A Matter of Character

Football coaches say that the game builds character. But character isn’t something that you learn just from playing; it comes from learning right from wrong, too. This came to mind as I watched Jim Tressel, the Ohio State football coach, explain why last April he hadn’t reported possible NCAA violations to the university.

Football coaches love to say that the game builds character.
Indeed it takes a strong person to step onto a football field and willingly
endure the kind of punishment that players inflict upon one another.


But character is not something that you learn just from
playing a game; it comes from learning right from wrong, too. This lesson came
to mind as I watched Jim Tressel, coach of the Ohio State football team, explain
why last April he had not reported possible NCAA violations to university

This explanation contradicted his public statements that he had
learned only last December that Ohio State players had sold memorabilia for
cash and tattoos. As a result, the players were suspended for five games for
the coming season, but allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl. Failure to disclose
such improprieties is something that the NCAA considers a major violation and
something for which a coach could be dismissed.

At the press conference Tressel apologized and said he would
learn from the experience. The athletic director defended him, as did the
president of the university, Gordon Gee. In fact Gee brushed aside any
consideration of dismissal saying that Tressel had done much good work for the
community as well as being a good coach who has won a national title for OSU.


Tressel is one more example of an executive with a blind
spot. When confronted with a breach in the rules, he looked the other way. [This is something he has been accused of
doing for years at Ohio State and at his previous employer Youngstown State.]

Tressel will be suspended for two games and docked $250,000 in fines and may be
subject to further discipline from the NCAA.

Tressel’s conduct makes him human, but does not make him
exemplary. And that is precisely what the administration at Ohio State sought
to do at its press conference. Administrators, professors and coaches set the
example for students to follow. They are responsible for them; we call it “in
loco parentis,” Latin for college officials acting like parents. But when the
university president bends over backwards to praise a wayward coach, he validates
the notion that big-time sports trump academics. Certainly this must be
dispiriting to the school’s many fine professors and hard-working students.

Decades ago humorist James Thurber, a loyal Ohio State
graduate, satirized academic integrity with his comic vignette about Bolenciecwcz, OSU’s All-American
tackle. Bolenciecwcz was a
godlike on the gridiron but woefully human in the classroom.


Not all schools act like Ohio State. Just last month, Brigham Young University
dismissed a star basketball player for having premarital sex with his
girlfriend. In a school run in the Mormon tradition this is taboo. It is also a
violation of the school’s honor code–something to which all students agree to
abide. BYU’s athletic department did not hesitate in removing the player from
the team, even though the suspended player might have helped the team win a
conference title and advance deep into the NCAA basketball tourney.

I would not advocate that any school, certainly not a
state-run institution, adopt BYU’s value system. But I would argue that
athletic departments that do play by the rules do a better job of instilling
character than those that do not. After all, a measure of a person’s character
is not what he does when everyone is watching, but what he does when he thinks
no one is.

Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant,
executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John
one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is
Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead
. (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to
visit John’s website,