Yesterday, Bobby Knight took aim at the new NBA age limit, a policy I've criticized on a number of occasions. Knight's main argument, as quoted at ESPN.com is:
"Because now you can have a kid come to school for a year and play basketball and he doesn't even have to go to class," Knight said Monday during the Big 12 coaches call. "He certainly doesn't have to go to class the second semester. I'm not exactly positive about the first semester. But he would not have to attend a single class the second semester to play through the whole second semester of basketball.
"That, I think, has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports."
A focus of the ESPN.com story on Knight's views is Kevin Durant, the fabulous Texas freshman who stands a good chance of becoming the first frosh in history to win college basketball's player of the year award. Knight said that he would never recruit a "one-and-done" like Durant, given the disincentives to go to class beyond first semester, especially for a player so obviously ticketed for the very top of the NBA draft lottery. But, the most striking instance of some of the arguably perverse consequences of the new rule is embodied in the OJ Mayo case. Mayo - considered by many the top high school b-baller in the country - chose to go to USC because it's in a major media market and would be a good launching pad for his professional career, especially off the court. As you can see (follow the link), neither him nor his future coach sees his year at USC in anything but purely business terms.
I mention this in part because I am obviously interested in the age-limit issue, but also because Jemele Hill, whom I referenced yesterday, recently wrote a column for Page 2 about ethics in sports.
Sharon Stoll, a noted sports ethicist, has taken the ethical temperatures of more than 70,000 athletes nationwide. What she has uncovered is what headlines tell us almost every day. Most athletes possess very poor ethics.
Just look at this week alone. Michael Waltrip had his car confiscated and saw his crew chief and competition director suspended indefinitely for using an illegal fuel additive. An angry father upset at his son's loss threw his son's wrestling opponent off the mat at a youth match in Aurora, Ill.
Sports is becoming a haven for cheaters -- and this goes beyond just steroids and baseball. We should have known things were bad last December, when a chess player was banned for 10 years after he was caught using his mobile device to win games.
Everything in Stoll's research suggests morality in competition only will continue to decline. It won't be long before someone figures out how to use text messaging to cheat at Uno.
"In contact sports, it's the lowest we've seen," said Stoll, a University of Idaho professor who runs the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor in Competitive Sports (ETHICS).
Twenty years of research has shown Stoll that athletes need to be taught ethics with the same diligence that they learn their playbooks.
Some of them just don't know right from wrong. If they do, they discover quickly that in sports, the wrong choices are rewarded just as much as the right ones.
It's a telling coincidence that as the smoke cleared from the Waltrip cheating scandal, Barry Bonds signed a one-year deal worth $15.8 million with the San Francisco Giants. If that's the spoils of cheating, why would any athlete dare cease?
The problem is that a hard-line stance toward cheating would mean ridding sports of the competitive advantages that have, for years, been romanticized as traditions. It would mean no more scuffed baseballs, teaching offensive linemen how to hold without getting caught, and ending fighting in hockey -- all those little things that for years have not only helped our favorite athletes and teams win games, but upped the entertainment value of sports.
Perusing the ETHICS website, there are some interesting findings. One is that while female athletes score better on the moral reasoning survey administered by ETHICS than do male athletes, their scores are declining over time. In fact, ETHICS asserts that, within five years, female athletes' ethics will have fallen to the same low level as male athletes. Another is that surveys that follow discreet groups of athletes find that their moral reasoning declines over a four year period - in other words, the longer they participate in sports, the worse their moral reasoning becomes. A third, and one I want to ponder a bit, is that the reason for the convergence of female athletes' ethics scores with those of males is that "it appears that female athletes are being socialized into the current capitalistic, commodified model of moral callousness – less of a concern for others and more of a concern for self."
Hill's account, and this is standard for sports journalism, focuses on individual behaviors, as if moral decision-making always happens in a vacuum. I don't want to overstate this - there is plenty of discussion of how "the culture" - never terribly well specified, is contributing to the moral failings of our athletes. But, there's never any analysis of where that culture comes from, or what shapes it. The sports commentariat just knows that it's different, and worse, than it used to be. And, as a consequence, the athletic participants are of weaker character. But, Hill's missed a big contextual explanation in ETHICS' findings - that a particular form of culture - namely one that rarely questions the right of big institutions and powerful interests to make money at all costs, may contribute directly to, even teach, the poor ethics found in the surveys. The lowest scoring athletes are males in team sports and, more to the point, males in revenue generating team sports. It's easy for sports commentators to focus on the greedy, selfish athlete and, at times, easy enough to criticize owners for their own greed, especially when they continually raise ticket prices. But, there's not much discussion of how institutional decisions might shape individual ethics. I can't say that this is what Knight has in mind when he questions the impact of the new age rules on the integrity of college sports. But, it's transparent that the NBA did not adopt the rule to serve the high school kids affected by it, and it's clear enough that the colleges benefit not because the rule allows them to extend their educational mission to a previously unreachable group of players. If the OJ Mayos of the world are picking colleges based on marketing opportunities, perhaps the best place to start thinking about the ethics of young athletes isn't with the kids themselves, but with the institutions that think more about their bottom line than the principles they profess so piously.
In fact, the ETHICS findings notwithstanding, there is evidence that the problem of ethics goes well beyond the sports world. According to Dave Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, there's:
a new moral crisis. This crisis infects nearly every part of American society, from education to sports to business to a myriad of professions. It often plays out in intensely personal ways and it deeply troubles Americans. The crisis is the rise of a "cheating culture" in the United States.
Cheating is up. Cheating is everywhere. By cheating I mean breaking the rules to get ahead academically, professionally or financially. Some of this cheating involves violating the law, some does not. Either way, most of it is by people who, on the whole, view themselves as upstanding members of society.
Cheating is intended to go undetected, and trends in unethical behavior can be hard to document. Still, what evidence is available suggests that cheating increased in the 1980s and '90s, at least in comparison to the middle decades of the twentieth century. Many studies confirm that cheating by high school and college students has increased substantially. In a 2002 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles-based group, three-quarters of high school students admitted they had cheated in the previous year.
The plague of cheating infects every corner of our culture, Callahan argues, from unethical doctors, lawyers and CEOs of large corporations to plagiarizing academics and journalists. And, Callahan locates a clear culprit:
America's crisis of ethics is no accidental phenomenon. It is organic to the way of life proselytized by the right. As free-market ideology has triumphed both economically and culturally since the late 1970s, such quintessential American values as fair play and honesty have sunk into decline.
Competition is an unquestioned virtue within market ideology and has been a prime mantra of conservatives for thirty years. It is seen as the foundation not just of maximum prosperity but also of individual greatness. Freedom, in the conservative worldview, is a state of pure competition where there are no checks on individual striving. Taken too far, though, competition is poisonous to people's ethics. And lately, America has taken competition too far.
I want to take a step back from this and argue that while it's true that the ethos Callahan describes has been pushed hardest by the values-loving right, such advocacy is by no means confined to them: the prerogatives of the marketplace represent a consensus ideology in America. And, I am wary of arguments that draw a bright line between a degraded present and a pristine past. But, the point is this: most of our conversations about greed and morality in sports focus on individual behavior, especially of the athletes themselves, and rarely is any thought given to the larger framework within which people's (including athletes) values and ethics are shaped. Knight's criticism of the age rule zeroes in on a key problem: the way it will create incentives for individuals to behave in ways which undermine the integrity of the enterprise. Knight specifically said that he didn't blame Longhorn's coach Rick Barnes for recruiting Durant, because the rules allow it and you can hardly tell a coach not to go after such a supremely talented, and available, kid. And, I am sure the experience will work out well for some young athletes beyond their professional development. Having to spend a year in college, instead of going straight to the pros is not the worst thing in the world.
It's just that it would be nice for sports journalists to aim a little bit more of their moralistic fire away from the individual athletes and, instead, point more of it toward the larger sources of ethical (mis)behavior.