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When the (NCAA) Rules Create Crisis

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

The UNC Tarheel football program has received an enormous amount of ink over the six months over alleged NCAA rules infractions by players and others close to the Unversity of North Carolina. When trouble started heating up, the school called the PR crisis experts at Hill & Knowlton (New York) for advice. Long story short, the university has stuck with its coach (who pleaded ignorance), suspended players throughout the season (likely to avoid discrediting any victories) and has generally been forthcoming about due process and the NCAA investigation. The university is likely to come out of the crisis OK, reputation bruised, but not battered. (Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of both UNC and Hill & Knowlton – Chicago).

Reesenews.org, a media project by the UNC School of Journalism, put together a nifty little game that tests your ability to navigate the vagaries of the NCAA rule book. Play it just to see how much you know. I did and it left me curious about a couple of things:

  1. If the rules are this difficult to interpret and understand, then how many schools have significant violations that never get reported?
  2. Does the rules enforcement committee quietly believe that there is widespread abuse, but is content to catch only a few big fish every year so that it looks credible?
  3. How many university reputations are at risk because their athletic programs are either in loose compliance or not at all?
  4. Are athletic program reputations (and finances) so disconnected from academic reputations that none of this really matters?

I’m certain we could debate the answers to these for hours on end. I’m only gonna take a quick shot at Q4.

Directly – yes, this crisis matters. Large schools successful in sports and in academic, with very large and loyal alumni and fan bases, really have too brands that they are nurturing.  There is the master university brand – “UNC”  (think flagship school, Old Well, first state university, Tarheels, best value rankings, alumni association, degree program’s, Carnegie status, etc) and there is the athletic product sub-brand – “Tarheel” athletics – think basketball, women’s soccer, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Dean Smith, Ram’s Club educational foundation, tailgating, fun, social experience, etc.

For UNC, the subservient product athletic brand clearly feeds and contributes to the value of the master university brand. However, it alone is not enough to “bring the brand down.” Stakeholder connections are so broad and deep that many do not even care about the athletic brands. Of course, there will always be folks who call and write letters condemning (and supporting) the football team, but that happens even when teams are clean rules-wise and are just having a bad year. For schools like UNC, violations and scandals related to tutors and pro prospects almost give them more legitimacy in the competitive realm. Take these guys seriously, they’ll do anything to win. But that’s panning for fool’s gold.

For schools that aspire to inspire, it’s more serious than that. It’s about integrity and being on the losing end of a morality play. If you can’t trust our coaches and athletes, then by extension, why should any person flying the UNC banner be trusted for anything? That’s the extreme of course, but it’s the last stop on the slippery slope.

For a university focused on knowledge and enlightenment, a coach pleading ignorance rings hollow, if it rings at all. Let’s just hope this football thing doesn’t trigger an avalanche.