It is a broken record of shattered lives all in the name of winning. It is the pathetic and all too familiar price we seem willing to pay in the hope of winning more games.
The current crash of the Baylor football program is just the most recent example of the complete lack of accountability that too many college athletes possess. Their athletic prowess has opened doors and their bad behavior closed eyes on their way to an athletic scholarship. Their ability to excel on the athletic arena has been their green card to exonerate them from misdemeanors and felonies.
You can see this at play even when an athlete is convicted. Consider the light sentence—a mere 6 months in jail—given to a former Stanford University student, a champion swimmer, who was convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. In a statement to the court, the victim railed against the leniency shown to Brock Turner, noting the probation officer’s consideration included the fact that Turner had earned an athletic scholarship.
At Baylor, “We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” was the official word from the Board of regents. An investigation commissioned by the private Baptist college itself revealed that for years the athletic department failed to respond to multiple allegations of sexual assault committed by its football players.
Sadly we have heard this too many times before. From Penn State to Nebraska to Baylor we continue to be shocked at the level of misconduct that is allowed and covered up to protect elite athletes. With millions of dollars in play from coach’s salaries, future NFL contracts and the deep pockets of school boosters the need to win is a powerful and too often corrupting force.
Building character through the athletic experience has been replaced with building gaudy won-loss records, new stadiums and harvesting multi-million dollar shoe endorsements. When a coach reaches the win at any cost threshold to keep their job, indefensible decisions will be made to cover up Neanderthal behavior.
This dismal marriage of illegal behavior and college athletes seems destined to repeat itself until we put more stock in a player’s character than his bench press. If you cannot simply follow the law like the rest of us, do we really need you participating in college athletics? Would the NFL or its fans really suffer if we never saw Ray Rice or Aaron Hernandez play?
Please don’t even ponder that question, the answer is no.
It starts innocently when coaches sweep poor grades or missed practices of young players under the rug because they don’t have the courage to sit their best players down. Winning a Pop Warner game becomes more important than teaching a life lesson about responsibility. The pattern continues and elite athletes quickly learn that they are held to a different and more forgiving standard than many of their teammates. As they grow in stature so do their transgressions and their trail of victims. When the cost of winning devastates the lives of innocent students the price has clearly reached an unacceptable level.
We are fond of saying that sports builds character, but the truth is coaches build character. The good ones build character and win. The great ones build character. Just as we focus too much attention to the physical gifts of players we often put too much faith in the won-loss records of coaches. Judging ones character is undoubtedly more complicated than reading a stat sheet, but it is apparent that we need to do a better job of the former.
The “boys will be boys” mentality that some coaches—and parts of society allow is unacceptable, but their willingness to cover up or turn a blind eye is unforgivable. Possibly we need a “Wonderlic” test for character.
Winning, not character development is the gold standard when it comes to big time college athletic programs. That will not change until we break the connection between winning and the financially massive windfall it creates. When obscene amounts of money are at stake it has been proven that our moral compass can be drawn off course.
Finding a solution is difficult if not impossible because for some the reward of running a bad program that wins is worth the risk. It is a mindset that fits neatly into the selfish instant gratification culture we live in. Seeking out shortcuts to success has become a day job for some. For these people the end result—winning—justifies the means—closing our eyes to illegal conduct.
The addiction to winning isn’t just championships, banners and parades. The will to win at all costs is addictive. And like an addict the desire for more won’t change until they hit rock bottom.
Baylor football is another remorseful example of where the bottom is.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com.