The NCAA Presidents blinked at the NCAA convention in a stare down with their membership. The NCAA reform efforts stumbled as predictable but often silent opposition finally showed its ugly face.

Coaches resented higher academic standards and really resent having to give four-year scholarships; less well off schools resented higher costs; many schools resented and feared having to give women higher cost equal scholarships; and athletic directors opposed higher costs, higher penalties and greater demands for accountability. In classic NCAA fashion, they are crying “slow down” and work on “details.” In the NCAA reality, slowing down means killing the reforms. The Presidents need to hold the line.

To understand this Byzantine process, remember the NCAA is a membership organization. All major reforms must ultimately be voted upon by the membership. These reforms focus upon Division I. NCAA President Mark Emmert and the reforming presidents have invoked a fast track method where the Presidential Board can pass legislation directly.

However, the membership has checks and balances. If a certain number of schools sign a petition, this small number can force the presidents to review the legislation. This happened at the last NCAA convention over the permission to allow conferences to permit increased grants in aid to cover cost of attendance and to permit conferences to award four year scholarships.

The Presidents reaffirmed the reform. The second check now allows schools to launch another petition to overthrow the legislation. If appeal gains 20% of the membership’s signatures, a vote to override will come up at the next NCAA convention. Design to permit maximum deliberation, this process has enabled an alliance between less well off football schools and very underfunded basketball only schools to stop change for years.

The Presidents’ reform agenda expands across many areas. The issues of relations with agents and restructuring compliance rules and enforcement lie ahead. But the reforming Presidents focused first upon student welfare. They pushed on increasing incentives for academic success and simple justice for providing athletes the cost of attendance and four year scholarships.

A number of reforms such as limiting schools with low graduation rates from NCAA tournaments and bowls or mandating a year of academic readiness for very at risk students buttress the education and student aspect of college athletes. They are both proceeding to implementation. They may be weakened in details, but surprisingly they are moving ahead.

Why the opposition to actions that would increase justice and academic success? Basically everyone in Division I but the ultra-elite 14-22 schools loses money, lots of money on all sports including football. The chasm between relatively well off football schools of the FBC and the weaker football FCS schools and basketball only schools drive many votes. Huge media contracts with the top conferences exacerbate the inequality. The less well off schools militantly oppose any cost increases. In addition the almost 200 non-football schools often support very small and underfunded programs. They virulently oppose any efforts that would increase costs whether justified by academics or justice. As an example, efforts to require summer school for at risk basketball players were soundly defeated on a class vote. Yet all the information suggested that mandated summer school would increase graduation rates.

The opposing schools claim that increased costs give a decided benefit in recruitment to the already well off conferences. They believe, correctly that the “permissive” legislation to allow schools to pay full cost of attendance will be picked up by most BCS conferences. To their mind this will further put them at a disadvantage. Schools mutter about “stockpiling,” and all fear having to pay the extra costs to the mandated equity of women’s sports.

Honestly, these arguments are disingenuous. Most elite players do and will continue to choose a FBS over a FCS school and a BCS school if possible. These schools already possess better coaching, facilities, competition and exposure. The proposed reforms for four-year scholarships and cost of living might aggravate but will not create this distinction. The “stockpiling” of players already happens, but most modern players will not be stockpiled and quickly transfer.

NCAA President Emmert and the pro-reform Presidents have fought this inertia by speed and aggressive proposals. At the last meeting Mark Emmert argued that this is not about “confrontation.” 

Well it is about confrontation, and only relentless pressure will get anything done. Even the schools who will benefit from these reforms are piling on to clear up the “details.”  The opponents will be back and have a chance next year to vote to overturn it all. But things are changing at the grass roots level. Conferences are already facing parents and athletes who want four-year scholarships and push them toward offering the cost of attendance levels.

Despite the opposition, the reform movement has garnered successes. The denial of tournament entry is sticking. No one had the courage to oppose it, even if they hate it. The public support of the Secretary of Education has helped. Emmert and NCAA staff has moved ahead with modifying penalties and the Enforcement Committee has generally taken its cue from him going after schools aggressively such as the USC and the Ohio State penalties. The higher penalties need to be rationalized but stand as a bulwark long needed.

The “year of academic readiness” for at risk student athletes is making steady progress in implementation. In one of its great unsung successes, the NCAA has steadily increased the level of high school core course preparation required This change has helped higher graduation rates and lead to many better prepared student athletes.

These academic reforms are far more important in the long run for doing justice to the academic promise of student athletics. But still, enough student athletes cannot function at college when they arrive. Yet schools ask these grossly unprepared students to start on their teams immediately, carry a full academic load and not get full cost of attendance.
This whole approach is patently unjust to students and violates the promise of college sports. Many of us would return to freshman ineligibility to remedy this but it won’t happen. However, the plan to let underprepared student athletes have a year of academic readiness is critical. It limits practice time; builds on full time students; prohibits travel and helps underprepared student athletes focus upon becoming viable college students.  Yet unlike past attempts, this approach keeps four years of eligibility. It does not penalize low income or minority athletes like partial qualifiers or Prop 48.

It costs money and it means that many teams will not be able to immediately use freshmen to save themselves especially in basketball. So you get opposition from the predictable sources and a fair degree of worry and confusion, but at least the ADs have enough shame to largely stay quiet. They let it ride and will fight to modify the rules so the minimum number of athletes will have their year of academic readiness.

The membership forced the Presidents to blink. Athletic directors and coaches are hectoring the Presidents at home. More than a few presidents caved to let the schools sign the petition. Now the Presidents have to take control of their athletic directors and coaches.

The membership will continue to balk. This time the Presidents have to tell their athletic directors and coaches to support the reform rather than letting their athletic directors and coaches run the university.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sports Ethics: The Problem with "It is What It Is."

I hear it is what it is all the time from my students and children. It ends discussions and often ends effort to change something or revisit a screw-up or mistake (depending upon how nice you want to be). The phrase has migrated into business use and even sports now. Coaches will shrug after a loss or commenting on a bad bad call, “it is what it is.” I think coaches and players are trying to be profound as are business leaders when they use it.  In 2004 it was voted the cliche of the year.  I am struck by the phrase can be so problematic in sport life.

If you think about it, “it is what it is” sounds remarkably fatalistic. The expression reeks of giving up and accepting a condition that somehow cannot be changed. Giving up and accepting unchangeable conditions makes a great counsel of resignation and fatalism, but does not really belong in the world of sports or high performing teams or organizations. So how did so many athletes and coaches end up spouting its pseudo-wisdom.

I think the saying can help athletes and teams “let go” of an action over which they have not control. How many times do we simmer and stay angry over our own mistake or a mistake made by a referee or even our boss/coach.
Successful action entails intense focus on what we are doing. It requires situational awarenss of the relevant variables and people in motion around us. If we are still angry or ticked off over a call, if out minds are chewing out a referee or teammate, if we are chiding ourselves or fighting with our coach, even if only in our minds, we distort our alertness. We miss vital nuances around us because our mind and focus is divided between the emotion we are carrying with us and the raging changing context around us.

In theory it could mean. I can't change it and I am moving on. Or it can mean, "just F'it." But at its best is seems to exhort the user to himself or others to just say:

“Let Go Of It.” This is good sound advice for any athlete/coach/professional when they harbor mixed attention diffused by lingering emotions anchored to a past action.

Letting go involves action and decision. A player becomes conscious of their divided attention and actively changes focus. They redirect their concentration on issues at hand, immediately at hand. A good athlete and professional attend to what matters and learn from the mistake; they don’t hold tight to their anger and distorted focus.
“It is what it is.’ Carries a very different implications.

First, it suggest that what occurred may be opaque and cannot be understood, sort of a mystery. This urges the player to let it go. 

Second, it alludes to what happened cannot be changed. Period. It is over, done, kaput. No space time paradoxes will enable a person to go back and rectify the mistake. Again, it implies that the person let go of their embrace of the event’s emotional import.

Third, both the opaque and definitive done/gone approach mean it does not good to ruminate and torture oneself about what happened. This again directs the player/coach to let go of it.

The opacity and historicity behind the phrase undercuts the most important lesson people gain from mistakes—how can we learn from them.

James Collins in his great work on leadership argues that one crucial aspect of being high performing teams is the necessity to face the “brutal facts.”

Brutal facts is a hard phrase, but an accurate one. When we or others screw up, we need to look at the tape, check with others and learn what went wrong. Post mortems teach us to grow whether we want to or not.
Maybe we made no mistake Maybe our opponents just played better or had a better game plan. Maybe the referees blew a call. Maybe our team imploded.  Maybe the lesson becomes not to blowup over a miscue. A mess, loss, surprise, mistake demands that we face it and learn from it. High performers, athletes and professionals, live by that rubric.

Often coaches and athletes deploy this recent truism to address an injury. “It is what it is” is supposed to calm or reassure and athlete. It should move them to let go of their anger, fear and resentment about the loss. The fatalism hypothetically motivates the athlete.

What the athlete really needs is realism, not fatalism. They need to know the brutal facts and straight realities. From this  knowledge emerges a plan designed with doctors and trainers to treat and rehab the injury. Athletes and teams don’t need fatalism; they need realism, hope and prudent plans. “It is what it is” does neither for a wounded player.
Good teams, good athletes, good professionals learn.

Athletics like life  throws mistakes, implosions, surprises and luck at them to challenge them. I cannot think of a worse approach then “it is what it is.”