The controversy out of Waco regarding Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu continues to expand, engulfing head coach Art Briles this past week as speculation about his knowledge of Ukwuachu’s history of violence came to the forefront. Current University of Washington head coach Chris Petersen has claimed that he fully apprised Briles of the reasons for Ukwuachu’s exit from Boise State, where Petersen was at the time. What Briles knew and when, and what the ramifications are, will undoubtedly continue to create a back-and-forth on the 24-hour sports news cycles, and will be a major storyline at the beginning of the college football season.
Reading about this emerging situation in conjunction with several other stories out of college athletics from the past few months raises the challenging issue of preventing and handling misconduct in an athletic department. This is a burdensome topic for any athletic department regardless of the level at which the misbehavior takes place. Dealing with eighteen year olds away from home for the first time who are feeling the intoxicating power of stardom in the athletic arena (as well as possibly the intoxicating power of, well, intoxicants) is naturally going to create situations of misconduct. The severity of this misconduct can range from shouting profane memes in public places to convictions of sexual assault, and it is the university athletic department’s job to somehow wade through the mire these behaviors create, meting out punishment for situations that perhaps have no prior precedent while trying to save face and keep stories minimized.
Unfortunately though, the grown-up counterparts to the student-athletes seem to be making headlines for misconduct recently as much as the kids. As previously mentioned, this Baylor story is not just about the actions of Ukwuachu, but also his coach. Mike Rice’s behavior on the basketball courts at Rutgers comes to mind, with him physically and verbally abusing his players. Bobby Petrino, forever low-hanging fruit for misconduct in a university athletic program, seems to pop-up in the news every few years for another exploit. Perhaps coach misbehavior is not occurring at a higher rate than in years prior and the sensation that frequently there is a new breaking story of something sordid happening behind the scenes with the supposed teachers and mentors of young people is simply the result of over-saturation by today’s media machine. Whichever is the case, however, athletic departments have their hands full managing misconduct at a variety of levels within their hierarchy.
So what is an athletic department to do to both prevent and manage situations of misbehavior? The University of Illinois, itself dealing with situations of misbehavior by its coaching staff, is an interesting case study in that it has spent thousands to bring in outside experts to assist with the tricky issue of misconduct. According to a recent article from the Champaign News-Gazette, UI has hired four different agencies to assist with PR and risk management in an effort to both help its image in the wake of controversy as well as prevent it in the future. As the article notes, these services do not come cheap. In what is an already tightly-budgeted department, spending $50,000 in risk management courses is a prudent but expensive move. Add in the $20,000 due to the PR firm and whatever undisclosed amounts are being paid to two Chicago law firms investigating misconduct and the bill for institutional misbehavior is substantial.
More and more universities are having to prepare themselves for handling situations of misconduct both by their student-athletes as well as the people who lead their teams. Being proactive through risk management programs is an expensive but intelligent investment to prevent massive ordeals later. But for athletic departments that are having to repair an image, endure an investigation, and look internally as to how they can avoid misconduct in the future, the price will be substantially higher. Just ask Baylor.
Feature image via R. Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald