Baylor Football: A Brief Behavioral Autopsy

The darkest days in college athletics since the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal brought down the sainted Joe Paterno and permanently sullied Penn State University’s reputation are playing out in Waco at the nation’s largest Baptist university. The Baylor sexual assault scandal raises the question: How can values become so skewed when leadership is in the hands of such good Christian men?

Baylor’s chancellor and (now former) president, Ken Starr, is a relentless promoter of Christian values and interests, as well as the former relentless investigator of President Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions back in the 1990s when he served as Independent Counsel.

When he was hired at Baylor, athletics director Ian McCaw was described by former Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden as someone who “walks the walk of a fine Christian man.”

A columnist noted that Baylor head football coach Art Briles “is polite, courteous and respectful in a way that harkens back to a different era. He is a good man with a good family.” Briles is a church-going Christian whose recent book is titled Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith.

One hundred miles down IH-35 in Austin, many of us University of Texas Longhorn fans are enjoying a little schadenfreude at the downfall of these self-righteous hypocrites who have presided over a win-at-any-cost football team that has dominated ours on the field in recent years.

As faculty director of Ethics Unwrapped, I’d like to talk about some of our videos, which help explain how Baylor’s leaders could have gone so badly off the rails. It is too late for the Baylor officials to watch them, but I urge our folks at Texas to give them a serious watch. Because the point of behavioral ethics is that it is difficult for all people to live up to their own ethical standards. The same intense competitive pressures, the same out-sized incentives, the same hubris and overconfidence that underlie the Baylor scandal could easily happen at the University of Texas if we take our eye off the ball.

Ethical Fading. When people focus too much on one part of the picture, other aspects may fade from view. It seems clear that Starr, McCaw, and Briles were determined to lead Baylor to football prominence. They correctly surmised that athletic success on the field would lead to a financial bonanza for the school—new stadiums, new buildings, record alumni donations. These goals were set and met, but at a terrible price. Somehow, the moral standards that should have guided the recruiting of football players and investigations into their wrongdoing faded into the background for these men who were so focused on other accomplishments.

Conflicts of Interest. When goals conflict, something has to give and in the case of Baylor it was the safety and welfare of the campus’s female student population. With Starr, McCaw, and Briles being single-mindedly committed to attaining football success and its attendant benefits, they consciously or unconsciously threw their campus’s young women under the bus.

Overconfidence. Most people, not just those at Baylor, are unjustifiably confident in their own morality. Impossibly high percentages of Americans believe that they are more ethical than their neighbors, their competitors, their peers.   In a recent survey, ninety-two percent of Americans said they were satisfied with their moral character. When you just know you are a good person, when you are continually praised as being “fine Christian men,” you might begin to believe that ethics are not a problem for you…that you will automatically handle ethical challenges properly because that’s just who you are. This can lead to decision making that is less than thoughtful.

Moral Equilibrium. Most people have a sort of mental scoreboard in their heads where they compare the image they have of themselves as good people with their actual deeds. When they do something they are not exactly proud of, people will often seek opportunities to help others so that they can get their mental scales back in balance. This is called moral compensation. Unfortunately, when people get to feeling that they have done especially well–when they have, for example, been praised for their many successes and their representation of good Christian values–sometimes they go the other way. Their internal moral scoreboard shows a surplus and they give themselves permission not to live up to their own standards. This is called moral licensing and we often see it when high-profile televangelists are caught profiting unduly from their parishioners’ contributions, when “family values” politicians are caught with prostitutes, and, yes, when fine Christian football coaches are caught excusing the misdeeds of football players they need in order to win the next game.

Altruistic Cheating. Neither Starr nor McCaw nor Briles looked himself in the mirror one morning and said: “To heck with the safety of young women. I’ve got football games to win.” But humans are amazing rationalizers. We are very good at finding reasons not to live up to our own standards. “Jack [Abramoff] and Rationalizations” is one of our more important videos. It details some of the more common rationalizations people use to justify their wrongful actions, including—“everyone does it,” “no one was really hurt,” “it wasn’t really my fault,” etc. A common rationalization we see in the college sports world, and one that was likely at play in Waco, is often referred to as “altruistic cheating.” It doesn’t feel so bad to cheat or engage in other wrongdoing if we can say to ourselves that we are doing it to help others and not for selfish reasons. Thus, the folks at the University of North Carolina who created hundreds of phantom courses in order to keep student athletes eligible could say to themselves—“I did it to help the black athletes, who are at such an educational disadvantage.” Jim Tressel, former coach at Ohio State who learned of wrongdoing by his own players and failed to report it as the rules required could (and did) say to himself (and to others): “I was worried about the safety of my players.” And in Waco, Briles, McCaw and Starr could welcome with open arms players whose conduct had gotten them thrown out of other universities by saying: “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Fine Christian men in Waco, honest Longhorns in Austin, and pretty much everyone else are vulnerable to moral mistakes if they do not monitor themselves carefully. These videos (and others in our series) give some hints as to what we all need to be looking out for if we wish to live up to our own moral standards.

 

References

Max Bazerman & Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots (2011).

Lisa Maria Garza, “Baylor Removes Starr as President, Will Fire Coach Over Rape Case,” New York Times, May 26, 2016.

Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness (2011).

Adam Kilgore & Nick Anderson, “Art Briles’s Stunning Ascent Ends in Sudden Disgrace Following Damning Report,” Washington Post, May 26, 2016.

Christian B. Miller, Character & Moral Psychology (2014).

Paul Newberry, “Baylor Should Pull Plug on Its Athletic Program,” Associated Press, May 26, 2016.

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