Memo From Michael: Thoughts on Coaching and Integrity

You’ve doubtless heard about the Rutgers University basketball coach, Mike Rice, who is shown on video in serial acts over two years abusing athletes and, quite simply, acting like a complete jerk. He was shown screaming homophobic slurs at his athletes, grabbing and pushing them and throwing basketballs at them from close range. The conduct was so over-the-top inappropriate that the discussion about the ethics of his behavior is simplistic: It’s wrong to be disrespectful. It’s even more wrong when forms of physical violence are involved. And wronger still when the violence is perpetrated by an adult male on young men he is responsible for teaching.

The tougher question concerns consequences for the administrators, who many think were far too lenient. Before the story became public, the athletic director (and maybe the University President) thought a short suspension and fine was sufficient to cause the coach to rehabilitate himself. In the sharp lights of relentless media coverage it apparently looked very different. After briefly defending the decision, the athletic director and the university relented to public pressure and fired Rice.

Is this is a mini-version of Penn State and Jerry Sandusky? Major institutions put their credibility on the line whenever they respond to misconduct. They send a message as to what their values are. Thus, when it became obvious that a substantial majority of citizens thought the Rutgers coach was so out of line that he had to be fired, Rutgers quickly decided to cut its losses and relent. The question is, were they totally surprised that public opinion would be so strong or were they simply relying on the always unfounded belief that no one would know?

If the Rutgers administration truly thought firing the coach was unjust, they should have the moral courage to stand by their decision and take the heat. However, if there is one standard of punishment if no one outside the organization will know about it, and another when it becomes public, something is wrong.

This incident proves the value of a simple guide to making decisions: do what you would do if you knew your decision and the underlying incident would be widely known (e.g., seen on CNN, in the NY Times, or perhaps posted on Facebook or YouTube). Called the “publicity test,” this simple approach requires the decision maker to project the likely reactions when the decision becomes known and whether that exposure would enhance or diminish trust and credibility of the decision maker.

There are two possible scenarios at play: 1) Either the athletic director and Rutgers badly miscalculated the public reaction – in which case we can criticize their judgment, or 2) They knew it would be bad if the story came out, but they believed it wouldn’t – in which case, we can criticize both their judgment and their integrity.

What do you think? What are the fair consequences to the athletic director and his bosses?

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