Mark Emmert, the NCAA and the Question of Character


Venoy Overton’s embarrassing behavior is not new.  And, as with Jerramy Steven’s recidivism, probably not over.  Overton has demonstrated an inordinate capacity for bollixing in spite of the influence of good people.Given an opportunity for a college education, a second chance, and a potentially bright future if he were to stay on the straight and narrow way, he again wandered off.

While Overton’s foibles are unfortunate and have attained notoriety locally, he is an insignificant player in a much bigger game.  To say the least, there are far larger sharks in the sewer.  The system needs to be cleaned out and, fortunately, there may be someone who will do it.

Overton’s problem?  Psychologists like the word “sociopath”; less-sympathetic bloggers use “scumbag.”  Scumbag for life?  Not according to Quincy Pondexter.  There’s still hope for Overton, according to Pondexter – but that’s Pondexter, the Venoy-not.  Under the right circumstances, however, even Venoy Overton can become a good citizen.

"Under the right circumstances, however, even Venoy Overton can become a good citizen."

In matters of indiscretion, Overton and Stevens, of course, are not alone.  Past athletes with considerable talent, e.g., Jason Shelley and George Jugum, might have gone far were it not for decisions reflecting and resulting from weak character, at least at that moment.  And, of course, athletes are not alone.  There are also fans, e.g., Vancouver Canucks fans.  And politicians – most recently Anthony Weiner.  The list is long, undistinguished and continues to grow.

Strength of Character
The problem comes down to personal character and it’s an ancient problem (“Give me that man/That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core…” – Hamlet on Horatio).  In the distant past, nevertheless, folk belief relegated immoral behavior to varying degrees of disgrace, and men of character held tightly to higher standards.  Reading in Prof. Stephen Cox’s The Titanic Story about the selfless, humanitarian actions of passengers John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim (Guggenheim Steel) and Archibald Gracie IV (New York’s Gracie Mansion) before the Titanic went down, was (in contrast to James Cameron’s fictional Cal Hockley) inspirational.  Presently, a few of those focused on right and wrong are interested only in convoluting those concepts but many, perhaps to their peril, just don’t care.  It’s your thing; do what you wanna do.

There are, on the other hand, a few who not only care about character but demand it.  A dramatic contrast to the Overton mindset would be the cultivated convictions of the American green berets.

From the beginning of the selection process, American Special Forces (SF) standards emphasize character because, in addition to building an informal but disciplined code of conduct, strength of character often means the difference between life and death in battle.

An example where strength of character meant the difference between life and death occurred in January 2007 during the Battle of Najaf when roughly 50 American SF and Iraqi SF (trained by Americans) soldiers entered an area near a downed, burning Apache helicopter in an attempt to save the pilot and crew chief (both were already dead).  But it was a set-up, a near (close proximity) ambush by the Soldiers of Heaven, a well-trained Shia Muslim militia estimated to approximate 1,200 men.  Fifty vs. 1,200.  Near ambush.  One green beret told me that when the Soldiers of Heaven opened fire, the bullets going by his face were so thick he could feel the wind from them.

Air support couldn’t support because the two sides on the ground were too close to one another, and the rear chain-of-command didn’t seem to understand that this was a pitched ground battle and ground reinforcements were immediately needed.  The SF teams should have been annihilated; they should have been shot up so badly that, afterwards, battlefield inspectors could not identify the body parts.

Seven hours later, however, with the green berets “running on Winchester” (almost out of ammunition), reinforcements finally arrived although the battle was essentially over.  The SF teams prevailed after losing only two men.  The official count of enemy dead?  263.  Wounded or captured: over 400.  What kept the Americans alive and victorious were the Good Lord, excellent training, and extraordinary strength of character under unbelievable pressure against incredible odds.

Standards of Character
When going through selection, each SF candidate memorizes six character standards: 1) integrity, 2) courage, 3) perseverance, 4) personal responsibility, 5) professionalism and 6) adaptability.

Integrity?  Don’t lie.  Prevarication and disingenuousness are out.  Do those things and, as far as Special Forces is concerned, you are also out.

Courage?  Face the challenge.  Nothing is easy if done right.  Cowardice enhances the probability of defeat and death.  When you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong.

Perseverance?  Don’t quit.  A strength coach from the University of Mississippi came into Ft. Campbell and put Special Forces 5th Group soldiers through an agonizing ordeal.  After recovering, one soldier suggested the coach was probably disappointed with their performance.  The coach said that the opposite was true.  He said the athletes he trained did not have the perseverance of 5th Group.  Most football players were physically-gifted but often distracted, and many undertook endurance training exercises with limited conviction.  The coach said that when he told the SF soldiers what to do, they listened and did-it-to-the-letter even though it almost killed them.  Character.  The strength coach was impressed; the Mississippi football team did not subsequently become fans of Special Forces.

Personal responsibility?  Do the right thing.  Secondly, if you say you’re going to do something, do it.  If you can’t do it, let anyone who might be affected know as soon as possible.  Don’t say you will do something unless you’re sure you can.  Underpromise and overdeliver.  Sweat the details.  Give the credit and take the blame.

"Do the right thing.  Secondly, if you say you’re going to do something, do it.  If you can’t do it, let anyone who might be affected know as soon as possible.  Don’t say you will do something unless you’re sure you can.  Underpromise and overdeliver.  Sweat the details.  Give the credit and take the blame."

Professionalism?  If you walk into a bar in Clarksville, Tennessee (outside of Ft. Campbell) or Lakewood, Washington, you should not be able to tell the SF soldiers from anyone else even though they are not anyone else.  SF troops live and work in the shadows.  They do not bring attention to themselves or even their team.  In battle, when they do something extraordinary, in contrast to regular army and collegiate behavior, the credit will go to someone else, whether regular army or marines.  SF soldiers, who are extraordinarily good at what they do, do not collect press clippings.

Adaptability?  If things are not going as planned, in order to successfully complete a mission, think outside of the box.  Anticipate.  Improvise.  Communicate.  Use your head.

With respect to strength of character, in present society, green berets are the exception.  Elsewhere, absence of character can be found where least expected.

For example, a short time ago a prominent Evergreen Hospital (Kirkland) surgeon arrived home with his son to find his house being burglarized.  The burglars caught him and beat him up but his son got away and called 911.  Captured, the burglars turned out to be ex-cops.  Ex-cops?  Unfortunate but unsurprising.  If they were ex-football players, that would not be surprising either.  They could have been any type of athlete, for that matter.  It seems to happen.  The question is how should such behavior be discouraged?  What would work effectively?

Vancouver, Watts and Rome
A recent Seattle Times editorial ended with a suggestion that the city of Vancouver should have been prepared to stop the NHL rioting before it started.  How?  Vancouver shut down the liquor stores at 4:00 p.m. and beefed up police security.  Wouldn’t that have been enough?  No and most people knew that.  Like the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle, there was going to be misbehavior, even if the Canucks won – in fact, the violence might have been worse in a less subdued atmosphere.

Human nature being what it is, there was only one way for Vancouver to physically put the lid on trouble.  Pax Romana.  Have a formidable army and the willingness to use it.  That wouldn’t have stopped what happened last week in Vancouver but it would preclude similar events occurring the next time Vancouver has a chance to celebrate anything.  People will avoid bloodshed, counterviolence, personal injury, if they understand what’s coming.  The Watts riots broke out in 1965.  Three years later, Martin Luther King was assassinated and across the country, all hell broke loose…except in Los Angeles.  In L.A., remembering what happened three years earlier, people went inside and locked their doors.  Crime that day was among the lowest of any day during the year.  Pax Romana.  But no politician with any sense of self-preservation would throw down that gauntlet now, deferring to more peaceful means of preserving the chaos.

Rehabilitation measures are commendable but more criminal activity is stopped by conscience than police, courts, psychologists or social workers.  It’s a question of character.  The six items embraced by American Special Forces need to be accepted universally.  The solution for Overton, Stevens, Vancouver rioters and Anthony Weiner is a folk belief that reinforces character rather than undermining it, but to welcome such a belief might require allowing the Thou Shalt Nots and related precepts ruled unconstitutional.  Nevertheless, were a folk belief coinciding with Special Forces convictions to happen, since people go along to get along, gradually the Venoy Overtons learn to fit in.  For the present, society isn’t going to improve, however; with continued momentum, it should gradually get worse, and recidivism, burning automobiles, Anthony Weiners, and Venoy Overtons could eventually become the norm.

What to do?  Give up?  No, there’s hope.  Collegiate athletics, in fact, could go the other direction and take society with it.

Standards and Accountability
Of itself, society will not change and, in the absence of a staying system of morality, will probably grow worse, but college athletics doesn’t have to mirror society.  If an athlete breaks a rule, depending on the offense, the athlete should be either expelled from the program, possibly the school, or counseled and given a second chance.  But three strikes and you’re out.  The bigger problem, as indicated at Auburn and Ohio State, is the countenancing of unethical student/athlete behavior.  Everyone hits an occasional foul ball but, with coaches, two successive fouls followed by an obvious whiff should mean you’re out – head to the dugout.  If your indiscretion is greater, you get tossed.  Punishing the school for lack of oversight is reasonable but it’s important that a coach who violates rules is individually reprimanded.

How?  Fines?  Definitely and it doesn’t matter which school the coach happens to be at – UMass, Memphis, Kentucky, wherever – when the judgment is rendered.  The extent of the punishment should be dictated by the extent of the infraction.  Even jail time?  Possibly.  It seems extreme but when there’s a question of character, some people don’t take things seriously unless the sword of Damocles hangs over them.  Again, if a coach gets nailed, for lack of proper oversight so should the school where the ethics violation occurred.

Some schools, athletic directors, administrations, even communities compromise rules.  If an athlete without a valid driver’s license is clocked at well over 100 miles per hour, no preferential treatment should be given at any level.  Collusion, pampering, compensating and turning-a-blind-eye, however, are ongoing problems and have been for decades.  The perks enjoyed by Hugh McElhenny and, to a greater extent, O. J. Simpson, continue to be enjoyed.  And those are just the football guys.  Basketball is where the money is.  How much money?

"Some schools, athletic directors, administrations, even communities compromise rules.  If an athlete without a valid driver’s license is clocked at well over 100 miles per hour, no preferential treatment should be given at any level.  Collusion, pampering, compensating and turning-a-blind-eye, however, are ongoing problems and have been for decades."

The New Marshal

We’re going to find out.  When Mark Emmert accepted the NCAA presidency he said, “It is my great honor to accept this assignment.  It is more than a new job for me.  This is special.  This is an opportunity to help shape one of the great American institutions.”  Why would he leave a prestigious job at Washington for a thankless job heading the NCAA?  “Help shape” what?  The sanitation system perhaps.

Emmert saw a need to sanitize the sewer.  While in his position as president of Washington, Emmert had a chance to view and sniff the country’s athletic landscape.  He evidently didn’t like the odor in places and, on closer inspection, what appeared to be going on.  So he took a job where he could do what he believed needed to be done.  Recently, he arranged for an August gathering of about 50 university presidents and chancellors from across the country to, effectively, welcome the new marshal and discuss the laws.  They’ll all be deputized.  While Emmert has made it clear he wants to be part of a larger team, his personal conviction is that play-for-pay is not going to be tolerated.  He’s serious; presidents, chancellors and coaches should know he’s serious.  How serious?  The on-going problems at some major universities will be thoroughly investigated and dealt with, and don’t expect wrist slaps.  This marshal wants the bad guys out of Dodge.

Far-reaching Implications
If ethics begin at the top of an organization, while social mores will continue to deteriorate, improving collegiate athletic standards may prove a contrast and provide a lead, an example, for society in general.  The NCAA won’t be American Special Forces but there’s a new marshal, and gradually law-abiding citizens will again fill the streets of Dodge.  Most collegiate Venoy Overtons will learn to fit in.  Due to the extraordinary exposure and behavioral influence that collegiate sports enjoy, if the ethical/moral ambience in collegiate sports swings to the right (vs. wrong), society may follow.  But first, Emmert needs to change college athletics ethical standards and, considering the import and gravity of the effort, he will face extraordinary opposition with, at times, little support.  Like the green berets in Najaf, however, Mark Emmert has the integrity, courage, perseverance, personal responsibility, professionalism and adaptability to outlast the opposition and be victorious.  Already a big deal, what Emmert proposes to do could ultimately be a bigger deal than most realize.