Not Good Enough

Published: June 14, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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Is there a national championship collegiate athletic program anywhere in the country that can truthfully say all of its recruiting was done entirely within the official guidelines?

That’s how Roger Ebert began his review of the 1994 Nick Nolte film Blue Chips. It’s a question that inhabits practically every frame of the film; a film that, sadly, bears too much resemblance to many college sports teams today 16 years after its release.

“Citing major violations by U.S.C.’s football and men’s basketball programs,” The New York Times reports (June 11), “the N.C.A.A…. barred the Trojans’ football program from bowl games in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. U.S.C. will also be forced to vacate all victories in which the Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush participated beginning in December 2004 — including the Orange Bowl victory that produced the Trojans’ Bowl Championship Series title in January 2005 — and will be docked 10 scholarships in each of the next three seasons.

“The harshest penalties,” the Times wrote, “stem from improper benefits given to Bush and the basketball player O.J. Mayo, which the N.C.A.A. committee on infractions said struck at the heart of the association’s amateurism principle.

“The university was cited for lack of institutional control. The two head coaches — Pete Carroll in football and Tim Floyd in basketball — were not cited individually for violations. Both have left the university within the last year.”

In Blue Chips, Nolte’s Coach Bell is confronted with a choice between integrity and another championship ring.  When a struggling, single mother wants more for her talented son than the NCAA will allow, Bell looks her square in the eyes and asks, “You really want your son to start out life by learning how to win by breaking the rules? What will be become?”

“A millionaire?” the mother asks rhetorically.

Terrified of losing, Bell finally surrenders his own integrity to the rich alumnus that justifies the pay-offs with one of the most common of ethical rationalizations, “Everybody does it, coach.”

Indeed, “the [N.C.A.A.] committee’s report detailed improper benefits received by Bush and his family after they became partners with two men to form New Era Sports and EntertainmentNew Era provided housing, air travel, an automobile and other benefits to Bush’s mother and stepfather, Denise and LaMar Griffin.”

One wonders if these folks watched the Nolte movie in order to get the lay-of-the-land before negotiating their son’s talent, the parallels are that striking.

During the time I spent attending U.S.C. in the 70s, I had heard rumors of payoffs and gifts, but I must’ve been too naïve to believe that a university that teaches things like honor, discipline and hard work as paths to achievement would also be giving some of their “special” student-athletes “real world” experience in shortcuts to those paths.

“The Four Enemies of Integrity,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, are “Self-interest (things we want); Self-protection (things we don’t want); Self-deception (it’s not an ethical issue if everyone’s doing it); and Self-righteousness (the end justifies the means).”

Clearly, the athletic leadership at U.S.C. seems to have that playbook down cold.

In the final moments of Blue Chips, Coach Bell comes to his own career-crushing conclusion. “Boys, the rules don’t make much sense. But I believe in the rules. Some of us broke them. I broke them. I can’t win like this.”

U.S.C.’s motto is Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat – “Let him bear the palm who deserves it.”

The question before U.S.C.’s leadership now is: when will you return to that standard?


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