University athletic departments have devoted increased attention to rules compliance in recent years, with staffs whose sole focus is to ensure that their players, coaches, staff members, boosters, and other stakeholders understand and abide by NCAA rules. While most schools can expect to commit minor, unintentional violations of rules every year (for example, by making an unallowable posting on Twitter), compliance staffs work especially hard to avoid major violations. Larger scale “cheating” can bring harsh punishments and can tarnish the image of a coach, team, or entire department for years. Major violations are commonly associated with broad negligence or purposeful attempts to gain unfair advantage. Well-documented examples such as Southern Methodist University (SMU) in the 1980s – an extreme case where recruits were paid large sums of money to play football for the Mustangs – led to the shuttering of the football program. And numerous men’s basketball programs throughout the U.S. are anxiously hoping to avoid similar fates as their coaches are implicated in illegal money laundering cases. Fearful of such consequences, compliance personnel are rightfully on edge in trying to ensure that the hundreds of people in and around their programs do not commit violations.
The compliance challenge is exacerbated by not only the high stakes competitive environment of big-time college sports and the sheer volume of rules that are to be followed (the recent NCAA manual is 320 pages of small print), but also by the fact that so many rules have changed in the last two years—including when, where, and how long teams can practice, who can be involved in recruiting, what meals can be provided, what nutritional supplements can be offered, and many others. More changes are to come, including rules governing student-athlete transfers that could have profound impacts upon the competitive landscape both within and beyond conferences. Stringent transfer rules in basketball and football are increasingly called into question because not only are coaches, administrators and others associated with their programs allowed to move freely, but even their peer student-athletes in other sports are often able to change schools with little or no competitive penalty. In this context, schools that claim to be putting “students first” are hard pressed to justify making basketball players and football players sit out a season just because they want to attend a different institution. Even more notably, the very nature of how investigative processes are carried out and who has authority to prosecute them may soon be altered.
While compliance matters are one “integrity” aspect of the discussion on intercollegiate athletics, many of the most troubling and highly publicized stories in recent years center around broader questions of institutional control on campuses. Sexual assault cases at Penn State and Baylor revealed fundamental, multilevel campus breakdowns. Rogue leaders and a general lack of accountability to basic moral and ethical principles allowed not only individual-level injury and heartbreak, but institution-level calamity. Big Ten institutions each drafted “standards of institutional control” in order to facilitate multiple departments and leaders on each campus having accountability for avoiding similar episodes. These standards are a meaningful structural advancement toward maintaining campus-level integrity around such matters as student discipline, recruiting, admissions, and academic honesty. But every athletic director and university president remains aware that sound structures and good intentions cannot always prevent big problems.
All of this is not to say that college athletics are more riddled with problems than at other points in the past. Nor are athletic departments the only parts of campuses that experience such issues. Sexual assault, academic fraud, and corruption among leaders are unfortunately found throughout many units of universities. Athletics, however, is the most publicly visible unit of many institutions. A scandal of any sort that involves a professor, for instance, is far less likely to draw even remotely similar attention as one involving a football or basketball coach. This is associated with the public’s longstanding obsession with sports and is amplified by the social media revolution, where just about any incident or opinion can spread in rapid fashion.
In 1993, I was a freshman when my Notre Dame basketball team took on the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington. Indiana was beating us soundly in the second half so I was surprised, as I walked back onto the court after a time-out to hear a small smattering of fans behind the bench booing their coach, Bobby Knight. I later learned that the crowd was reacting to Knight kicking one of his players—his son, Pat—because he was upset with Pat for some reason. The game resumed with Pat quickly making a jump shot and then directing some choice words at his father as he ran past the Indiana bench. The incident was mentioned in the papers the next day. Gene Wojchiechowski, then with the Los Angeles Times, summarized:
''There were some (Indiana) warmups on the edge of the scorer's table,'' said a Notre Dame official, who asked not to be identified, ''and (Knight) throws those up in the air. Then he calls a timeout. The kid (Pat Knight) sits down and (Bob Knight) kicks him in the shin. It's hard to say how hard he kicked him, but he definitely kicked him…The whole thing was kind of a horror show.''
Also in attendance Tuesday was Knight's ex-wife, Nancy, who was visibly upset after witnessing the incident. Shortly after the game, she was seen crying on the shoulder of Notre Dame coach John MacLeod.Knight and his players were unavailable for comment after the game.
Although Knight received some degree of public rebuke, there was not much more than word of mouth to document what had actually occurred. The game was played in front of nearly 20,000 fans and nationally televised, but no clear video documentation of the kicking existed. And as the news article mentioned, the players said nothing of the incident. I was standing only a few feet away from “the kick” and hardly knew what happened. On other occasions Knight was known to verbally and physically accost his players and to repeatedly threaten and intimidate members of the campus community. But he still coached at Indiana for almost 30 years.
Compare the Knight incident of 1993 (and the many others that occurred during his long tenure) to a more recent one at Rutgers University. Basketball coach Mike Rice was suspended by athletic director Tom Pernetti in December, 2012 after Pernetti viewed video footage of Rice cursing at players and throwing basketballs at their heads during a practice. Pernetti ordered that Rice was to be fully removed from campus during his suspension, but that he would later be able to return to the sidelines. A few months later, on April 2, 2013, ESPN acquired and released the video, setting off a firestorm of criticism from the public and even the New Jersey governor. Rice was fired the next day and Pernetti was fired three days later. The University was sued by one of the players for assault and battery and a range of other claims. The lawsuit, which named Rice and Pernetti as well as an assistant coach, the CFO of athletics, and the university president, was ultimately settled for $300,000.
Rice’s behaviors were indefensible and the athletic director’s response was arguably softer than it should have been. But what’s most noteworthy was how social media shaped the story. Posted to YouTube, the videos of Rice abusing players were quickly viewed several hundred thousand times. The story trended on Twitter and made headlines across the country. A Saturday Night Live skit that spoofed the story (and skewered college athletics) was viewed by millions. Rutgers was in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
The Knight and Rice incidents were separated by twenty years and altogether different realities in college athletics. Imagine if, in 2019, the most famous coach in the country kicked his son in front of 20,000 fans, was booed by the home crowd, and his ex-wife was, as a result, crying on the shoulder of the opposing coach. Or imagine that similar episodes occurred regularly over the course of almost thirty years. It is almost inconceivable that in today’s culture, which one of my interview participants described as being marked by “withering publicity ” of college sports, such a coach could survive.
In the Mike Rice instance, the video release had a positive result in facilitating the reinstatement of institutional control. Public outcry forced a just response. But even as coaches and leaders are held more accountable for their actions – a good thing – all who are associated with Autonomy 5 conference sports are coming to understand that social media contributes to a snowballing culture of critique and, in turn, the fragility of their enterprise. Any event, big or small, can be seen, heard and disseminated for mass consumption in only minutes. Foundational matters of game integrity can be called into question by players and coaches who criticize officiating. Trainers and staff members who make passing reference to a player’s injury status can affect Las Vegas gambling lines on games. And pointed critique of the system can be levied swiftly. Former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones created national news by making a seemingly light-hearted jab on Twitter about his perspective on the balance of athletics and academics. And an Illinois football player posted a long string of tweets accusing his school of cold-heartedly disregarding his health, leading to a feature story in Sports Illustrated and other major venues.
Such instances reveal a slightly different aspect of institutional control. Not only must leaders inform and guide the shaping and implementation of rules, but they must also understand how control has been dispersed via technology and generational shifts. Student-athletes (and others) possess powerful platforms  to express themselves and, according to several of my interview participants, a “general unwillingness to accept old-school ways.” They hold sway in the public dialogue on sport as never before and with broad consequence. Even without formal positional authority, student-athletes are more likely than ever to be included in complex questions of “who’s in charge” of college sports.
Withering publicity was put forward as a phrase suggesting that the non-stop cycle of media attention can “wither away” the psyches of coaches and leaders in athletics.
It is difficult to overstate the influence of social media on everyday lives of student-athletes and, more broadly young people. Recent data indicate that teens spend nine hours per day on social media—more time than they spend sleeping, schooling, or exercising. Conversations that were once held in locker rooms and dorm rooms are now also held via social media, often in the broad public eye.