Friday, August 10, 2012

The Problems We Face in College Athletics



“Pride, avarice and envy are in every home.” Thornton Wilder

College athletics are no exception.  Joe Paterno once said, “Besides pride, loyalty, discipline, heart, and mind, confidence is the key to all the locks.”  Pride was the first quality he noted as important to success.  Pride is also the quality that lead to his and Penn State’s demise. 

We are taught as young athletes to have pride in our teams, our performances and ourselves.  Pride becomes the code for never quitting, putting team first and always giving our best.  However, the definition of pride isn’t any of those things. 

Pride [prahyd] 
1. a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.
2. the state or feeling of being proud.
3. a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character; self-respect; self-esteem.
4. pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself.

These are four of the twelve definitions that Dictionary.com lists.  All four of these are reflected in the actions of Penn State University.  The leadership at Penn State took pride in their school, their athletic program and their place in the community.  Because of this pride, they were lead to protect these things and ignore the wrongs within the their institution. 

“In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” John Ruskin

The problems at Penn State seem unbelievable to us, because men we held in high regard protected their institution instead of protecting innocent children.  Their actions were faults of human nature that both runs through all of us to some degree and is also taught and nurtured in athletics. 

How can we address and change this culture of pride, greed and envy?  First, we need to think about the quality that opposes pride.  It is humility.  Does humility have a place in college athletics?  Can a coach teach her players to value modesty and to be humble in their pursuits?  Does this approach to coaching fit with the will to win?  I believe it does.  When I was young, I remember seeing an interview with Bruce Jenner following his win in the Olympic Decathlon.  When asked what it felt like to be the best athlete in the world, he answered that he was certainly not the best athlete in the world.  He was merely the best in that competition in that time period.  His answer so impressed me that I have carried it with me all these years.  He was a gold medal winner, yet incredibly humble.  Winners can possess humility.  However, it must be modeled, taught, rewarded and it must come from the top and be instilled at all levels of competition to truly change college athletics.  We must all swallow our pride and learn to value humility. 

A very successful man, Ross Perot, said the following,  “Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment.  As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility and commitment.”  This quote speaks not just to our efforts or physical exertion, but also to our character.  The news is full of examples of these lapses of character; coaches who cheat in recruiting and on their wives, players who take money when they know it is wrong, steroids and speed made available and taken, commitments given and not kept and a focus on winning that recognizes little else.  As we read the news, we shake our heads at the indiscretions, but fail to see that we are all weak and just one step away from losing our balance as well.  Then, we turn the page and lament the coach who lost another game or the athlete who missed the last second shot.  We question their effort, their knowledge and their will to win.  The questions instead should focus on our balance, humility and commitment as educators, competitors and leaders.  

My point isn’t that everything is wrong with college sports, because I am a big fan as well as a piece of the puzzle.  My point is that we need to do a better job of recognizing character driven leadership.  Men and women throughout college sports are stripped of their jobs, despite being strong leaders.  The simple truth of sports is, there are winners and there are losers each and every time you play.  Losing is not something anyone wants, but it is part of sports and life.  It teaches us that we need to change, adjust, work harder, be stronger, be smarter and keep going.  It is but one stop on a journey, not the final destination. 

If the NCAA wanted to truly make a difference, it would quit putting its emphasis on oversight and punishment and shift it to education and training at every level.  Our goal should be to train college presidents to be above the politics of disgruntled boosters.  It should focus on teaching athletic directors to lead departments with more yardsticks than wins and losses.  Academics, peer leadership, service and becoming an integral part of the community are all measurements of the success of a program as well as W’s.  Coaches also need training in focus, judgment, ethics and balance and how to impart character ideals to their student-athletes.  Finally, athletes need training in more than their sport.  The NCAA works to prevent student-athletes from signing with agents, making money on the side or taking steroids.  Can the NCAA change its approach and begin to develop our student-athlete’s ethics, principles and honor instead of working to offset them?  College sports need a shift and it must be from the top down.  We must ask ourselves what do we want, how do we achieve it and what is holding us back.  My hope is that the first answer is education, character and ethical leadership throughout college sports. 

In the end, college is a place of learning.  If we continue to teach pride, greed, and envy, we will continue to have the problems we see now.  If we can figure out how to be humble and modest while remaining successful, we will be on the right path.  Further down that path, we must learn to value our leaders who have character and don’t rely on only wins to define themselves.  Finally, we need to all recognize that our human nature is common and only by being uncommon can we truly effect change. 

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