Injury-hobbled Duke was en route to its second win in two nights, this time against Grand Canyon University. The contest in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off took place at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where president-elect Donald Trump, the man with cotton-candy hair then starring in TV’s “The Apprentice,” had watched a 2004 Duke victory over North Carolina from a baseline seat and been serenaded by students chanting “You got fired!”
The Blue Devils faced the Lopes four days after the presidential election, culminating a campaign in which the major-party contestants savaged each other’s character. Not surprisingly, both were rated by pollsters as the most disliked candidates in modern history. No need to explain their “unfavorables,” as pundits put it, to anyone who paid attention.
The celebrity introduced to the crowd at the Grand Canyon game was another figure touched by controversy. Danny Ferry, a two-time ACC Player of the Year at Duke in 1988 and 1989, incurred his own unfavorable ratings in 2014 due to allegations of racial bias. Ferry was quickly forced out as general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. The charge against the consensus 1989 National Player of the Year was later debunked in an independent investigation, but the stain lingered. Ferry, who reportedly tried recently for several high-level NBA jobs, now works as a special assistant to the GM of the New Orleans Pelicans.
Trump prospered electorally despite language far more brutally insensitive than allegedly used by Ferry, whose fate strengthened an impression that comments and actions deemed inappropriate or worse are policed with increasing severity in sports. Just this month, Columbia University shut down its wrestling team, Harvard its men’s soccer team, due to racist and lewd sexual remarks. Perhaps this reflects heightened standards in athletics, where talk of building and valuing character is ubiquitous.
Character over talent
Certainly that’s the virtuous picture painted by coaches and sold by college athletics and its corporate partners.
“I’ve made a lot of decisions in my entire career taking character over talent,” insists North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “You give me a kid with great character, he’s going to care more, he’s going to work more, he’s going to be able to make sacrifices for the common goal. I have two grandsons – one will be 7 on Jan. 1, the other just turned 5 in August. There’s not a player on my team I wouldn’t let babysit and feel very good about them taking care of the grandsons.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a similar take.
“We look at three things and they’re all equal: talent, they have to be good academically, and character,” he says of recruits. “They’ve learned to accept authority, to respect authority. They’re good teammates. They’re good kids. I would do that if I was head of a business or whatever. Good people, first of all, they’re more fun to work with and they’re more apt to be unselfish because they feel good about who they are and so they’re OK about helping someone else be good.”
A parallel with business is apt, according to Dr. Christian Miller, a Wake Forest University professor of philosophy with a specialty in ethics. Miller, leader of “The Character Project” at Wake that intensively studied the topic from 2010 to 2015, defines character “abstractly as how we’re disposed to think, feel and act when it comes to important matters of life.” He says in that regard sports, college and pro, most closely resembles business with its revenue orientation, hierarchical relationships and strict codes regarding behavior, dress, punctuality and interactions with superiors.
Yet, whatever the realm, we know rules and explicit expectations don’t prevent people and institutions from acting in self-indulgent and self-interested ways.
“To me, there’s double standards in every walk of life, in everything you do,” says Miami’s Jim Larranaga, in his 33rd year as a college head coach after 14 years as an assistant. One of the ACC’s most cerebral coaches, he refuses to single out athletics as better or worse than other realms of activity. “I just think it’s a part of our culture.”
The media play their part in countenancing two-faced conduct. TV networks enforce internal standards regarding acceptable speech and sexual behavior, but say little about similar wanderings by those they cover. Broadcasts downplay the fact featured football teams are on NCAA probation. ESPN periodically employs colorful cheaters such as football’s Lou Holtz. Fox used Alex Rodriguez, an abuser of performance-enhancing drugs, and Pete Rose, banned from the Hall of Fame because he bet on games while a manager, as postgame commentators through the World Series.
There’s nothing new in sports figures reaping extraordinary accolades, fawning media coverage and high pay despite personal actions that lack integrity, from golf’s Tiger Woods to basketball’s Kobe Bryant. With Louisville the ACC accepted sordid off-field conduct by football’s Bobby Petrino and basketball’s Rick Pitino that likely would have sunk other, less successful coaches.
Hall of Famer Pitino’s program also is currently under NCAA investigation for supplying prostitutes to prospects. Pitino denies knowledge of a former assistant’s pimping role; many colleagues are privately dubious. The NCAA may be heavy-handed, feckless and seemingly arbitrary in how it metes out punishment, but its attentions merit notice when it does single out a coach or program.
Pitino is in good company, anyway. Other ACC Hall of Famers, from Florida State football’s Bobby Bowden to basketball’s Everett Case, Frank McGuire and Jim Boeheim, also presided over programs that earned NCAA punishment for varied gradations of cheating.
Then there’s North Carolina, which persists in denial of gaining athletic advantage from systematic academic shenanigans across nearly two decades. “There’s a widespread perception that schools can get away with all kinds of questionable if not outright immoral activity and the sanctions are pretty light,” says Wake’s Miller, citing Louisville and UNC. “Years down the road, they’re going to be right back where they were to start with.”
Dr. Miller is reluctant to make generalizations. Still, comparing Bryant’s triumphal farewell tour last season to Tim Duncan’s graceful, near-simultaneous withdrawal from the NBA, Miller adds, “In sports it seems like talent trumps character.”
But Miami’s Larranaga believes coddling talented players inevitably takes the fun out of coaching. “To me, from my own personal experience, I think you have to have guys with good character. If you have guys who are low character and what are referred to as ‘high maintenance,’ I think they’re nearly impossible to coach because you’re constantly compromising your principles,” he says. “Even if you’re winning, you’re not winning.”
Meanwhile, our concept of what constitutes bad behavior in athletics appears to be hardening as social standards shift. Being a coachable athlete is the least of it. Overdue attention is being paid to sexual misconduct. Demeaning or intolerant expressions based on ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, whether displayed by athletes or those in authority, are met with greater approbation. Witness the fates of former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Raymond Moore, forced out as CEO and tournament director for a California women’s tennis event.
Unfortunately such sensitivities are occasionally over-played, fueling complaints by our incoming president and others about what they consider political correctness. Disapproval from the role-model-in-chief could halt the apparent trend toward supporting better displays of character and equal treatment within sports.