It is better—much better—to have wisdom and knowledge than gold and silver.~Proverbs 16:16
Driving home from vacation this summer my husband John and I talked about him returning to work on the UNC football staff. It had been just over a year since problems with the program came to light due to the NCAA investigation over improper benefits and academic fraud.
The football season that was behind us had been uniquely stressful and sad for many at UNC. The coaches and players worked hard to do the right thing, to learn, and to come together as a team. It was an uphill battle; and there was a lot to feel good about that the players and coaches had been able to accomplish in spite of and because of all that had happened.
The season ahead promised to be a time of recovery as we both anticipated and appreciated that many people were taking steps to address the problems unearthed in the investigation.
John specifically commented on how thankful he was to work at a university that he thought really wanted to get to the bottom of what went wrong. He said how good it felt to respect the institution for which he works so hard.
Little did we know at the time that Head Coach Butch Davis would be fired just a few days later. After the Chancellor fired Coach Davis, what had been a difficult situation became close to impossible. And we are now coming toward the end of an even harder season than the one before. Being blindsided just a few days before a season begins brought layers and layers of conflict and challenge to the people who work hard for this team and who have done nothing wrong. It has been especially heartbreaking for those of us who love these players and respect the young men that they are becoming.
Chancellor Thorpe explained in the media and to me personally that he needed to fire Coach Davis to restore the integrity of UNC. And I hear that word, “integrity,” getting used a lot by the powers that be at places like Penn State, Ohio State, and Miami. They fire people, declare war on cheaters, chastise agents, and punish aberrant players in order to restore integrity.
Honestly I have gotten to a point where I am not sure what “integrity” means to anyone anymore—especially when it comes to how big-time football programs are created and how they function.
Let’s take a minute to remind ourselves of the technical definition of integrity. Merriam-Webster defines it as: “the firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” It lists synonyms: incorruptibility, soundness, virtue, and uprightness. Integrity is the absence of division within ourselves and/or within an institution. Integrity means being “complete” or “undivided.”
If we’re honest, do we really think that institutions of higher learning with big time football programs have really ever been “undivided”? Can an institution be undivided if it has both a commitment to academic virtue and a money source that thrives most robustly from loyalties kindled by fanaticism? Can a university truly be incorruptible if they are beholden to any one funding source that has the power to be an exception to even one standard or rule? Is integrity possible when a university has an even perceived divide between athletics and academics, between the pursuit of “wisdom and knowledge” and the pursuit of “gold and silver”?
The quest to preserve and/or reclaim integrity at the schools with the most recent football unrest usually involves talk about tightening standards, closer regulation, and more consistent enforcement. I have yet to hear anyone say that this quest to reclaim integrity will include universities coming clean about the complexities and ambiguities of being a “house divided.”
I, myself, believe football can be a part of a healthy university community. I also believe football can be a part of a community that has real integrity. But for those dynamics to be a reality, those in power in the universities must come clean about the broader constellation of values that define their institutions instead of thinking the rest of us with be satisfied when they use an abused word like “integrity.”
Integrity means nothing if we are not clear on what values we are adhering to, if we don’t have clarity about the things we will not compromise on in our institutions of higher learning. At UNC people talk a lot about “the Carolina Way.” Before this fall I gathered that the Carolina Way had to do with being excellent in athletics without compromising high standards of character like honesty, respect, equity, hard work, and caring for others.
As the fall has unfolded it has been harder and harder for me to figure out how a commitment to restored integrity is what’s driving this and other universities with big time sports to fix their problems. Communication has been poor. Relationships have not been defined by mutual regard. Hard work doesn’t count for much. And the values of equity and honesty seem far away from the patterns at work in addressing problems.
The audible to call at this point in the imploding of big time football is not to call the same old play. Don’t expect us to fall in line with this worn out word, “integrity,” that has frankly lost (or never had) its own integrity in the complicated and conflicted contours of big time sports.
The audible to call is to tell us—the coaches, their families, the players, the fans, the faculties, and the public that you will give us transparency.
Transparency is where substantive honesty, hard work, and caring for others comes. I would not expect that transparency would reveal an undivided, untroubled reality. Ambiguity is the nature of so much of human life. The complexity and ambiguity are not going to go away with more rules, more regulations, more firings, more punishments.
The gift of transparency is the space it creates for us to find real integrity–the kind that comes from the ground up and not from the top down, the kind that comes from people and not from rhetoric. Transparency will show us who we really are. What redemption could come if all of us could be honest with ourselves and each other about how this sport, that elicits such profound passion in so many, might actually find an untroubled home in our hearts.