SBJ/March 21 - 27, 2005/Opinion

Video game gets too real when it adds recruiting violations, ethical lapses

The message catches the basketball coach by surprise.

“Everyone would love to see [fictional basketball recruit] Jim Turner wearing Maryland colors next year,” the alumnus says. “Coach, we may be able to help you out.”

The implicit assumption: Give the word, and we’ll slip the kid some cash.

The coach knows that if he says no, the highly sought high school player may enroll at archrivals Duke or North Carolina and win a championship. If the coach goes along, he risks damaging his team and university and destroying his career, but he might also win a championship.

That’s a tough dilemma — especially for a 12-year-old.

Recently, I learned of an incident where a friend’s son wrestled with his conscience as he played the Xbox version of NCAA March Madness 2005, EA Sports’ popular home video game.

EA Sports aims for authenticity on the court — and now, unfortunately, off the court as well.
The game, which bears an NCAA license, grosses about $35 million in revenue a year, according to EA Sports. It includes game commentary, fight songs and mascots of the institutions and players who look and play like their counterparts on real college teams. The game aims for as much authenticity as possible without actually naming players, which is outside the constraints of NCAA amateurism rules.

Added this year to the “Dynasty Mode” feature are fictional recruiting violations, ripped from the headlines and to which gamers, the majority of whom are 12-18 years of age, must respond.

After communicating with an NCAA representative about the game, I believe that the NCAA staff was not aware of all the details of this game feature and it was never the NCAA’s intention to provide such an illusory choice, especially to the adolescents and teenagers who compose the bulk of the players.

Now that the NCAA is aware of these scenarios, it is time to make certain that its licensees are held to the same standards as NCAA member institutions in promoting the virtues of intercollegiate sports rather than distorting those values to make a buck.

As a former Division I student-athlete, a college basketball analyst, a member of the Knight Commission and, now, a member of the College Basketball Partnership, I remain convinced that athletics teach, among other virtues, that it’s OK to be fiercely competitive as long as it is within the boundaries of rules, regulations and ethics.

The idea that a game might feature unethical conduct in college basketball concerns me greatly. Moreover, I am bothered that an NCAA licensee doesn’t seem to sing unequivocally from the same hymnal in praising virtue and value as they relate to the privilege of playing or coaching college basketball.

What troubles me most is that March Madness 2005 insults the tremendous efforts of the NCAA’s president, Myles Brand, to clean up the academic, financial and other problems of college sports in general and college basketball in particular.

To be fair, the EA game doesn’t glorify recruiting violations and illegal booster activity. Messages and warnings do appear in the game that threaten penalties for unethical conduct.

Also, there is no option where a user can directly pay a player or direct an alumnus to pay a recruit or player. The bad deeds are accomplished implicitly.

The directions for March Madness 2005 encourage the game’s “coaches” to “run a tight ship” when their players run afoul of the rules, because if they “don’t take action” or are “too lenient,” the NCAA “might” punish their teams.

But the game also allows a player to ignore rules infractions and play on. Handouts and forbidden booster support are accepted as common behavior, and the gamers’ reward just might be a championship, albeit one that will be stripped at the end.

By then, however, the user’s euphoria and satisfaction of winning will dwarf any game-imposed sanction. To get rid of sanctions, just use the reset button.

I’ve seen the argument made by EA Sports that by creating a game that acknowledges the seamier side of college basketball and giving gamers the opportunity to repudiate it, EA Sports is doing its part to clean up the mess.

Unfortunately, from what I have witnessed in adolescents playing the game, it merely provides an opportunity for another generation of young people to become comfortable in making the wrong decisions for the sheer lust of winning.

In an effort to portray the reality of sports, EA Sports implicitly contradicts the movement toward ethical reform. It is counterproductive to the movement for an NCAA licensee to develop and distribute a video game that so clearly accepts as “part of the game” the notion that players, coaches and boosters will cut ethical corners.

Reform advocacy is, by its nature, an acknowledgment of existing problems. I’m not so naïve to believe that college basketball is devoid of booster shenanigans. Nor do I believe that there aren’t some programs that solicit illegal booster involvement.

If the need for reform is the crucible of college sports today, then the answer lies not in using a fantasy video game to wallow in the dirty truth but to use the game to construct the world as it should be. Use the game to present a new reality.

How does the mistake get fixed?

First, EA Sports should acknowledge that a mistake was made. In this age of challenges and replays, it should tell the world that upon further review, tempting young people to commit bad acts is not what was intended, nor will it be tolerated.

Merely omitting that stuff from the game is not enough. NCAA licensees like EA Sports must become apostles for the role of intercollegiate athletics. The best way to reinforce the idea that cheating won’t be tolerated is to allow the icons of the sport to speak the words.

The 2004 version of NCAA March Madness featured pep talks from big-name coaches. I would like to see included in the 2006 version a big-name coach like Mike Krzyzewski telling a group of high school recruits that they should “study hard and stay away from anyone offering them money or encouraging them to cut corners.”

Or how about Tubby Smith giving a speech urging players to “follow the rules and keep their hands clean.”

This current NCAA administration deserves better from its licensees. Fortunately for the next generation of coaches, players, fans and, yes, boosters, it’s not too late to fix it.n

Len Elmore is senior counsel with LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae and a college basketball analyst.

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