SBJ/January 2-8, 2012/Opinion

Sports industry must find moral courage to act amid crisis

Have you ever had an employee, a co-worker or friend come to you and admit they’ve attempted suicide? That they are depressed and their marriage is falling apart? That they’ve been embezzling? That they’ve been gambling money that they shouldn’t have? That they’re having an affair with a junior employee or intern? That they can’t stand working for or with another employee?

Our guess is that many of you have found yourself in that situation but, unlike the matters still smoldering at Penn State, Syracuse and elsewhere, you’ve thought the best course of action was to keep your mouth shut. People know how to get counseling if they need it. People should keep their noses out of other people’s business. The person confiding in me doesn’t see me as an authority figure, they just need someone to talk to that they can trust. They confided in me and expect me to keep this confidential. Ahh, you’ll get over that … or even … I’ve got your back, buddy.

Any of those lines sound familiar?

In light of unspeakable allegations at Penn State, and the current situation at Syracuse, the spotlight on responsibility, on moral obligation, on ethical values is suddenly shining brightly on millions in the sports industry. Most of us think we’ll still be able to sidestep any great commitment to justice or intervention (or equality for that matter), but the truth is that these situations are likely to serve as a great historic line in the sand. The attention drawn to these issues, by those inside and outside of sport, has been unprecedented.

From November 2011 onward, the media, fans, members of your family, your partner, your children and friends are going to be able to say, “Why didn’t you do more?” And to cop a plea, that you told your supervisor is probably not going to cut it. From today on, people will expect that if you saw something and didn’t commit to righting a wrong or to speaking up, that you were “soft” and in some places/cases, you should be removed from your position. These new expectations will certainly be enhanced if you hold a position of any public stature, like the coach or athletic director of an NCAA program or a similar role with a professional team.

The Penn State crisis reminds everyone of the ethical duty to take action to prevent harm to others.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Now, hold on, you’re probably saying. We can’t turn the sports industry into some Orwellian Big Brother machine. We can’t become the modern day equivalent of the East German Stasi with informants lurking behind every wall or ceiling. We mustn’t overreact. In fact, you might be suggesting, we’re obligated to wait until all the facts in the Penn State and Syracuse cases are verified.

No, we’re not. We need to better acknowledge some innate human tendencies as well as the importance of basic (but comprehensive) moral obligations. For all of us, this is more important than the case at hand, but let’s be clear: The case at hand has drawn the needed attention for the argument to be heard. And attention to victims — people we need to care deeply about — everywhere.

Marquette University marketing professor Gene Laczniak sees it this way: “When we see abuses or troubles, the easiest thing to do is nothing. So, when faced with some potential intervention to help, whether to connect someone needing a jump-start for their car or to delay our journey to give witness or aid after an accident, there is a natural human disposition not to get involved. Someone else’s problem, we rationalize, will likely sort itself out in due time.”

Laczniak has spent much of his academic career writing about ethics and building knowledge in this area. It is interesting when he says, “Applied ethics would suggest a higher duty in the case of too many opt-outs. There are times, especially when an action can stop or prevent grave harm to others, when we must summon the moral courage to act decisively. Various philosophers have enumerated self-evident duties (at least self-evident to reflective thinkers) to render assistance when we are opportunistically able. Such moral courage is necessary both to affirm our humanity and to contribute to a better community.”

Laczniak’s views inspire a number of interesting and thought-provoking questions:

• Would Major League Baseball have been better off if trainers or team physicians had reported suspicions or knowledge of steroid usage?

• Would college sports and the NCAA hold a stronger reputation if university presidents prohibited booster gifts from being earmarked for their athletics programs?

• Should NFL or CFL coaches and owners insist their players be tested for synthetic human growth hormones in hopes of preventing a future scandal and leveling the playing field?

• What would’ve happened if everyone involved with the Tour de France, particularly the sponsors, had said “enough is enough” when Tour champions were routinely found guilty of doping?

The tragedies at Penn State and Syracuse provide a teaching moment with the upside of forcing all of us to rethink the ethical duties we each have to help nurture the human solidarity that affirms the goodness of competitive sport. But what should we be telling our peers and employees? In business schools and sport management programs, curriculums include much on issues related to ethics, crisis management and risk management, all elements that — if applied practically — would lead to the consideration of tough questions like those listed above.

Why, then, do we continue to prioritize short-term reputations and loyalty over the long-term best interests and the right thing? We bring this question forward today, in the midst of the media scrutiny, to push our industry — practitioners and educators alike — to make ethics important, to do more than talk about risk, to take a prevention focus to crises.
Simply put, we all need to do more.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (norman.oreilly@uottawa.ca) is an associate professor of sport business at University of Ottawa.

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