“Why did I do it?” Varsity Blues Scandal, Part III

“Why did I do it? I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money.”—Coach Michael Center

You may be tired of thinking about the Varsity Blues admissions scandal and of reading our blog posts about it (See: Aunt Becky Goes to Jail: Revisiting the College Admissions Scandal and: Admissions Scandal: When Entitlement Buys Acceptance). Being interested in behavioral ethics, we are eternally intrigued by the factors that cause poor ethical decision-making. We speculated quite a bit in our two earlier posts about why the parents had decided to pay the bribes, but we have not yet addressed why the coaches involved in the scandal may have chosen to accept the bribes.

We are prompted to enter this little cesspool one more time by a recent (February 2022) Sports Illustrated article about our University of Texas’s former tennis coach, Michael Center, and his role in the scandal. Behavioral ethics often focuses on why good people do bad things. And by all accounts, Coach Center is a good guy. A nice guy.  But a guy who admits that he made “the worst decision of [his] life” when he agreed to accept $60,000 personally for having helped a marginally qualified son of a rich Californian be admitted to UT. This was after Coach Center helped line up a $100,000 donation earmarked for the UT tennis program from that rich Californian.

In this article, we gain insight straight from the horse’s mouth about which psychological factors and social pressures led Coach Center to make his tragic mistake. Sadly, they are the usual cast of characters. And they illustrate criminologist Donald Cressey’s point that people don’t normally do bad things before they can verbalize (in their own minds) the language that renders their behavior sufficiently acceptable that they can continue to think of themselves as good people. Or psychologist Albert Bandura’s point that “[p]eople do not usually engage in harmful conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions.”

Among the key factors:

  • The self-serving bias. (Video: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias) We are all wired to do things that advance our own self-interest. Under a new Athletics Director, Coach Center was under pressure to raise money from donors to support his non-revenue sport. Coach Center felt that his incentive structure made him “a fundraiser first and a coach second.” Nothing in psychology could be clearer than the fact that our self-interest in keeping our jobs, getting raises, being professionally successful and the like can warp our moral decision-making. It can make doing the wrong thing seem like doing the right thing. The self-serving bias not only inclined Coach Center to get involved in the admissions scheme that called for a $100,000 donation to UT tennis, it also impacted his decision to later accept $60,000 for his personal use (as well as another $40,000 for his tennis program). To quote the coach: “Why did I do it? I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money. Texas had just cashed a big check [from the donor], and nobody had any issues with that….I was in my early 50s with a wife and two kids. It was my turn.”
  • Money. Money changes everything. When money is an important factor in people’s decision-making, morality often gets pushed to the side or completely ignored. In the article, Coach Center speaks of the “naked [self] interest [of his need to] bring in dollars.” When athletics departments and university administrations are laser-focused on raising funds and put undue pressure on coaches and others to do so, it should not be surprising that bad things happen.
  • The conformity bias. (Video: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias) Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that doping “didn’t seem wrong at the time” because he thought everybody in the Tour de France was doping. In the article, Coach Center said it seemed okay to do a “special favor” for the rich California parents because “[s]pecial favors happen all the time in college sports.” And, it turns out, similar schemes were being played out at Stanford, USC, Yale, NYU and other schools. That made it easier for Coach Center to feel that participating in this pay-for-admission scheme was an OK thing to do.
  • Rationalizations. (Video: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/rationalizations) Good people often do bad things when their minds are creative enough to come up with rationalizations that make it seem okay to do that which is actually not okay. Coach Center’s comments in the Sports Illustrated article embody several common rationalizations that have been identified by those who study such things, including Professors Anand, Ashforth and Joshi.
    • “Everybody does it.” This is perhaps THE classic rationalization. As noted above, Coach Center claimed: “Special favors happen all the time in college sports.”
    • The Metaphor of the Ledger. According to Anand and colleagues, this rationalization involves telling ourselves that we are “entitled to indulge in deviant behaviors because of [our] accrued credits (time and effort) in [our] job.” In convincing himself that it was okay to accept the $60,000 bribe, Coach Center said that UT “had just cashed a big check” from the donor. It was a check that Coach Center’s efforts facilitated so, naturally, he felt entitled to get a share of the loot derived from his efforts. “It was my turn,” he says in the article.
    • Denial of Responsibility. People can do bad things and still think of themselves as good people if they can convince themselves that the bad thing they did is not their fault. They find themselves saying things like: “I know I shouldn’t do this, but my boss told me to.” Or “I know that this is wrong, but it’s what my client wants.” In the Sports Illustrated article, Coach Center repeatedly (and credibly) asserts that others in the UT Athletics Department knew that he was signing a potential student to a scholarship and that the student did not intend to actually play tennis at Texas. And that others knew of the parents’ donation. In other words, the fact that others in administration allegedly knew of the bribery scheme somehow means that Coach Center feels that he was not fully responsible for his role in it. (Coach Center does not assert that anyone at UT knew of the $60,000 that went into his pocket.)
    • Appeal to Higher Loyalties. According to Anand, Ashforth and Joshi, people often rationalize their wrongs by blaming them on a higher order value, such as a duty owed to an employer or to family. Coach Center’s statement that “I was in my early 50s with a wife and two kids” embodies this rationalization.
  • Euphemisms. Studies show that we often use euphemistic labels to make ourselves feel better about the things that we are doing. Financial fraud becomes “creative accounting.” Genocide becomes “the final solution.” In this case, a bribery scheme became a “special favor.” What could be wrong with doing a special favor?
  • Ignoring Moral Emotions (Video: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-emotions) The primary reason that most of us do the right thing most of the time is that we would feel guilty if we didn’t and embarrassment and shame if others discovered our wrongdoing and directed anger, contempt, or disgust toward us. These self-directed (guilt, embarrassment, shame) and other-directed (anger, contempt, disgust) emotions help all of us stay on the straight-and-narrow. But sometimes, other factors cause us to ignore them. Actress Lori Loughlin, one of the Varsity Blues parents, admitted at her sentencing: “I ignored my moral intuition and allowed myself to be swayed from my moral compass.” That is almost always a bad idea, but it is a mistake that Coach Center made also. After he accepted the $60,000 cash bribe, he says that: “Almost immediately, I knew I’d made a mistake. I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away. It felt dirty.”

We read this Sports Illustrated article and felt very sorry for Coach Center. He made a mistake and, as the article indicates, has paid a heavier price for it than most of the other coaches. We do not know enough facts to know whether the article’s implication, that others in the UT Athletics Department should have been punished, is accurate or not. We do know that we can learn useful lessons from listening to Coach Center’s ruminations as he attempts to answer the critical question: “Why did I do it?”

 

Sources:

Vikas Anand et al., “Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations,” Academy of Management Executive 18(2): 39-55 (2004).

Nick Anderson, “From ‘Master Coach’ to a Bribery Probe: A College Consultant Who Went off the Rails,” Washington Post, March 12, 2019.

Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decision (2021).

Donald Cressey, “The Respectable Criminal,” Criminologica 3(1): 13-16 (1965).

Brian Davis, “Texas Tennis Coach Michael Center Among Coaches Charged in Sweeping College Admissions Scheme,” Austin American-Statesman, March 12, 2019.

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (2d ed. 2012)

Mariah Haas & Tyler McCarthy, “Lori Loughlin, Mossimo Giannulli sentenced in college admissions scandal case,” Fox News, Aug. 21, 2020,

at https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/lori-loughlin-mossimo-giannulli-sentenced-college-admissions-scandal

Maryam Kouchaki et al., “Seeing Green: Mere Exposure to Money Triggers a Business Decision Frame and Unethical Outcomes,” Organizational Processes and Human Decision Processes 121(1) 53-61 (20113).

Daphna Motro et al., “Investigating the Effects of Anger and Guilty on Unethical Behavior: A Dual-Process Approach,” Journal of Business Ethics 152: 133-148 (2018).

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002).

Kathleen Vohs et al., “The Psychological Consequences of Money,” Science 314(5802): 1154-1156 (2006).

  1. John Wertheim, “He Got Punished. The System Got Off,” Sports Illustrated, Feb. 2022.
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