COMMENTARY 867.3: The Pressure to Win in Sports and Business

by Michael Josephson on February 18, 2014

in Commentaries, Sportsmanship

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A former successful college coach and athletic director once wrote me a note about the state of college sports.

The pressure to win in high-profile schools is so great, he said, that it’s almost impossible to resist rationalizing. When competitors cheat or engage in other unethical conduct, the tendency is to redefine the ground rules for competition rather than be at a disadvantage.

He compared the way win-hungry boosters blur the vision and undermine the integrity of coaches and administrators with the way money-hungry shareholders stress stock prices, which promotes accounting manipulation and other ethical shortcuts.

In sports, outsiders who aren’t concerned with a college’s educational mission or notions of sportsmanship and character building promote a “no excuses” demand on coaches that can transform an athletic program into a business driven by the pursuit of money and glory.

In business, shareholders (from day traders to money managers of mutual and pension funds) who aren’t concerned with the ethics or long-term viability of a company create pressures and incentives that can promote short-term decision making and undermine the economic and moral health of their firm.

We need people to act as guardians who will understand and protect the soul of their enterprise. Coaches should be allowed to think about more than winning, and business executives should be given the opportunity to consider more than stock prices and short-term profits.

If we don’t recalibrate our incentive systems and insulate coaches and managers from unhealthy influences, things will only get worse.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom February 21, 2014 at 6:23 am

My brother is a high school basketball coach. He has coached at several high schools and has taken one of his team’s to the State championship tournament. In one of his stints the alumni of the school drove him out because his win-loss record was not up to par. In support of him I wrote the following:

Success in coaching is not measured by the number of wins and losses. My brother’s coaching philosophy hinges upon life-changing lessons and character values he strives to instill in his players. Faith, family and basketball – these are the priorities that he worked so hard to impart to those under his care. Real success is measured by the kind of people your players become. At the end of the day – winning makes us all feel better – but just like material things the satisfaction of winning a game fades with the passage of time. Character and values stand the test of time. Wins and losses cannot measure the value of a positive adult role model – in this case – a coach – for young men. I am proud of my brother. You can knock him down but he will get back up. And when he gets back up you can only hope and pray that you have the privilege of him coaching someone you love.

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Ed February 21, 2014 at 7:08 am

Dear Michael:

Some schools and some coaches seem able to win games, educate student-athletes, promote fair play, and inspire respect in the public-at-large. Frank Beamer, Head Football Coach at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA), has, for 26 years, led his alma mater to the top of the NCAA rankings on the field and in the classroom. Coach Beamer’s teams have played in 20 consecutive postseason bowl games (winning the Orange Bowl twice) while graduating 80% of its players in 6 years or less, as compared to a 59% graduation rate of football players, on average, from all large publicly-funded 4-year universities. Gregg Easterbrook, of the Atlantic magazine and ESPN.com’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback,” has dedicated two chapters to Coach Beamer and Virginia Tech in his recent book about the impact of football on our nation, “The King of Sports.” Coach Beamer deserves the attention he receives.

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