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.


3 Responses to "Play by the Rules?"

Bozo_bus said... March 4, 2010 at 10:26 PM

"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."

If you would read the original Yahoo! article from 5 years ago, you would know Michael Ornstein, the

ex-con sports agent/marketer with whom Bush signed as a pro, is a USC booster who is fully

implicated in providing inappropriate benefits to Bush while he was playing for USC. Bush worked for

him as a student -- USC guided Bush to him.

Further, Bush's plush condo in LA as a student and his car were also inappropriate benefits. USC is

culpable for both of these aspects, Ornstein's misdeeds and the LA benefits Bush accepted.

The family's benefits you mentioned make Bush ineligible and the games in which he played after making the deal with New Era need to be set aside, either forfeited or vacated. The other major violations are deservedly on USC. Trojan propaganda has misinformed you.

David Childers said... March 7, 2010 at 1:04 PM

Despite the fact that Ornstein may have been loosely affiliated with USC through the internship given to Bush, it still remains that (according to a February 2010 Yahoo sports article) “There is no firm evidence in any published reports to date that anyone at USC had direct knowledge of improper benefits to any football player, which probably means the NCAA doesn't have it, either.” Regardless, my main intent was not to defend USC or any other college athletic program, we all know that many of them are far from being ethically wholesome. The main issue is the fact that the NCAA system causes people to become too accustom to following rules blindly instead of giving people the opportunity to hold themselves accountable. Like I said before, even when you try to have all the rules, there are still going to people that will push boundaries.

Bozo_bus said... March 9, 2010 at 8:09 PM

"The main issue is the fact that the NCAA system causes people to become too accustom to following rules blindly instead of giving people the opportunity to hold themselves accountable."

The explicit spirit of the NCAA is that institution self-investigate, self-report and self-impose penalties. The "opportunity to hold themselves accountable" cannot be more manifest than in the NCAA. The principles behind the Bush violations are well understood by everyone. Few can cite the exact wording of the rules involved, but everyone knows what Bush did broke the rules. The more abstract approach you seem to be advocating escapes me in the case of USC.

When running backs coach McNair allegedly observed Bush receiving benefits at a social event (the NCAA grilled him for 2 days) in a fancy hotel room registered to Bush, and talked with Michaels and Lake, both regulars on USC sidelines and locker room, he chose not to pursue the matter--or if he did pursue it, then the fault lies higher up. That constitutes a lack of institution control.

When Pete Carrol found out about the family's new housing, he called Bush's step father and requested he fax him the lease agreement. Lake had said in the original Yahoo! article that Carrol was only concerned about the lease. The fact that Michael Michaels' name was on the agreement (whom Carrol had granted sideline and locker room privileges) would have prompted most conscientious self-accountable persons to ask him to fax some processed rent checks, and not simply the lease. Free housing is the principle, whatever the wording of the rule.

In neither of these alleged cases do we lack a sense of the underlying principles, what is lacking in a sense of accountability. We see an unwillingness to self-investigate, self-report, or self-impose penalties.

We see the same unwillingness with regard to where Bush was living in LA for two seasons or the car he was driving and parking in the practice facility parking lot every day. Do you believe some generalized guidelines would have served USC's compliance better? They did not see the condo, or the Impala, because they did not want to see them. Be it a specific rule, an abstract principle, or an engraved stone etched by Yahweh Himself would have made no difference in this case.

We see this same unaccountability with Guillory in the Mayo case and with McKnight most recently as Carroll and other coaches stopped to exchange pleasantries with McKnight as he sat in the SUV. This pattern of irresponsibility would not have changed no matter what the style of regulation.

The paradigm you urge may well be superior to a zillion specific rules, but it is a hard sell to say it would have made any difference to Heritage Hall. Those who value winning above all else will not abide by any form of regulation.

"Loosely affiliated" is an interesting characterization. Ornstein employed the Trojans' marquee player, was a regular on the sidelines and locker room. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, he's a booster, an ex-con sports agent/marketer USC-certified booster. He is another sterling example of Trojan compliance. Guillory follows this tradition. Well, we will see how the NCAA views this seedy cast of characters drawn from USC's locker rooms.

Your theoretical considerations have merit, but no applicability to the corruption that has festered in Heritage Hall since August of 2001, when USC was last placed on probation. Because the Bush infractions happened within the 5 year window following that date, the NCAA can regard USC as a repeat violator. That dubious honor makes it eligible for the death penalty. Another example would prolly be more suitable; USC has snubbed its nose at authority for a long time. The lawless do not conform to law regardless of its form.

That is the main point of my post.

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David Childers
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