A friend of mine who was a major league baseball pitcher said, “The lives of our heroes in sports are no different from the lives by people in all parts of the culture.” Time and again I have found this to be true. In a certain sense the way athletes respond to trials and difficulties parallels the way people in general respond to them. These people just happen to be on a big stage and millions are watching.
This came home to me last week when Rick Pitino, the basketball coach at the University of Louisville, admitted a moral “indiscretion.” Pitino had a one-night stand, in a local restaurant, with a female stranger. This led to a pregnancy and the claim of an abortion. All of this seedy news came out in the middle of last week.
Pitino's admitted "indiscretion" was followed by a response from the president of the University of Louisville, Dr. James Ramsey. Dr. Ramsey praised Rick Pitino as "a role model for countless young people and a positive influence on this community.” He added that Pitino's "errors in judgment . . . have saddened and disappointed me." But Ramsey praised the coach for his public apology. Coach Pitino's apology said, in part: "I made a very difficult decision to tell the truth to the federal authorities, the local authorities, the university officials and, most importantly, the people that love me the most: my family and friends."
What should be plainly noted is that Rick Pitino didn't tell the truth for almost six years. In fact, he didn’t begin to tell the truth until the woman he hooked up with that fateful evening allegedly tried to extort money from him. What interested me in particular was that Pitino's apology softened the blow a great deal by reminding everyone that Louisville had just won the Big East championship and reached the Elite Eight under his leadership. One journalist I appreciate added: “Isn't that what matters to most people?”
Witt Following this painful story reminded me of a similarly painful time in 2003 when the president of my former college, Dr. Robert Witt (photo) of the University of Alabama, faced a public scandal with his football coach, Mike Price. Here is how Witt spoke more than six years ago: "A leadership position at the University of Alabama is a position of great honor and responsibility. When you accept the honor, you also accept the responsibility. That responsibility includes conducting your life in accord with appropriate standards of professional and personal conduct. Coach Price did not meet this responsibility."
Dr. Witt was forced to respond to a football coach who had cavorted with a few strippers in a night club and then gone back to his room with one of these women while under the influence of alcohol. He broke no laws. Pitino appears that he did, or could have. I still recall how Coach Price’s players wept and begged the university to give their coach another chance. President Witt would have no part of it.
Dr. Witt stood on principle. But Mike Price had never coached a game at Alabama and was not a hugely popular and successful coach. Would Witt have acted so decisively if Price were coming off an SEC championship?
To be more direct, would Dr. Witt support getting rid of the hugely popular current coach, Nick Saban, if he were as foolish in his personal life as Mike Price or Rick Pitino were in their’s? I do not know. All I know is that when he had to act he really did the right thing, something that the president of Louisville appears to not be ready to do. An Alabama writer says, “Let's be honest. At Louisville, as he was at Kentucky, Pitino is much more than a coach. He's a king. What happens when the emperor has no clothes?” Yes, what happens?
I can’t tell you that Dr. Witt would do the right thing now but I am encouraged that he did the right thing six years ago. I wish more college presidents had the same mindset. The whole college sports scene suffers because schools make money and wins the only real issue. I am all for winning. In fact I am really for winning! But I still know that this is about character too. If we surrender character what lessons are we teaching young athletes? The answer is simple—we are teaching them the lessons they get from the culture at large and these lessons are terribly flawed.