Seton Hall University: Sports Symposium on Ethics and Integrity in Sports

Category: Administration, Baseball, Business, Entrepreneurship, Football, Media, MLB, NFL, Sports

On Thursday, April 26, Seton Hall University hosted a series of panel discussions about ethics in sports, trends, and a refreshingly honest take on the future of sports media. Discussions focused on the current landscape as many outlets try to adapt to a new era, and how this affects accountability, responsibility, and the roles of various positions within the industry. These talks could not have come at a better time; not 24 hours earlier, the Condoleezza Rice-led Commission just released their recommendations for changes to eradicate scandal within the NCAA.

The opening panel discussed ethical obligations and integrity. The esteemed panelists gave their perspective on one of the toughest questions facing athletics today: What is the real cost of winning in sports? Panelists Bob Boland (Athletics Integrity Officer, Penn State), W. Charles Bennett (Partner Albuquerque Office, Bennett Hutt & Company, LLC), and Michael Rowe (President/CEO, Positive Impact S+E) focused mainly on athletics at the collegiate level, and featured dialogue about the NCAA commission report that had just been released.

The concept of victory is not one that is unique to sports. We learn – and instinctively know –  that winning outcomes are more desirable that losing outcome. This is reinforced alongside learning our ABCs, well before we set foot on a field or inside an arena. The cost of losing is only magnified when we enter the sports world. For an organization, winning a game can be very lucrative, and losing can be incredibly costly. There are certain ways that a team can “game the system”; depending on the surface of the field of play (grass, dirt, turf, etc.). Teams have to change any number of variables (footwear, style of play) in order to win. Playing surfaces can be altered to slow down a team that plays with speed. Baseball stadiums can be built to cater to more home runs as they are not standardized on the collegiate or professional level. With so much at stake, how far are teams willing to go to win, and how far is too far in the eyes of governing organizations?

Some may argue the cost of winning in college is higher than in professional sports – an opinion held by many of the panelists.  Of course, as with any sporting event, a university stands to gain more than they lose. However, winning comes with an even greater reward on the collegiate level because of the constant need to refresh and recruit new talent. There is a reason that you see the same teams in the postseasons of college football and basketball. They simply win games far more often than they lose them. A proverbial blockchain builds with each win, as wins translate to championships, which translate to prized recruits. This of course leads to more championships. This cyclical success means one thing: more money for these colleges.

As with most of the world, where there is money, there are people trying to get ahead – at any cost.. When an age limit was implemented for athletes trying to enter the NBA Draft, coaches of colleges known for their basketball implemented a strategy that would come to be known as the “one-and-done” rule. A player could go to class in the fall semester, accumulate a GPA that would be compliant with NCAA regulations, and focus completely on basketball and less on academics in the second semester – all with the ultimate goal of reaching the NBA when he was of the appropriate age. Players were recruited with this understanding, and schools began to use non-sanctioned techniques like bribery and hiring family members as coaches in order to land these talents. In their report, the NCAA Commission noted that “One-and-done has played a significant role in corrupting and destabilizing college basketball, restricting the freedom of choice of players, and undermining the relationship of college basketball to the mission of higher education”. The report goes on to say that “student-athletes” should either be allowed to pursue professional opportunities without having to attend college, and that those who do should be required to attend for at least two to three years. This would put the more of the emphasis on the academic component of collegiate athletics, and less on the business.

In order to make sure that the universities themselves are operating above board, some schools have implemented the position of an Athletic Integrity Officer, which Boland described in detail. In order to maintain complete impartiality, this individual should not have any ties to the university. There have been numerous examples of scandals within the NCAA such as point shaving, improper recruitment, bribery, and more.  These violations are perceived as a reflection of each college’s integrity. In order to continue to operate within the NCAA framework while simultaneously fostering success, the decision of “conceal or reveal” becomes incredibly important. In order to combat this, Boland maintains that there should be open lines of communication (i.e., a trainer should disclose the full nature of a player’s injury to a coach) within the organization, and that full and complete transparency would contribute better to support the notion that universities are home to “amateur” athletics.

Professional sports teams are for-profit businesses, and have a much more clear business plan and mission. However, a grey area arises with colleges and universities. Here, sports function as a for-profit sector of a non-profit organization. The coaches of collegiate athletic teams are compensated well for their efforts, and with good reason; they bring in the players that win games and bring in money for the university. However, despite being de facto employees of the university, most of those players do not – and cannot – receive compensation beyond scholarships and expenses. The question that kept coming up during the panel discussion was, “What happens to these players when their athletic careers are over?”

In many cases, college is the final level for an athlete to play his/her trade. An athlete who plays at the elite collegiate level naturally expects to go professional, but injuries or a lack of ability to compete can cause those dreams to be dashed in a hurry. After essentially employing these athletes, how do colleges and universities support them when they can no longer pursue their sport? It was suggested in the panel that the money should be kept in an escrow account that activates after a period of time. This would keep the athlete in school, and give him/her some form of compensation and security for his/her effort.

The NCAA Board of Governors were quick to endorse the suggestions outlined in the commission report, and plan to implement them as soon as possible. NCAA President Mark Emmert said that he wanted to put the changes in place, so we should be seeing a different landscape to recruiting within the coming years.

Matt Melligner