Keeping Score

Fixing the Leadership Crisis in Sports

Cover-ups. Bribery scandals. Lockouts. Sports will always produce great leaders. But right now, there are too many bad ones

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Terry Gilliam / AP

Former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, right, walks away as assistant head coach Luke Fickell, left, looks over a list of plays

It’s no secret that sports is all about leadership, whether that leadership comes from the best athletes, coaches or even commissioners and owners. Their voices are sturdy and commanding in the huddle or boardroom. They lead and teach by example, and they usually make the difference between winning and losing.

There are plenty of gifted sports leaders, especially among the players. LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, for example, are naturals. After June 2’s classic Game 2 of the NBA Finals, in which Dallas erased a 15-point deficit over the last seven minutes to win 95-93 and tie the series, who wouldn’t want to rally behind Dirk Nowitzki?

But at the very top of some significant sporting institutions these days, we’re witnessing a stunning leadership void. And if it continues, the results could be disastrous.

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The Jim Tressel saga, for instance, won’t inspire much confidence in the multimillionaire coaches who are the public faces of many universities. Tressel, the Ohio State head football coach who resigned under pressure on May 30 after lying to school administrators about his prior knowledge of players’ trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos — and before a Sports Illustrated story alleged that the misconduct was much broader than previously believed — was phony. He penned a book, The Winners Manual, that espoused strong character and the moral high ground. “Discipline is what you do when no one else is looking,” Tressel wrote. Turns out, Tressel wrote the book on hypocrisy.

Tressel’s misdeeds, however, should raise more-important questions about the role sports play in higher education. Where was the leadership of Ohio State president Gordon Gee, a man who abolished the athletic department at Vanderbilt in an effort to better meld athletics with academics yet seemed to cater to Tressel’s whims once he got to a big-time football school like Ohio State — even as the allegations against Tressel began to pile up over recent months? “I hope he doesn’t fire me,” Gee infamously stated in March, as the charges against Tressel were growing more severe, when asked if he would consider firing the coach. A college president — president — actually said that, in public? That’s leadership?

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And there’s a broader problem. The salaries for college football and basketball coaches keep skyrocketing. And as long as these multimillion-dollar contracts are available, coaches will have huge incentives to skirt the rules. Which college president is going to stop using the market as an excuse and refuse to overpay for a college coach? Who is going to resist the catcalls of the boosters and alums and make the fiscally responsible choice to funnel some of those millions into actual education? College coaching is a consuming, and risky, career. You could get fired in a couple of years. The coaches deserve hefty compensation, but for every $2 million coach out there, there are dozens if not hundreds of qualified candidates who can also do a great job for a fraction of that price. And where is the NCAA? Shouldn’t that organization be trying to get to the root of the problem of so-called corruption and admit that the young athletes bringing in millions to these universities aren’t “amateurs”? That if you shared the wealth, maybe they wouldn’t be hanging out with shady tattoo dealers to grab some extra spending cash?

Still, it’s one thing for college sports, a uniquely American obsession, to be broken. It’s quite another for the world’s most popular sport to be so screwed up. If global soccer can’t install a functional, professional leadership structure, what does that say about the state of sports leadership? FIFA, the world soccer governing body, is engulfed in scandal. High-level officials have been accused of offering money in exchange for votes in the organization’s presidential election. Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, was accused of knowing about these bribe offers, though an ethics committee eventually cleared him. The integrity of the decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively, has been called into question: in an e-mail, FIFA’s general secretary wrote that Qatar “bought” the vote. (The official explained that he was just referring to Qatar’s well-financed campaign.)

(See nine other college-sports scandals throughout history.)

Blatter doles out soccer-development funds to countries, which critics insist buys him influence. His arrogance is legendary. “I am the president of FIFA,” he said this week. “You can’t question me.” Blatter has been leading the organization for 13 years, and soccer observers around the world have been begging for a change.

Instead, despite all the controversy surrounding Blatter, he won re-election this week. Of the 203 ballots cast, 186 were in his favor. England tried to postpone the vote, but that idea was squashed. And where were U.S. soccer officials in all this? They fell in line and failed to speak out against Blatter. The U.S reportedly voted for him. Again sports executives failed to rise to the occasion. (But as Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl pointed out in a recent column, the U.S. silence could be strategic. If there’s a revote for the 2022 World Cup — the U.S was one of the original host candidates — it could pay to be on Blatter’s good side. But is this strategy a sellout?)

(Read “Can FIFA Finally Clean Up Its Act?”)

Now, as we move toward crunch time in the NBA and NFL labor negotiations, those involved in these talks need to step up as well. Roger Goodell is a fine NFL commissioner, but he hasn’t turned in a stellar performance during the NFL lockout. He has pushed for an 18-game schedule, which no one seems to want, and in a disingenuous Wall Street Journal op-ed published in April, he insisted that the players wanted to completely scrap the league’s successful business model, which they don’t. When a judge lifted the lockout in April, citing — get this — the public interest as a reason for her decision, Goodell and the NFL appealed, further jeopardizing the start of the season. Oral arguments for that appeal, in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, were scheduled for June 3.

The leader of the players’ union, DeMaurice Smith, isn’t blameless for this mess. He and Goodell are dealmakers — so get a deal done. Even Congress, which we tend to consider our most dysfunctional collection of leaders, ultimately cut major deals on health care and the budget.

Before the NBA finals, commissioner David Stern didn’t sound confident that his league could avoid a lockout. Of the 30 NBA teams, he says, 22 are losing money. The sport’s collective-bargaining agreement expires on June 30 — expect a long summer of lockout news. For its part, the NBA players’ union has done some posturing, filing a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board in late May that accused the league of unfair labor practices.

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Whatever. And should the NBA be all that upset about spiraling labor costs when its team executives insist on giving $73 million contracts to the likes of journeyman center Erik Dampier? Here’s an easy solution for those owners griping about player salaries: don’t spend stupidly.

If the NFL and NBA, leagues that are both coming off stellar seasons, miss actual games because of these labor disputes, it will be one of the biggest leadership failures the U.S. has ever seen. If, come next November, neither NBA nor NFL games are being played, there would be a national void, and real economic casualties — for team employees, day-of-game workers, the retail sports stores across the street from the stadium. These leagues are virtual monopolies, tasked with protecting and promoting games that are now a public trust. Secret meetings this week between the NFL’s owners and players, plus NBA negotiation sessions planned for next week, are signs of hope.

Hopefully, these so-called leaders won’t blow it. The past few months, however, don’t exactly inspire confidence.