Speech: Ethics, Values and College Athletics

Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., Co-Chair, Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics is pleased to jointly sponsor this “presidential conversation” on how to improve integration of student athletes into the college or university. This is a worthy goal, but I see it as only one part of a broader set of issues and questions.

Perceptions and Myths

My reaction is based upon certain perceptions and myths about college athletics. Let me give you two.

(1) Today, in many institutions big-time sports (football, basketball) are more than “subsidiary enterprises”. In too many cases, coaches and the athletes function in their own separate world within the Academy. They have become virtually independent adjuncts whose role and impact upon the Academy has grown enormously, despite its smaller proportion of an institution’s total budgets.

( 2) Most universities, their leaders, boards, alumni, students, and fans have fully bought into major myths about college athletics. Some examples are – college athletics makes a “profit” and keeps athletic budgets in the “black;” it increases quality and number of applicants and improves fund-raising; or it is the best way for economically disadvantaged students to acquire a higher education and helps create greater “diversity” on the campus. Most of these views are untrue or only partially true. All have become justifications for the status quo preventing or obstructing needed reforms.

I have chosen another the issue which I believe is critical, whether the college or university is Division I-A and may well be present to a lesser degree in the other divisions.

The issue is the relationship between values, ethics and athletics, and its impact upon the potential or likelihood for reform.

The Academy has traditionally played a vital role in the maintenance and transmission of desirable values and ethical standards for itself and for the entire student body. I believe that today this role and transmission seems to have been seriously eroded.

Ethics, Values and College Athletics

Ethics are a set of values that represent the moral ideals or standards of an individual or organization. A Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct is a guide specifying required behaviors for users in their day-to-day actions and decision making. It is meant to clarify an organization’s mission, values and principles, linking them with standards of conduct.

Let me repeat my remarks to the student athlete summit which the Knight Commission convened in January 30 this year.

“Values determine personal and societal goals by influencing interpersonal behavior and by controlling what we do and how we do it. Although abstract and often unconscious, values determine what is required of people, what is forbidden, what is praised and rewarded, and what is censured and punished. These can be judged either positively or negatively.

“Is it wrong to cheat? Is it wrong to kill another human being? Is it wrong to lie to your parents or relatives? To lie to close friends and neighbors? Is it good to honor one’s parents and ancestors? Is it good to be religious? What importance is placed on justice and rule of law? Values give meaning to the total culture of a society, and influence individual behavior and group interaction on a daily basis.

“Colleges and universities also have special values which give answers to such questions as: Is published research truthfully performed and accurately reported? How is plagiarism dealt with? Does research follow the accepted canons of verification, testing, replication and transparency? Does a professor give honest grades to students or are some given preferential treatment? Do students cheat on their exams or papers? Does a university president maintain his or her integrity under the pressure of outside forces that would adversely impact the institution?”

Intercollegiate athletics, as a subset of the Academy, also has ethical/values questions. I will deliberately choose those which tend to compare the value behavior outside the university and those within the Ivy walls.

What is the difference between a “booster” who cheats by providing secret benefits to recruit a prize student athlete who helps a team to become a winner, and a corporate CEO who encourages back-dating of stock options to raise the level of compensation for his corporate “team”? Or do both believe that “winning is everything”?

What is the difference between a college coach who turns his head over steroid use among his players and a professional league commissioner who does the same thing – all in the name of top performance to satisfy the fans?

What is the difference between the stratospheric salaries paid to super-star college coaches — whose reputations are partially built upon student athletes whose allowed financial “payment” is their equivalent of a “minimum wage” – and the corporate CEOs compensation? In both cases, there is a gap between the top and the average “worker” – and the gap is growing.

A recent analysis revealed that the average corporate chief executive last year earned $11.8 million — or 431 times the pay of the average non-professional worker, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, that’s up from a 301-to-1 ratio a year earlier. In college football, USA Today1 reported last month that 42 of the 119 coaches made $1 M or more compared with only 5 in 1999.

Are the college head coach salaries reflective of true academic values? Are universities part of the corporate world, or the entertainment business, or the education “business?” Bill Friday’s recent Op-Ed2 has decried college athletic “entertainment” as antithetical to the founding mission of higher education.

What is the difference between corporations which, in the pursuit of an improved bottom line, out-source their high labor cost by casting off U.S. employees, on the one hand, and universities which “cast off” their workers, i.e., student athletes, especially in football and basketball, who do not make it to the professional ranks, on the other?

Let me cite some numbers from the NCAA’s 1982-99 Participation Statistics Report:

  • Of the 12,600 NCAA senior student athletes in football, only 250 were drafted – 2.0 %. What happened to the other 98 % — the 12,350 former student athletes?
  • Of the 3,500 NCAA senior student athletes in basketball, only 44 were drafted – 1.3%. What happened to the other 98.7% — the 3,456 former student athletes?

Note that if these statistics had only been the major “powers,” the percentages would have been somewhat higher, since more student athletes are drafted from those conferences.

Is this situation fulfilling the purpose of higher education for these “students”? Are they truly student athletes or merely “make believe” or pseudo-students whose sole goal is winning a lucrative a professional slot, not an education? If so, why do colleges and universities allow or even encourage this practice?

I know the quick rejoinders – but I’ll wager that when you narrow the numbers down to the 1-A conferences and further break them down by race, the data will be even more stark.


I realize that much of what I have described is primarily found in “big time” athletics and largely in football and basketball, but I suspect that there are growing elements of these issues in the other divisions. The Shulman-Bowen-Mellon data clearly shows it is burgeoning. Professor Barbara Fried’s analysis, which was distributed to us, reflects the commonalities well.

In thinking about all this, I inevitably shifted to four broader questions:

  1. Has the Academy itself abandoned its own ethics and values and, if so, why?
    Three examples. (A) Earlier this month, a NY Times3 story reported that graduate student at the Columbia University journalism school had cheated. It was a pass/fail open book exam in a course – on ethics! (B) When university trustees insist upon circumventing a president in the selection or firing of a coach thereby directly violating their own rules and by-laws, what ethical message does that convey to students and the faculty? ( C) This morning, the Inside Higher Education web site reported on three different news stories this weekend describing the academic compromises universities made in the name of athletic success.
  2. Are the negative ethical situations in college athletics merely a reflection of the same forces manifest in the wider society? And if so, what are the implications for efforts to make major reforms to correct unethical and immoral behavior in college athletics? When society as a whole is experiencing extensive instances of negative ethics, how can college athletics be insulated?
  3. Given the negative ethics in the larger national environment, can basic structural reform in intercollegiate athletics ever be successfully achieved? Certainly not by an individual institution, nor by an individual conference. Can it be done collectively? The recent NCAA Presidents Task Force was such an important attempt, but will it be enough to overcome the forces I have described?There has been change and reform, but I still come back to the point I raised at the first meeting of the Knight Commission 15 years ago: – “Reform of college athletics can never be fully achieved through unilateral disarmament. Only multi-lateral disarmament will work.” After 15 years of effort, though, I confess there are days when I feel like Sisyphus of Greek mythology.
  4. Lastly, can today’s focus on improving the treatment of student athletes and their integration into the university be an intelligent and useful starting point?

When I was a doctoral student in economics at Chicago some 50 years ago, we were often told that asking the right question was crtitcal in the pursuit of the best answer. So, I look forward to our dialogue today and hope that my questions may help stimulate some good answers.



Dr. Wharton has been a Black pioneer in four different fields – philanthropy, foreign economic d1evelopment, higher education, and business.

He is the former Chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, the world’s largest pension fund with assets of $260 billion. He thereby became the first Black to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Among his previous pioneering positions are President of Michigan State University (1970-78) the first Black to head a predominantly white major university; Chancellor of the State University of New York System (1978-87), this nation’s largest university system with 64 campuses; and trustee then Chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation (1970-87). The son of a career Foreign Service Officer and Ambassador, Dr. Wharton has served six presidents in foreign policy advisory posts and most recently in 1993 was appointed by President Clinton as Deputy Secretary, the second highest post in the U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Wharton’s first 22 year philanthropic career began in Latin America with Nelson Rockefeller. Subsequently, he was resident in Southeast Asia from 1958 to 1964 representing a foundation headed by John D. Rockefeller 3rd. During this period he also supervised the foundation’s programs in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, as well as taught economics at the University of Malaya. Dr. Wharton has been chairman of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, U.S. AID (1976-83), co-Chairman, Commission on Security and Economic Assistance, and served on the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations.

Among his former corporate directorships are Ford Motor Company, Time Warner, Equitable Life, Tenneco, Inc., Federated Department Stores, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), New York Stock Exchange, Harcourt General, TIAA-CREF, and Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. His extensive non-profit trusteeships have ranged from the Council on Foreign Relations to the Committee for Economic Development (CED).

Dr. Wharton is currently co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and is a trustee of the Clark Foundation, the Bassett Hospital (Cooperstown, NY), and the New York State Historical Association.

He holds a BA honors degree in history from Harvard, an MA from the School of Advanced International Studies of John Hopkins University, a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, and has been awarded 62 honorary doctorates. In 1970 he was named Boston Latin School Man of the Year and in 1994, he received the American Council on Education Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement.

1 “Million-dollar coaches move into mainstream,” USA Today, November 16, 2006.

2 William C. Friday, “To Teach or To Win?”, Charlotte Observer, November 30, 2006.

3 Karen Arenson, “Cheating on an Ethics Test? It’s ‘Topic A’ at Columbia,” New York Times, December 1, 2006.