College Presidents Doomed by Athletics Scandals


By David D. Dodge

On October 21, 2018 The New Yorker published a piece in The Sunday Archive entitled Scandals by Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman.  In the opening paragraph, the authors raised the question, “Are we living in a post-scandal age?  On the one hand – especially in the political realm – events that would have been scandal-worthy just a decade ago now seem to unfold without consequences.  On the other, as the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves show, it’s still possible for shocking allegations to derail a career.  The truth is that scandals are contextual.  A scandal requires an attentive audience – and societies attend to some transgressions while ignoring others.”  The authors went on to chronicle eight pieces about scandals from The New Yorker’s Archive.

While reading the scandals piece, I couldn’t help but reflect on the scandals roiling the college sports industry over the past several years.

Now, on the heels of numerous scandals at the professional and Olympic levels, a new report describing the impact of sports scandals on university presidents and chancellors has been released.  Andy Thomason, writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, has authored an article entitled “5 Other College Presidents Who Left Amid a Cloud of Athletics Scandal.”

Thomason reminds readers of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics’ 1991 proposal to deal with the excesses of college sports.  “The Commission’s bedrock conviction is that university presidents are the key to successful reform.  They must be in charge – on campuses, in conferences, and in the decision-making councils of the NCAA.”  Thomason goes on in his article,  “In the intervening decades, presidents have registered their agreement with the principle of presidential control, while grumbling that there were substantial limits on such control.”  In 2009 a survey of presidents conducted by the Commission found that they felt powerless to rein in the influence of athletics.  “The real power doesn’t lie with the presidents,” one president was quoted as saying, anonymously, in the report. “Presidents have lost their jobs over athletics.  Presidents and chancellors are afraid to rock the boat with boards, benefactors, and potential supporters who want to win, so they turn their focus elsewhere.”

A few examples as sited in Thomason’s article are included below:

University of Maryland (UM)

Last year, before the death of a 19-year-old football lineman who succumbed to heat-related illness, University President Wallace D. Loh predicted his own demise when he said, “As President, I sit over a number of dormant volcanoes.  One of them is an athletic scandal.  It blows up, it blows up the University, its reputation.  It blows up the President.”  Loh announced some months after the player’s death and plenty of ensuing controversy that he would retire at the end of the academic year.  Since his announcement, the University Board of Regents directed that the head football coach be retained, until outrage from players and the student government demanded otherwise.  Only then was the coach fired.

University of Louisville (U of L)

The beginning of the end for U of L President James R. Ramsey occurred upon the publication of a woman’s tell-all book in 2015.  The book detailed Louisville’s men’s basketball program having plied recruits with alcohol and prostitutes.  Ramsey resigned in 2016 and only last year, following FBI and NCAA investigations, were the head basketball coach and the athletic director fired.

Penn State University (PSU)

Readers will remember the 2011 arrest of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at PSU.  Sandusky was arrested on several dozen charges of sexual abuse and was later convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.  University President Graham Spanier resigned just days after Sandusky’s arrest, the head football coach was fired, and the athletic director and a vice president later resigned.

Baylor University

Going back to 2013, several Baylor students alleged that they’d been raped, some by football players and that the University had botched its handling of their cases.  Three years after the original rapes were reported, University President Kenneth W. Starr was removed from his post along with the head football coach.  The athletic director resigned shortly thereafter.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In 2010 the NCAA began its investigation into impermissible benefits to football players.  That investigation evolved into a much more serious scandal involving no-show classes that were heavily populated by athletes.  While the extent of the wrongdoing wasn’t fully known until 2014, the University President had announced his resignation in 2012.  The head football coach was fired and the athletic director retired around that time.

University of Missouri

The controversy that brought down President Timothy Wolfe was not an athletic scandal.  Instead, it was about students’ allegations of rampant racism on the campus.  But the fatal blow was dealt by the football team when it threatened to boycott a coming game if Wolfe did not step down.  Wolfe quickly resigned and was joined by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

Despite the fact that each of the above universities have expansive compliance programs designed to protect the interests of university employees, students and the universities themselves, the programs were unable to avoid the serious scandals in the athletic programs.  The scandals had many elements in common but the common thread that ran through each of them was the departure of the presidents of each institution.

As cited above in the 1991 Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics proposal, “The Commission’s bedrock conviction is that university presidents are the key to successful reform.”  Along with the survey from nearly a decade ago, it is clear that both state truths that are coming alive in the examples above: that Presidents must control athletics and that in several cases, doing so seems to be well nigh impossible. I might also speculate as to the reasons. Whereas most organizational leaders run an organization with a fairly singular focus, university presidents, as Loh says, sit on many dormant volcanoes: student welfare and development, , academic quality and accreditations, faculty unions, hot-button issues such as free speech, the state legislature for support, fundraising, facilities, boards of trustees, and of course athletics. The difficulty of tamping down the earthquakes and managing all of them leads one to the simple conclusion that Presidents cannot attend to everything at once. It is not surprising, given the personal engagement, high emotion, vicarious glory, that athletics affords so many in a large cadre of alumni, supporters, fans, and the general public, that a significant misstep in athletics can lead to a major eruption that drives the president out of a job.