March 3, 2010

Play by the Rules?

For the past few years I’ve used every forum at my disposal to discuss the inequity of a rule-based environment. You can never have all the rules, and even if you try to have all the rules you ultimately end up with an exhaustive list of requirements that no one can understand or hope to follow.

Instead, I’m a huge believer in principle-based performance: Educate to values and integrity, establish clear guardrails and the “rules” for the most part will take care of themselves. The reality, however, is there are people who will choose to break a rule, push a line or tread on thin ice regardless of how much you instruct them otherwise.

One example of an organization that maintains too many rules is the NCAA. For the record, to the disdain of most of my children (Go Ducks!), I bleed crimson and gold. My youngest daughter graduated from the University of Spoiled Children (or USC) and during her four years in Los Angeles I found myself completely rooted within the Trojan family. So, like every other loyal Trojan, I’ve been avidly following the NCAA’s attempt to discredit the University of Southern California.

Bear in mind there is no allegation whatsoever that USC did not play by the NCAA’s rules. However, the NCAA claims that the family of former USC running back Reggie Bush sought and obtained virtually free housing in the Los Angeles area from an individual that had no direct affiliation with the university. In fact, there isn't even an allegation that any university officials or boosters were involved or even aware of the Bush family arrangement.

Just like many other universities, USC took all the necessary steps to educate players and their families on NCAA rules regarding improper behavior. This is essentially what is referred to as compliance training in the corporate world. The issue is that a player and his family, along with an agent, chose to break the rules – not the university. However, the university is somehow held accountable.

For those who’ve been reading my blog, you know I have been focused on the extension of compliance concepts to vendors, suppliers and agents because when they screw up it is the corporation who is found guilty – either in the courts or in the court of public opinion.

USC has been serving time in both of these “courts” lately. USC will likely be found guilty of a violation of something – because the NCAA unfortunately has enough major and minor rules to make this happen.

However, USC didn’t help its cause when it hired Lane Kiffin from the University of Tennessee as its new coach following the departure of Pete Carroll to the Seattle Sea-Chickens. Kiffin is no stranger to questionable behavior and he would not have been among my candidates for the job. According to the New York Times, in less than 14 months at Tennessee, Lane Kiffin committed six secondary violations and is under investigation for the use of student “hostesses” in recruiting. Three of Kiffin’s recruits were also dismissed from the team after they were arrested for armed robbery.

Despite promising that his number one priority at USC was to run a clean program, Kiffin has already committed a minor violation by picking up a USC recruit at the airport in a limo. I fly into LAX quite often and while limos may be an odd sight in Ann Arbor, they are pretty common in Los Angeles. I’m not saying what he did was right, I’m just trying to focus on the situational norms – not a bunch of rules. If Kiffin was trying to impress some kid by showing him the ‘So-Cal’ lifestyle, then Kiffin was in the wrong. If he just didn’t want to fight the traffic on I405 and wanted to talk to the kid along the route, what was the harm? Plenty. Kiffin knew what he was doing was wrong. The principle is “inappropriate influence” and he chose to ignore it.

I am not suggesting that if the NCAA gets rid of all of its rules that universities will automatically clean up their athletic programs. I am simply suggesting that all the silly little rules get in the way. Minor rules must be made for breaking otherwise they wouldn’t be classified as minor?! If the NCAA created and verbalized a clear set of guidelines to every stakeholder (coaches, players, athletic directors, boosters, agents and family members) and enforced them swiftly and fairly, then I think everyone would get the message.

I've been preparing this week for a talk I will give in a couple of months on gaming fraud – specifically focused on Native American casinos. What I have learned is that Native American gaming establishments are not unique and the fraud and abuses that are prevalent in Las Vegas are just as prevalent in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What I have also learned is that the sophistication and pride within Native American tribes makes a huge amount of difference in the volume of fraud-based activity. The tone from the Principal Chief and the value set by which the tribe members hold themselves accountable is the real measure by which you should begin to rank or rate the fraud potential.

It should be the same for college athletics. Coaches should set the tone and lead by example, and the alumni must remember that the true sense of winning in college athletics isn’t always measured by trophies or scoreboards.

College sports are dominated by the “what have you done for me lately" or "we need to win now" attitude. This can be likened to the sentiment in the corporate world which saw the downfall of Enron and the like, too much focus on short-term profits and not enough focus on long-term growth. Universities need to realize the eventual damage this attitude may inflict down the road if they don’t build a program based on integrity and principle-based performance.

About Me

David Childers
of EthicsPoint

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Favorite Quotes:

Ronald Reagan
There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.

John Quincy Adams
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.

Ray Kroc
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.

John Maxwell
The first step to leadership is servanthood.