The dangers of tribalism and callousness in college sports

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By Jon Valant

College football season starts in earnest this weekend, ready to bring campuses to life on fall Saturdays. Yet, for all there is to love about college football—its drama, pageantry, rituals, loyalties, and rivalries—each season seems to bring a new collection of scandals and horrors. This year was no exception. In the Big Ten Conference alone, Ohio State knowingly employed an assistant coach with a history of domestic abuse, Michigan State mishandled sexual assault claims against several players, and the University of Maryland’s “toxic culture” likely caused the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman. These stories follow past scandals at Penn State, Baylor, and Florida State, among many other institutions.

The reality is that the virtues of college football are, more and more, enabling its vices. The passions that stir up loyalties and rivalries also produce tribalism like the type infecting American politics. Enamored with the potential to win, fans avert their eyes from ugliness in their favorite programs and lash out at those who expose it. The result is that today’s premier college sports programs are largely composed of, and surrounded by, individuals with little incentive to uncover or address misconduct. And too often, those individuals have chosen to protect their programs before they protect victims of their programs’ abuse.

What is perhaps most maddening about the recent wave of college sports scandals is that so many people—including many in positions of authority—could have intervened and did not. Their callousness and cowardice are important parts of that story. However, it is useful to consider who is positioned to address unethical behavior in college athletic departments, and the strength of their disincentives to do so:

  • Coaches. Coaches are hired and fired, and adored and despised, based on whether they win. They desperately want to keep unflattering stories from reaching newspapers and law enforcement, since these stories create distractions, keep players off the field, and threaten their own employment and reputations. Examples of this type of behavior are plentiful. When news of the Ohio State scandal broke, head coach Urban Meyer conferred with an assistant about how to permanently delete his old text messages. And when Tennessee wide receiver Drae Bowles helped a woman who said she was raped by his teammates, his coach allegedly scolded him, saying he had “betrayed the team.”
  • Athletic directors and university administrators. Recent scandals have found athletic directors—and college presidents and trustees—complicit in covering up wrongdoing or unwilling to punish it. These cases have reflected a stunning lack of concern or backbone from university leaders. However, they have also exposed the reality of the power dynamics in college athletics. College football and basketball coaches are the most powerful people on many college campuses today (and, in most states, the highest-paid public employee). When a previous Ohio State president, E. Gordon Gee, was asked about firing its then-head football coach for an earlier scandal, he responded with a joke that seemed revealing: “I’m just hoping that the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
  • Local media. Most high-profile college sports programs today are covered, day in and day out, by local beat reporters. These reporters are paid to keep an ear to the ground near the programs they cover. However, they rely on these programs to provide access and information, and they report to an audience of partisans (fans) who can react angrily to negative coverage of their favorite programs. It was national reporters, not local reporters, who broke this year’s stories of problems at Ohio State, Michigan State, and Maryland, while some local reporters took aim at the national media.
  • Campus and local police. When allegations of misconduct do make it to authorities, they often go to campus police departments. These departments typically report to university presidents or high-ranking college officials, and, notably, do not have the same public reporting responsibilities as municipal police departments. Moreover, even when incidents reach municipal police, they can find their way to officers with connections, personal or emotional, to local athletic departments. This seemed to be the case at Florida State, where—in one illustration from a New York Times report—a 911 call for domestic abuse was downplayed by officers on the scene, but later flagged for their sergeant because it involved an FSU football player.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA, while lacking subpoena power, has broad authority to investigate possible violations of NCAA rules and punish those responsible. However, the NCAA has long been accused of halfheartedly investigating its member institutions, while being soft and inconsistent with its punishments. There is growing sentiment that inherent conflicts of interest are to blame. The NCAA is fundamentally an institution of, by, and for its member institutions—making its enforcement efforts an exercise of self-policing.

Stepping back, the situation looks bleak. Hardly anyone in position to act on suspicion of wrongdoing has incentive to do so, leaving us to hope that their consciences will intervene.

The reality is that the virtues of college football are, more and more, enabling its vices.

What can be done? I should confess that I write this as a disheartened fan, not a scholar, of college athletics, and I feel clearer about what ails college sports than what to do about it. Still, a few potential ways forward make sense:

  1. NCAA reform. When an NCAA-appointed committee concludes that “the NCAA’s investigative and enforcement processes require a complete overhaul,” action needs to be taken. The NCAA is too rife with conflicts of interest, and its resources are not up to the task of investigating and punishing serious offenses. Calls to outsource its rule enforcement are sensible, as are the committee’s calls to strengthen the penalties for NCAA violations. One particularly underutilized tool in the NCAA arsenal is show-cause penalties that follow coaches when they leave for other programs. NCAA punishments have tended to target the institutions where the infractions occur, not the individuals who commit those infractions. A realistic threat of a lifetime show-cause penalty could lead coaches to think differently about the costs of enabling abusive behavior.
  2. Stricter reporting requirements. After an allegation against an athlete or coach, universities often engage in various types of self-policing, legitimate or not. This leaves opportunity for issues to be swept under the rug in order to avoid program-damaging consequences. Perhaps stronger laws for mandatory reporting to law enforcement would help (along the lines of recent legislation that requires reporting of child abuse in Olympic sports). However, this would need to be pursued delicately, with input from those concerned about a “chilling effect” that could keep victims from seeking help from campus authorities. A first step might be to revisit lax rules for public reporting from campus police departments.
  3. Better internal policies for addressing allegations. The Obama administration created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to address sexual assault on college campuses. While not tailored specifically to athletic departments, resources created by the task force—and recommendations for college and university leaders—could benefit universities seeking to improve their internal processes. (These resources are distinct from the controversial 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos subsequently withdrew.)
  4. Culture change. The change that would be most beneficial might be the most difficult to make. The culture surrounding many of today’s college athletic departments is dangerous. Policy change can only take us so far without individuals in positions of authority taking their ethical responsibilities more seriously. Perhaps most valuable of all, but most fanciful, would be college sports fans becoming a little less concerned about how their favorite programs perform on the field and more concerned about how they perform off of it.

Many Americans spend months looking forward to this weekend, eager to immerse themselves in this year’s college football season. I am among them. However, as scandals continue to mount, that anticipation comes tinged with more and more ambivalence.

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