The culpability of Rick Pitino

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The culpability of Rick Pitino

October 23, 2015 -

Here we are again with another scandal involving collegiate athletics. This time, The University of Louisville is in the cross-hairs as its basketball program, led by legend Rick Pitino, finds itself embattled in an investigation concerning sordid recruiting practices involving paid sex for recruits. ESPN’s Outside the Lines has the full story, and this article won’t attempt to rehash the basic parameters of the story. Instead, let’s consider the response from people around the program and coach Pitino himself.

As more lurid details have emerged this week, it has become clear that the “allegations” from Katina Powell have been largely substantiated, and that the real question is not “did these things really occur?” but “did coach Pitino know about them?” Pitino addressed the issue in a blog post on his personal website, stating: “I will not resign and let you down. Someday I will walk away in celebration of many memorable years but that time is not now. I do not fight these accusations by others but rather turn the other cheek.”

And why should he walk away? He has one of the most lucrative contracts in all of college basketball, with over $50 million left on his contract that lasts for more than a decade into the future. There is incredible financial incentive for him to try to hold on to his job.

The core issue is whether or not he knew about his assistant coach’s egregious recruiting practices. Did he know that his assistant coach was paying lots of money for the recruits (and those with the recruits) to be entertained with sexual favors?

From outside the Louisville bubble, the evidence seems to either implicate Pitino as guilty by awareness or guilty by negligence. Either he knew and did not do anything about it, or he did not know, but should have.

In an ironic twist in the story, Pitino has been the author of over 5 books on leadership since the early 90’s, including recent titles Success is a Choice, Lead to Succeed: The 10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life, and The One-Day Contract: How to Add Value to Every Minute of Your Life. In a Forbes article from 2013, when asked “what are your top three career tips?”, Pitino responded: “1. You must have meticulous preparation to win and succeed…”

How did a coach who is repeatedly cited as ‘the most prepared man in the game’, and ‘running a tight ship’, who himself knows and understands the importance of “meticulous preparation”, not know that this was going on?

Let’s assume for a moment that he did not know. Perhaps Pitino, as many in the University of Louisville community are positing, gave carte blanche to his assistants and trusted them to do their job with little to no oversight. Isn’t that the least bit concerning? One would hope that if that is the managerial decision made by Pitino, that he would at least put some other checks and balances in place to make sure that nothing like this ever happened.

It will be hard for the public to believe that he truly didn’t know what was going on. After the scandals at Penn State and Florida State, along with numerous other athletic programs (including Baylor, Rutgers, etc.), don’t coaches and athletic directors know that their programs are under the microscope? Yes, the pressure to succeed is enormous. But when has that ever been a solid justification of unethical conduct?

The naked truth that this story illustrates is that college athletics have become out of control, supremely powerful entities with oversized influence in our culture but little in the way of ethical foundations. As with the situation at Baylor recently, administrators and those who support the athletic department seem not to care how these tragedies affect the students in the middle of the incidents as much as they worry about the public image of their University’s “brand”.

College basketball season will roll around soon enough, and Pitino will most likely weather the storm. After all, he’s one of the most successful college basketball coaches in the game, and people don’t like to upset a “winning culture”. But what price do we as a society want to pay for our “winning cultures”? Is our “the ends justify the means” culture any good for us as human beings, or is it causing irreparable damage to our hearts, souls, and minds?

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